A tribute – ahead of next week’s “I Am The Highway” show
March 2, 2003:
The Avalon, Boston, MA – a dark, dingy and raw rock n’ roll room in the middle of Lansdowne Street that eventually transformed to the House of Blues. Four months earlier, the super-group Audioslave released their self-titled debut.
Lost in the City:
It was a cold, yet unusually clear Monday New England night. A bus, subway ride and then full sprint took me from my college dorm to the intimate venue that was “the” Avalon. There was this burning inside that I envision looked just like the Audioslave logo, as truly back then, I relied on music to light my way. To some degree, not much has changed. The Avalon stage was in the back of the venue with a bar adjoining the sides. For rock shows, it was always 50 shades of black inside. Stairs just feet away from the drum riser would take the artist from the green room to the stage.
Suddenly, the dark room gets darker. I recall there being an atypical silence as Audioslave took the stage. One-by-one you heard the clanks of marching down the stairs. Tim Commerford, Brad Wilk and Tom Morello grab their instruments (*all sounds made by guitar, bass, drums and vocals). Then comes Chris Cornell. Sporting black boots up to his calves, cut blue shorts and a white tank top, he looks stone-cold and perfectly determined. There was no intro music and no hoopla. Cornell lifts his head by the center mic. His eyes pierce through the crowd like the spotlights above as he takes the scene in for the first time. Mind you – it’s still quiet amongst the packed house, not your usual screaming and adoring frenzy before the show starts. It was like a welcomed take your breath away, or the judge just walked into the courtroom feel. Cornell then nods to Morello over his left shoulder. Boom… burn that gasoline.
I Put Millions of Miles Under My Heels:
This was the first time I saw Chris Cornell live. He was larger than life to me – like the Godfather of rock. He reminded me of a group of musicians who would go down “the path” in the parking lot of my high school sporting nothing but Dr. Martens, ripped jeans and band shirts. Teachers thought they were mischievous and suspicious, I thought they were fascinating. Cornell in my mind, was the leader. There was an unmatched intrigue that was both intimating and enlightening. All of this rushed to my head that night as I was overcome with awe that after all this time, the mysterious Cornell was just feet away. The embodiment of Soundgarden, the thoughtfulness of Temple of the Dog, the mastermind behind the life-changing masterpiece that was Euphoria Morning and now the force of Audioslave – in the same room as me. In that moment it dawned on me that if it wasn’t for the initial break of Soundgarden ultimately allowing the creation of Audioslave, perhaps I would have never had the opportunity to see Cornell in such a small space.
After Cornell continuously traced the shadow on the sun with his steps, the amps rung out and Commerford, Wilk and Morello leave the stage. Cornell disappears separately to the right and then glides back to the center, alone, and with an acoustic guitar in-tow. Solo with an acoustic guitar? That was basically the opposite of Audioslave. For the first time, there’s a light illuminating the room and then narrowing in on the tall frame of Cornell. Like the drummer he once was, Cornell breaks into a rhythmic A-minor beat. He closes his eyes, angles his head down to the left, locks in on his signature position, and…
art by: Alexandre Alonso
The first half of “I Am the Highway” was performed by Cornell alone. Here was a band blowing the roof off a building made for just for that, coming to an abrupt halt and we are treated with just Cornell essentially on his back porch. The wall of intimation comes down and instead, we see an alluring vulnerability as the words roll out of Cornell like the pearls he first sings about. The pure honesty in such a moment was so moving that I recall welling up at the impact of music being “your” voice.
I would come to learn that this “I Am The Highway” display was so much of who Chris Cornell was – poetic with his words and gracious with his gift. His wife Vicky captures it beautifully in saying, “His voice was his vision and his words were his peace.” And performing “I Am The Highway” was the like telling a story through the medium of vocally painting a picture. Every time I saw the song performed live, there was no introduction. It was like we would all go someplace else for a moment and the song would just happen.
art by: Pete Marsh
I consider myself beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to later meet Cornell a few times over the years. With all due respect, this is the part of the story where Cornell becomes Chris.
When Chris passed, the only song of his I could listen to was “I Am The Highway”, namely the live Songbook version. As the final chorus winds down, Chris repeats “the night”. The last time he isolates just his voice. Chris then delicately places a quiet “So” before the “yeah yeah yeah” outro. It’s inexplicable, but I think these two moments are the reason for my gravitating to just this song. It’s the lightning in the sky in the night over the highway.
You see, when it comes this this subject, I am short on words and long on things to say. This piece alone took me an eternity to write. I don’t mean in terms of hours from start to finish, I mean to muster up the ability to actually sit down, open up and dig in.
I happened to be on a boat this morning and tripped across the Ames Bros Chris art. As I’m admiring the piece, my music shuffles and “I Am The Highway” off Songbook randomly plays through my headphones. It struck, and I had no choice but to put everything else on pause. About half way through,… I breakdown.
Sometimes I can’t, sometimes I can. Sometimes it’s none, sometimes it’s all. And sometimes it’s… .dammit!, I miss this guy. But all the time it’s… I’m so grateful his impact found its way into my soul.
“I Am The Highway” art by: Gail Younts
Unfortunately, I won’t be at the tribute show next week. I just couldn’t arrange getting to LA. But I do have my “I Am The Highway”. Very few concert moments get me like that 2003 Boston rendition.
Ed Kowalczyk of Live called “I Am The Highway” one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Ann Wilson covered it on her new record, Immortal. On January 16th, I envision a Forum full of locked arms singing it in perfect no-one-sings-like-you-anymore unison.
There are 300 plus songs in Chris Cornell’s extensive catalog, some of which now serve as coined phrases – “Loud Love”, “Sweet Euphoria”, “The Keeper”, the list goes on and on. Why was the tribute show named “I Am The Highway”?
Next week you will see.
Yeah, yeah yeah.