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Heart’s Ann Wilson on Chris Cornell’s ‘Brilliant’ Artistry, ‘Inhumane Pressure’ of Fame

Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson have been called “godmothers of the Seattle music scene.” But that wasn’t really the case, Ann Wilson tells Rolling Stone. Her house was simply the easiest to get to. And thus, it became the de facto safe haven for musicians in bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and more to hang out.  

Last week, Ann paid tribute to one of her frequent houseguests, Chris Cornell, who died unexpectedly at age 52. She performed Soundgarden‘s breakthrough 1994 hit “Black Hole Sun” on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live,’ because, to her, the psychedelic rock classic is “essential Chris,” she said.

“I am really serious that people should keep their feelings around Chris positive right now,” the “Alone” singer said, softly. “Chris is still hovering. We should be grateful for the music he gave us, and accept that a time came where he couldn’t give us any more.” Before going onstage, Wilson remembered her old friend, who showed up on her doorstep as a shy, curious musician adjusting to newfound fame. 

Here, Wilson shares her memories of Cornell with Rolling Stone.

The first time I met Chris was at a party at my house in Seattle. People who were part of the music scene in the Nineties were living around the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and my house was centrally located. So I cleared out a room where everyone could come and sit in front of the fireplace and talk. We’d hang out together, bitch, drink, get high, play guitars.

It was a time in Seattle when businessmen from New York would be walking around in plaid shirts, looking for guys to sign. And the musicians were just these anonymous people, now being asked to be the voice of a revolution and change everything. So we’d get together and just blow off steam. Nobody had to be anything.

I used to have a themed Halloween party every year and I remembered one time, the theme was to come dressed as your favorite song. Chris came as ‘Black Hole Sun.’ He arrived wearing these huge platform boots that made him like, 6’3″, and wore this huge yellow costume with papier-mâché around his head as the sun. His face was completely blacked out. He had a great sense of humor. But it was just after the song came out, when [Soundgarden] was just experiencing the first real tremors of what it was like to be famous.

When you become famous, people can have a powerful yet illusory idea of who you are … I know Ed Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, all those guys felt it.

He never asked me for advice back then, but in Chris’ shy, quiet, way, he was trying to grapple with all of the people who wanted stuff from him once he became famous. And the thing is, Chris was never into self-promotion. There was a look in his eye that was always less-than-impressed with stardom and him being some kind of sage. But the pressure was still immense.

When you become famous, people can have a powerful yet illusory idea of who you are. You want to live your life, but still, you don’t want to let anyone down. I know Ed Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, all those guys felt it. They’re smart, real and of a sudden, they’re put on a pedestal. It was an inhumane pressure that could squelch your creative excitement.

It’s one thing to look at someone like Beyoncé and Rihanna and to see how beloved and talented they are, and it’s another thing to live inside it. During my own struggles with addiction, fame and depression, I [personally] didn’t experience thoughts of suicide. I just never got there. Fame put a lot of pressure on me in the Eighties and early Nineties – and I’m glad that I had the kind of makeup where I could come through it alive, keep myself in hand.

Like Chris, I’ve always been an anxious person. And meditation eventually became the way I tamed those feelings. That, and being around other people who are going through the same thing. All of those Seattle bands – as varied and different in their anger and interests as they were – were idealists. They wanted to fuck the bullshit. And at that time, Nancy and I really had that in common with them. The Eighties were really uncomfortable for us with the low premium on naturalness. So when we’d all hang out; we weren’t standing in the doorway, hand-on-hip. We were participating in the debauchery with them.

I remember catching his eye [at a November 2016 event] and he was like this trapped dog – we just looked at each other as if to say, ‘Hi buddy’

The last time I spoke to Chris was just after seeing Soundgarden in Los Angeles at the Forum [in November 2016]. There was this huge Forum Club thing afterwards with all kinds of journalists, fans and industry people crowding around just to get a look at him. I remember catching his eye and he was like this trapped dog – and we just kind of looked at each other as if to say, ‘Hi buddy.’

People say, ‘what was it about Chris Cornell’s voice that was so amazing?’ And it was that it didn’t have any element of trying to show off or trying to impress or trying to keep up with any particular trends. He was a brilliant storyteller. And he played it real all the time.

As told to Sarah Grant 

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