It’s truly awful and terribly ironic what’s going on between the surviving members of Soundgarden and Vicky Cornell, the widow of late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell.
Cornell just sued Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd, saying she was offered an undervalued slice of what’s left of Soundgarden’s earnings, a settlement less than $300,000; which, if accurate, means she’s right.
However, she also wants a slice of future touring money, her lawyer said, if the band tours with another singer or a hologram. I initially thought that sounded stupid for a band so closely associated with a freak of nature talent like Chris Cornell. Then I remembered Queen touring with two other singers since Freddie Mercury died.
It’s starting to get really nasty and I don’t know if all the details matter. The truth is almost always in the middle of two sides. My attention, however, was seized by something Cornell’s lawyer, Marty Singer (yes, that’s really his name) told Pitchfork: “Of course this is about money and their greed.” The lawyer went on to rail about “future exploitation” while accusing the band of not caring about preserving its life’s work as much as line the members’ pockets some more.
It probably was a ridiculously low amount of money, considering her legal right to the value of Soundgarden’s most visible and creativity vital member. Unfortunately for the rest of us (drummers), singers are frequently like quarterbacks in the NFL: it’s the glamour position because it really is most important.
The whole thing is a sad cliché: survivors slapping each other over whatever they can still pull from the carcass. That isn’t to say both sides don’t deserve a fair share. But to know how much the band meant to so many makes it kind of heartbreaking to see people ripping each other over their alleged greed.
These aren’t corporate no-names fighting over a jingle by a long-dead artist in a commercial. Soundgarden was a vital part of a generation’s soundtrack and money has little to do with what the music meant to anyone. Including the band … at least initially.
The story keeps making me think of rehearsal rooms.
Great bands are almost always some sort of magical concoction of elements even the musicians don’t totally understand. Things happen in those rehearsal rooms that are truly indescribable. It’s closest some of us get to experiencing a higher power. There’s rarely a better explanation for what happens when the right combination of musicians–personalities, builders, magicians, whatever they are–gather and start bouncing sound off one another.
You can’t explain that in a lawsuit.
I usually hate the notion of telling someone you had to be there to understand. But, sorry … and Soundgarden was exceptional, one of the key elements of a very unglamourous musical movement knocking sense into an industry serving up massive record deals to silly bands most resembling the last silly band. Soundgarden was like a force of nature, destroying the nonsense in its path.
Musical greatness is so powerful and so rare that it’s like a brilliant explosion that goes away after a few eye blinks. It’s sometimes difficult to explain how it happens and who’s responsible for everything.
But if you weren’t in the rehearsal room, you can’t explain how much it means. There’s a reason why some of us talk way more than we should about our band days. It’s difficult to explain.
There’s a reason why great bands age like great athletes—not well. Whatever helps them burn so bright at some point sputters, running out of fuel, or motivation, or challenges. Whatever chemistry they had—be it friendly or unfriendly, competitive, or needy—changes as people evolve or devolve.
But Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd were there, which should count for a lot.
Not that Cornell’s family doesn’t deserve the fruits of his work, had he not died in 2017. A member’s death leaves wreckage for angry, hurt and confused survivors. The whole thing is terribly sad.
But I understand why creative people (and the drummers they hang out with) are territorial. It’s tough to quantify who is responsible for how much creative output, then allowing outside forces determine its value.
The details of who deserves what gets confusing; both sides have points making me wish they could just sit down and make it work. I just keep thinking about the joy those guys in the rehearsal space probably had writing and playing songs that will outlive them all.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.