the first time i saw soundgarden live was memorial day weekend of my freshman year of high school. "i found religion," i wrote that night in my journal. i'd spent the entirety of that school year unsuccessfully lobbying my parents to allow me to go to all-ages shows; my best friend lola (who was surreally, uncannily gorgeous) and i (who was prosaically, emphatically not) had been adopted by erica and lara, the super-cool girl besties of our tiny private school's senior class, who spent most of their time smoking camel lights and/or weed, singing like angels, hanging out with musicians, and going to shows in seattle. they gave us mix tapes and cigarettes, taught me to play the piano intro to "chloe dancer" on the piano, loaned us a battered VHS copy of perry farrell's bizarre 1993 movie "the gift"; they drove us to the head shop to buy patchouli and hippie skirts and we listened to badmotorfinger all the way there. by the time my months-long campaign of attrition paid off and my parents finally allowed me, with great reluctance, to see soundgarden play at the fairgrounds a mile from my house, i was already obsessed with the mythology of a seattle i was just barely too young to have experienced--a world that seemed to me impossibly adult and perfectly cool, shrouded in the ceaseless rain of seattle winters, peopled by beautiful men and glamorous, tragedy-ridden ghosts.
the seattle i loved as a fourteen-year-old growing up just a ferry ride away was no more real than the seattle of singles--a movie lola and i watched obsessively--or the seattle of the Great Grunge Hoax of 1992, the seattle of mad love and ten things i hate about you, the seattle of kristen mcmenamy and naomi campbell brooding in a field wearing nirvana shirts and thousand-dollar marc jacobs flannels. i was no less susceptible to the myth for living next door to it, for growing up in its shadow; i took the ferry over at least once a month to spend hours with lola in café paradiso (RIP) or bauhaus (RIP), lurking around the pike place market (where the members of 7 year bitch had met, a fact we considered of great importance) eyeballing cute dirty boys with guitars and waiting hopefully for one of them to offer lola a cigarette, realize my inner beauty, and kick-start my actual life. the seattle of grunge was a dreamscape concocted out of million-dollar record deals and press passes and long hair and bad drugs, the same fiction that gets spun up any time a small, insular community of enormously talented artists is torn apart by the tag-teaming demons of ambition and capital and hype, gilt on cheap plate; but looking in through the window of the jewelry store, all lola and i saw was the shine. the lives we promised one another we would someday have, our lives, the shapes of which were blurry but the details of which we repeated like catechism: jobs at pike place, crushed velvet and christmas lights, candles and nag champa, record collections and espresso makers, our docs lined up next to our rock-star boyfriends' by the door, watching the storms come in over the bay through our windows. we would learn to play the guitar. we would have songs written about us. probably, we shrugged, we'd be on drugs.
but there was still a there there. underneath the bumbling reporters and record executives and busloads of long-haired bros piling into the city by the hundreds in search of fortunes like the ones they'd seen on mtv, the devastation of an entire city fracturing, underneath the moss and flannel and long underwear and all of jeff ament's silly hats, there was still the music, and the thing about that music is that there was a lot of it and it was alive and magical and angry and raw and polished and heavy and bright and fast and sweet and young; the music of your windows rolled down on the first warm day of spring with the freeway underneath your wheels and the world pouring in, the music of friday morning before first period headphones cranked all the way up drum solo kick-starting your heart, the music of fourteen and a window out of your shitty small town full of shitty small people and their shitty small lives. once my parents finally let me go see soundgarden the floodgates loosed; lola and i pored obsessively through the stranger every week sussing out all-ages shows in community centers and concert halls, dirty clubs, parking lots, coffee shops; we pooled our allowances for the rare, costly treat of arena shows until finally we were old enough to get jobs. i went to shows with the fervor of the newly converted. i went to shows like i wanted to get saved.
and i went to shows because i found, for the first time, a medium that articulated the inchoate rage and pain i carried around with me. i was angry about a lot of things as a young person that i had no language yet to name. i worshiped chris cornell, layne staley, eddie vedder, andrew wood; at the time, i thought i wanted to be a rock star's girlfriend; looking back, i think i wanted a rock star's freedom. i wanted to say my fury out loud. i wanted autonomy, to be larger than the constraints of my gender, the teachers i despised, the adults who understood nothing and tried to stop me from everything; i wanted that noise to be my whole big fearless life. in a couple of years, i'd see 7 year bitch play "dead men don't rape" and start to realize that maybe some of the things i was so angry about could be identified in specific ways. lola and i would find sky cries mary and goodness, hammerbox and hovercraft, the gits, the fastbacks, lucky me, bell; pedestal heroines next to our heroes; i'd begin to wonder if maybe freedom could also look like being a girl. but our bonds and our wants were forged in the crucible of boys: long-haired howling banshees who said the things about sadness we didn't know how to say ourselves. in the early years of our passion we were disinterested in nirvana, a band whose complaints seemed reserved for the ilk of jerky james c. in art class, who told me the day i'd dyed my hair purple that he had dyed his hair first. it's okay to eat fish 'cause they don't have any feeeeee-lings, lola and i would sneer at each other, mocking poor old kurt's nasal whine. we had no use for riot grrrl, regarded its proponents as shrill and ill-kempt. but holy hell, did we ever love chris cornell. that operatic voice, that hair, the sludgy wall of guitar, the songs that seemed to scream everything we were hurting into the howling void until our hurts lost their power to hold us in thrall, even if it was just for the space of verse chorus verse.
it's strange, now, to read so many pieces in the wake of chris cornell's suicide by men; by men who seem universally to be operating from the assumption that chris cornell's music--seattle music, "grunge" as we teens said with a roll of our knowing eyes back then--was written for, and of interest only to, other men. in those days there were girls everywhere. i inherited my love of that music through a lineage of girls; there were girls in the bands, girls at all the shows, girls who knew all the lyrics by heart and screamed them back in ecstasy from the pit, girls who memorized the words of new songs as they were being sung and dissected them later in the car on the way home--first in their parents' cars, their parents being instructed to drop them off and pick them up again after the show at a minimum distance of two blocks, and later in the cars of their best friends. lola's new friend jenny started going to shows with us; she had the enviable commodities of a car of her own and parents who were largely indifferent to her activities, and she drove us to show after show after show--two-hour-long drives each way sometimes, if we were going to oly or issaquah or some other obscure suburb--and on the way home we'd drink a million coffees and roll down all the windows to stay awake and listen to the music we'd just heard live with the volume turned all the way up screaming our heads off. girls went to shows with other girls, even girls who had boyfriends; you saw the same girls at shows year after year, clock the movement of time by their changing hair colors, fashions, the widening splits in the seams of their boots. if you went to shows in olympia you'd see the bitchy riot grrrl girls in their black-dyed bobs and fake-fur coats and granny dresses who only ever talked to each other, if at all. the girls in tacoma were punk and dirty and the girls in seattle had baggy clothes and sometimes white-girl dreads dyed blond and red and black. girls in fairy wings and glitter at sky cries shows, girls in studded leather bracelets at botch shows, girls in all black at shakabrah java jazz shows, like little bohemians. once we went to an all-ages show at a club in seattle where you could get alcohol if you were over 21 and a boy--a man, i guess--tried to buy jenny a drink and she said i'm only sixteen! in horrified disgust and we ran into the bathroom and laughed about it for an hour, all the way through the opening band.
every show was a universe of girls, every girl would have gone to every show if she could; we went to see each other; we went because we wanted to be seen. if we weren't going to shows we were lying in our beds at home, telephones pressed to our ears, listening to each other breathe, listening to each other's radios piping tinnily through the receiver until we fell asleep. in those days girls shucked the burdens of their bodies through sex and drugs; we were too shy and stumbling-awkward, even beautiful lola, for the former; lola's and my parents too investigative for us to do much of the latter; and so that left us rock and roll, our long-haired messiahs howling into the sweat-steamed dark, our girl-bodies slamming into one another until we could no longer tell where one of us stopped and the other began. when our friendships began to unravel and re-ravel, as the girl-bonds of adolescence so often do, when lola got a boyfriend--on the golf team! the golf team!!--and left jenny and i to our own devices, when jenny--who'd navigated the terrifying freedom bestowed upon her by her parents by transforming herself into the most responsible person on the planet--fretted through my drug-taking class-skipping suicidal-ideating semester of catholic school, when i switched schools yet again and spent the long dreary days sundered from the proximity of my twinned beloveds and running around trying to prove myself to a pack of mean-mouthed boys, it was music that kept us together in the face of all the forces vying to tear us apart. jenny's car in the dark, hurtling all those miles home, our ears still ringing from the noise.
the summer before i went to college i gave away all my concert shirts, my beloved soundgarden shirt included; i was determined to distance myself from such girlish nonsense, to separate the erudite and stoic person i was determined to become from the angry and tear-soaked child i had been, lying around in my room in the dark crooning along to "seasons" and sobbing into my pillow, feeling ancient in the way you can only ever feel when you are very very young. i didn't want to be a girl anymore. i hadn’t asked for it; i wanted to send it back. jenny and lola and i drifted apart; i dropped out of college after a while and spent the next set of years banging around the country and getting in trouble; flinging myself gleefully into all the bad decisions that had been forbidden to me for so long, making up a rock and roll of my own. headstrong and headlong, a life that finally, finally felt to me like freedom. a life stripped bare of girls. a life that, in retrospect, looks a lot more like loneliness than liberty.
this isn’t an essay about chris cornell. it’s an essay about how i grew up. i'm sure you already figured that out. the music and the city, the rain at night, the wind in the trees, salt-fogged grey mornings, ferry over the puget sound in the quiet dark, the moment before the drums kick and your whole body hangs weightless in the balance blood roaring in your ears breath caught chest-deep hand in your best friend's hand. the apartment i lived in on summit avenue the year i was twenty. the way tenzing momo has smelled for the last thirty years; the way that’s the only thing left of the city i knew. condos closing in on the once-dirty streets, condos where bauhaus used to be, where paradiso used to be, where bailey/coy used to be, condos blooming like black rot over the street where mia zapata died, condos spreading through belltown and swallowing up the vegan restaurant where jenny and i liked to celebrate our birthdays, the bookstore i worked for the year i lived in seattle, the import store where anisa romero worked when we were in high school and we'd creep in like acolytes, pretending to look at the fancy carpets when really we were only ever looking at her.
sometimes late at night i spend hours searching online for all the girls i used to know, most of whom have vanished into my history. i am not sure what i am hoping they might tell me. jenny moved back to seattle a few years ago; we have coffee whenever i visit. she has children now and a husband and a mortgage and she is exactly the same. she would probably say the same thing about me. we picked up our friendship as though we had just set it down for a while. the morning chris cornell died we emailed one another like the teenagers we'd been, palming notes to one another when the teacher's back was turned. i listened to "seasons" and cried so hard i couldn't see the keys. “come home,” she wrote me, “so we can cry about it together.” can a single person be a symbol of an entire girlhood? of every outsize yearning, every dream, every impossible future? can a single person's death foreground the truth that hurts the most, that growing up is not enough to outrun the darkest parts of your heart?
i don’t think so. but i think about how jenny still has all her ticket stubs from high school. i think about how lucky i was to have her and lola both in those long brutal years of my girlhood. i think about how the people who understand what music did for me then, what it meant to me, are almost entirely other women. i think about how hard it can be to sometimes to not die and how glad i am most of the time that i didn't. i think about how for some of us it doesn't get better and how much i still want everyone i love to live and keep fighting. i think about that ocean, that galaxy, that miracle of girls.
i think about soundgarden, 1994. pressed breathless against the stage, screaming the words out of my girl's throat. all the girls, leaning towards our futures, our hearts crawling from our chests, thousands of girls a chorus of hell-sprung angels singing let me out, let me go, let me fly, for just this moment, just this sound. let me be salvation and solace. let me be loved. let me be perfected. let me be holy. let me be seen. let me be bigger than my body.
let me, for just this measure, be free.