Its resonance on the 25th anniversary of Soundgarden’s Superunknown
“I was in a car driving home at like 4am when I wrote that song (“Black Hole Sun”). I tried to keep it revolving so I wouldn’t forget, went inside kind of whistled it into a tape recorder which I never listened back to, but just in case I forgot it. And then the next day I kind of wrote out the lyrics, but I had the lyrical idea and everything.” – Chris Cornell on The Howard Stern Show
In My Eyes:
Do you find yourself sometimes looking up to the sky while listening to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”? What are you staring at? What are you asking for? How are you feeling? Welcome to the Superunknown. As we honor 25 years of this iconic Soundgarden masterpiece, I find myself thinking about how the record, and certainly, “Black Hole Sun” has the unique ability to transport the mind and spirit to place of, well, super-unknown.
This past Wednesday, I was listening to Howard Stern interview Peter Frampton. About 18 minutes into the conversation Stern asks Frampton about Chris Cornell and how his own gorgeous rendition of “Black Hole Sun” (off Fingerprints, for which he won a Grammy) came to be. They talk about not exactly knowing the meaning, but it’s something so strong and profound. Frampton explains the “ecstasy” and head-space of being able to get lost in the moment while playing it live. “This song gets me,” Stern says. “I asked him, I still don’t know, and he told me,” exclaims the King of all Interviews/Media while they discuss what the song could be about. Frampton then chimes in with, “When I first heard it in the car, stopped, turned it up, and I just went – this has to be the best song I’ve ever heard, ever… I’m talking The Beatles, everything.”
Cornell often explained writing “Black Hole Sun” as a stream of consciousness and a dreamscape brought to life. In the video, you will notice amidst all the wildness, there’s one thing that is steady – Cornell’s eyes. They never look directly at you or into the camera. They are always open, laser focused and often locked towards the sky. Granted its part of the visual narrative, but that small detail also captures the essence of what’s happening here.
In 1994 we were at the height of the Seattle explosion. You could argue that the arrival of Superunknown actually went against the grain of what had caught fire. Cornell now appearing in short hair, was singing in a way that exuded less aggression and more melodic undertones with “Black Hole Sun”, and man… what a song title. From the opening notes, there’s a high-pitched ring that leads you in through the door of vulnerably. The invite is a bit unwilling, yet genuine due to the fact that it without question, represents an honesty in artistic expression that Cornell so graciously offered. The guitar tuning is in drop D, a typically darker sounding tone with heaviness that is often used as the foundation for faster-paced, more raucous sounding songs. You go down with the notes and then you go back up. This pattern repeats three times as if you are walking into the black hole, then coming back out to the sun.
Artwork by: Josh Graham/Paul Lorkowski
In Disguises No One Knows:
But then what happens? Your listening to Soundgarden tell this riveting story that confuses your soul so much that at the drop of dime you could either completely well up or flash a million-dollar smile.
To write this properly, I full submersed myself into the abyss of the “Black Hole Sun”. I started with Frampton’s version since there are no lyrics. I wanted to inject the melodious stream of consciousness into my veins. By the break of the first chorus I was a mess, but then at the outro, I’m grooving internally and externally so hard that regardless of the public eyes on me, I could not stop bopping my right leg and my head to the beat.
Next, I go to The Avett Brothers’ cover and the exact opposite happens. I recall they opened with it at the first show they played after Cornell’s passing in 2017 and continued to do so for the next week. They start off in the dark with a lighthearted potency, and then by the end, the band (particularly Seth Avett) are so deep in the moment personally, that… there I break again.
I then notice during the I Am The Highway tribute show this past January, Brandi Carlile changes one lyric during the final song of the evening, “Black Hole Sun”. With Frampton to her right and Kim Thayil, Ben Sheppard and Matt Cameron at her back she points to the crowd at the end of the second verse, “No one sings like HIM anymore.” Isn’t it ironic that a lyric about singing that is so prominent today was originally delivered by Cornell, a rock icon with off-the-chart range, in the softest way?
And I believe that’s the magic of “Black Hole Sun”. It’s such a firestarter (RIP Keith Flint) of human emotions that you are not sure what is the right thing to do or say or feel, but you are instantly made aware of this melting pot of interpretations, and there, it’s OK to let yourself go. Your low, your high, you stay high, you go back down, you tilt your head back, you ask both the sun and the rain to wash away whatever it is you have inside of you that needs healing. You rejoice in an anthemic way that is almost spiritual, but you are still confused because how does something “wash” away rain? You look back up to the sky in wonder. What is it again you are trying to accomplish? Who are you talking to, is it now Cornell?
Speaking of the voice of a generation and an artist for all time, I have two favorite versions of Cornell performing “Black Hole Sun”. The first is from the Live on I-5 record, which displays a solo Cornell performance from December of 1996 – just a few months prior to Soundgarden’s split. What chills me from head-to-toe about this version is simply the way Cornell isolates “anymorrrrre”. Just his voice ringing out. The second is from the Vic Theatre in Chicago from August, 2010 – the year of Soundgarden’s big return. During the thunderous bridge, Cornell weaponizes his guitar and then breaks into a final chorus that exaggerates the “and wash away the rain”. Now, I look at these versions and I realize, one is right before the dark time of a breakup and the other is the joy of a reformation the night before they are to rock Lollapalooza. It’s the low, then the high. The black hole and then sun.
Maybe music or Soundgarden in particular, is your sun in the black hole. Maybe Cornell is the black hole’s sun. Whatever it is, it certainly doesn’t need a singular explanation because it’s not a definition, it’s a feeling. This journey of five minutes and eighteen seconds cleanses, while surfacing you and bringing you back in-touch with a realistic connection to self via an overwhelming rush of feel. Like Frampton, I have never felt a song that can have such an effect like “Black Hole Sun”. It’s part of the reason I am so moved by his version that grabs a hold of this electricity and then rings it out through the guitar, because translating a song of this caliber to a music-only version is a tall order.
25 years ago, “Black Hole Sun” spent seven weeks as Billboard’s number one rock song. It won Soundgarden a Grammy for best Hard Rock Performance in 1995. More importantly it forever resonates in a way that is so emotionally poetic.
In 2008, after working an event for Cornell’s street team, I went inside the PNC Bank Arts Center and caught his blistering set on the Projekt Revolution tour. Chris — during “Black Hole Sun” you jumped off stage, made your way through the crowd, hitting every note perfectly in stride… you hopped a fence and found yourself atop a hill that overlooked the entire amphitheater. At its highest point, you turned, faced down on the audience smiling up, and you soared through the last minute of the song. It was now dark out, but there was spotlight illuminating you, perfectly capturing the awe. You were physically and literally the gleaming sun atop a black hole. It moved many to tears. That moment… that’s how I remember you.
As I’m writing this, the lights in my office suddenly go out and the room turns to black. They come back on two minutes later, then go out again. This happens three times – just like the up and down scale of the “Black Hole Sun” riff. I was in a black hole, and then the sun. I stop writing and look up with my arms spread wide – What is this? Why do I feel everything so deeply? Has Cornell invited all of us to sit in that initial car ride with him? If so, it’s quiet and you have to remain silent because…
In my shoes, a walking sleep. In my youth I pray to keep. Heaven send hell away, no one sings like you anymore.
Featured art by: Nick Stalcup
Part two of our 25th anniversary special – Superunknown in 10 stunning lyrics, one more time around.
For more honoring Chris Cornell:
Sunshower: An original tribute
The Resonance of “I Am The Highway”
Chris Cornell 712 – The Sheldon Music Hall
Remembering the Temple of the Dog tour in 10 stunning photos