Chris Cornell Fans Say Goodbye to a Rock Star at Hollywood Forever Cemetery
After L.A.'s elite exited Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Friday afternoon, it was time for the fans of the late Chris Cornell to pay their respects. From 3 until 8 p.m. PT, the gates were open to the public. Arriving mid-afternoon, helicopters circled murky skies as the sun battled through ominous dark clouds, casting some added poetry to the notion of a "Black Hole Sun."
Earlier, Brad Pitt, Pharrell, Tom Morello, Courtney Love, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Lisa Marie Presley, Dave Grohl and countless others, alongside Cornell's wife and three children, had attended the funeral of the singer, who died at age 52 on May 17 after a sold-out Soundgarden show in Detroit. His death was ruled suicide by hanging at the city's MGM Grand Casino.
They mourned their friend, peer and collaborator. The seats they sat on, overlooking the expanse where summertime concerts are usually held, remained set out, solemnly.
Music fans, unlike the family and friends here earlier, aren't always mourning the person. Some of them here were doing that for Cornell; such is the intensity of their relationship with his music as part of Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. Most of the scores of people dripping through the cemetery, however, gathered as a community for one last time, wearing tour T-shirts of all those respective bands. Approaching the grave where Cornell was newly buried next to Johnny Ramone in the "Garden of Legends," one such fan had torn a piece of notepad paper and written "Sound" in black ink, placing it on top of the sign so it reads "Soundgarden of Legends" instead. It gets you in the throat.
The strangest thing about covering a rock star death is that a funeral marks the day where a seemingly omnipresent demigod, someone who appears to defy the limitations of existence by being truly extraordinary, is rendered ultimately human. Despite the much-loved enormity of Cornell's vocal abilities and the way he roared and ripped through three-plus decades of performance, all that remains in the air here is the sound of birdsong, passing golf carts and moving TV crews. One man has brought an amplifier and guitar to sing material, but is soon politely asked to leave by the cemetery attendants. "People are here to mourn Chris," they tell him.
The silence is palpable. Over by the grave, 50 or so fans are gathered around Cornell's stone, sitting, standing, praying. Some hold their phones, some hold potted plants, some hold their children. A distressed woman sings "Say Hello 2 Heaven" by Temple of the Dog. "I never wanted to write these words down for you, with the pages of phrases of all the things we'll never do/ So I blow out the candle, and I put you to bed…" she sings, in hushed tones, almost hymnal. She wails and weeps. Others follow, as though singing the songs with Cornell for the last time. Nobody can do them justice, of course. As they try to reach Cornell's signature and impossibly high notes, they fail. Suddenly laughter breaks out. Attempting "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog, one guy kicks himself. "I could almost hit it when I was 20," he says. "At 44? No f—ing way!"
Some of the fans know each other, others are meeting for the first time. "I brought an extra set of sunflowers for you. I laid them down," says one woman walking in to greet a long lost friend. "It's funny that I recognize so many of these people from shows. I just wanna see everyone one last time." One man with flowing long dark hair and a beard could pass for Cornell and stands silently with a single red rose in his clutches. They read poems, they comfort each other, they regale in great gig memories. Others are here to try and keep the connection going. One such fan is Michael Libby, 33, a former music journalist. "I had aspirations for a long time of being a professional musician. The courage to pursue a creative path came primarily from Chris Cornell. The thing to me that was most impressive is he was born with a gift — vocal cords. How many people get that lucky roll of the dice and then do what he did with it?" he says, holding back tears.
"When you listen to the early records, you hear the power and range of his voice; it's just coming out of him and it's like he can't even control it," Libby continues. "But over the course of his career, you can see that he learned to master his voice, control it in different ways. Any other singer would have just coasted, you know? He writes amazing songs, is an incredible lyricist, and he was a good guy. The thing that I really identify with the most is that he clearly has struggled with depression and anxiety his whole life. His public-facing persona seemed like he'd conquered that maybe 10 years ago. I've also struggled with those things. I will always struggle with them. I have had a rough year in my life and was in a down cycle and I woke up last week to find this news and I was devastated and I've realized that his death was a great moment in my life. It woke me up."
Libby, who drums and plays guitar, is capable of playing every single Cornell song on all of his instruments — "except for his voice!" he laughs. For years, he's tried to find a way to get a Soundgarden cover band together. "I never did it. I made half-hearted attempts." Years ago, Libby had found a singer on YouTube who sang to a backing track. "He can f—ing sing like Chris Cornell —pretty damn close," he says. Finally last week they said, "Let's just go and f—ing play," and met for the first time after eight years, rocking out at The Garage in Culver City to a crowd they sourced on a Pearl Jam message board. Now Libby's putting together a benefit in New York next Thursday with a bunch of other cover bands. "I don't know any of these people, but we're all fans," he says. All the proceeds will go to the You Rock Foundation, which specifically targets mental health issues among musicians. "Chris Cornell clearly was suffering silently. A lot of us have. We're not alone. That's what this is all about. We're grieving, but we need to get the message out about mental health," he says.
Morris Bird, 41, who lives in San Gabriel, California, is here by himself too. He started listening to Soundgarden when he was 16 years old after buying their 1991 LP Badmotorfinger. "I've never been to anything like this before — a public memorial for any sort of celebrity. For me, I came of age musically when Soundgarden started getting popular. I latched onto them more so than any other band. I loved their music and have listened to it in all phases of my life. It helps me feel joy and sadness, it's been a big part of the soundtrack of my life," he says. I wanted to take a moment to come and be around others. As much as I loved Soundgarden, none of my friends love them like I do. I last saw them live in 1994 and haven't had chance to be around people who love Soundgarden since. I wanted to take the chance to do that today."
At the front of the vigil is a woman named Christy, 44. She tells me, "Kurt Cobain changed my life and Chris Cornell molded it. I only had three years with Kurt. This one I had 24 more years, I had a lot more memories, a lot more tears, a lot more masturbation sessions," she laughs. "He's been my best friend for a long f—ing time. I was listening to him when I was trying to figure out if I wanted to stay with my boyfriend, move back home — there have been a lot of pinnacle moments in my life when I was listening to this shit." Christy only lives a few minutes from here. "I feel like he's right next door. He's right next to Johnny Ramone — his all-time favorite idol. That was his last request, you know?"
For Christy his ultimate legacy is that booming, blasting voice. "There isn't gonna be another voice like him," she says, crying. "God worked overtime when he was making this motherf—er. When Chris was finally born, God took a break because it was too much work to make someone like this."
This story originally appeared on Billboard.