When it comes to the late Chris Cornell, the voice of Soundgarden and Audioslave, there are two things I know about him that most people might not. I know he had a brother named Peter and I know that Chris and Peter’s father passed away on May 5, 2000.
Now the only reason I know these two particular facts is because the passing of the Cornells’ father led to Peter, who is also a musician, having to cancel a show he had scheduled for that night at the 8×10 club in Baltimore. Peter Cornell’s abrupt cancellation resulted in Jahronne, my band at the time, having a much different night than was planned. Instead of playing a fairly routine, run-of-the-mill opening spot, we ended up playing a show that would become one of my favorite shows ever. That show would also be both a top-five college memory as well as music-playing memory.
As a result, every year when May 5th rolls around, I don’t initially think of Coronas. I don’t think of Margaritas and I definitely don’t think of sombreros.
No, on Cinco de Mayo I think of Peter and Chris Cornell, their father’s passing, and how everything can quickly change in a few hours.
Jahronee (named after a member’s former gym teacher) consisted of myself, Party Time Paul, Joey T, and No Nickname Andy. During sophomore year at Goucher College in lovely Towson, Maryland, a few miles outside of Baltimore, we had some good fun playing shows on campus. We frequently playing the Gopher Hole, the school’s coffee shop down in the basement of the student center, a spot with terrible acoustics but a welcoming vibe.
By spring of that year, we had started to take our show on the road and into the wilds of Baltimore. We played a spot called Cafe Tattoo (on a Sunday afternoon I believe) and played our first two-set show at the Brass Monkey in Fells Point, a joint whose slogan was, where no one looks ugly after two. The slogan for your first two-set show? Exhausting dude.
We had played the 8×10 club a couple times before, mostly on Open Mic nights. The club’s soundman was a surly gentleman with little tolerance for unprofessional youngsters such as ourselves. Details are a little lost to time but I’d like to think my kindness is what eventually won him over. Playing properly tuned instruments probably helped as well.
The band was excited for the show, giddy almost, and were anxious to try and parlay our opening slot into a headlining slot sometime down the road. With Joe’s station wagon jam-packed, we arrived early, probably too early, and as a result, had plenty of time to kill. With none of us yet at the legal drinking age, we sat on the curb outside the venue, waiting for our set time. As the night went on, the streets grew wilder and we watched in amazement the escalating drunken madness swirl and come to life around us like a storm building.
At some point, club management found us out on the curb and notified us that Peter Cornell had canceled. His father had died suddenly. Because we were the only full band on the bill, they were bumping us up to the headlining slot.
Can you play for an hour? They asked.
The answer would sort itself out later. Of course, we could.
Immediately we got on the phone, using both the payphone outside and the phone behind the bar (this was before everyone had cellphones mind you.) We started calling everyone back on campus whose number we could remember.
Get down here! We told them.
We’re headlining! We exclaimed.
Bring everyone! We urged.
The night had turned. The vibe was different. Now we weren’t just dudes playing a quick opening slot, but a band playing an actual set on a night when people actually came out. Excitement ran smack into nerves and came out in a tangled web of false bravado and gusto.
All things considered, a perfect combination.
The 8×10 has since been renovated, but in 2000 it was dirty; a step up from a dive bar, but not a big step. The difference between the two was a tripping hazard. There was a wafting aura of dinginess to the place that struggled to make its way through the staleness of the air. It was dark, with the only natural light coming from the one or two windows that looked out onto the street. Three floors up and accessed by a winding stairway found behind the stage was the band room, a place that we were allowed to hang out in now given our sudden change in status. The stairs snaked along walls covered with the signatures of bands who had been there before. We saw “Phish” scrawled on the wall as we made our way up, a highlight for us and something we’d surely tell friends about later.
At the top of the stairs was the band room and it smelled like a drunken gorilla with body odor. The guy who was playing before us was a beefy fella and he had commandeered the room. He was holding court, entertaining two sketchy-looking gals, and chopping up lines of coke on the mirror he had put down on the floor.
Polite of course, he offered it to us. Polite of course, we quickly declined. We weren’t rock stars yet.
When it came time for us to play the room was damn near packed with friends from school. Phone calls had worked. Word had spread and carpools had been arranged. Everyone’s favorite campus band was doing them proud and the kids came out. Our friend Kenny danced through the crowd, making his way to his normal post at the front of the stage while Amanda pranced around the club barefoot, a questionable move, but a joyous one nonetheless. Everywhere we looked we saw familiar faces.
Did we play the perfect set? Probably not. Did that matter? Nope. The night was one of those nights where the emotions that were felt and the enthusiasm that ran full speed through my body could never be repeated or replicated. It was a completely pure and beautiful night that came out of nowhere, leaving an unshakable joy in its wake. As a musician, it would prove to be a hard night to beat and would be a show that had top 5 staying power straight through the 300 plus shows I played with a band I was later in Sidecar Radio.
As for Jahronee though, the show was our high-water mark and was a night we never got close to again. A few months later the band was done, having barely survived the summer that followed that spring semester. Then Joe’s apartment burned down in the fall, the fire taking his guitars and my drums with it, and the heavy-handed symbolism was hard to ignore. As is so often the case with bands, we had all moved on. Maybe in retrospect, that night at the 8×10 means so much to me because it was essentially a good night & good luck show for us. Even though it seemed like such a rocket launcher of an opportunity, the reality was it was the exact opposite, a funeral for a friend.
The night was a success though, but not the kind of success that lead to future success. And that’s okay. Not every good thing is meant to be a sonic boom and last forever. Sometimes the best things in life are drive-bys and are quick moments that you should grab and hold on tight to because their staying power is ethereal and in the wind, never meant to last for that long.
So while the day of May 5th is a heartbreaker for the Cornell family, it will always bring a smile to my face. We had fun, we did it right, and we did it justice. I’ll always be sorry for the Cornells’ loss, but on that night their loss was our gain. And it was fun.
A lot of fun.
Ryan O’Connell is originally from sunny Portland, Maine, went to college in Baltimore, spent some time in Philadelphia, and now lives by the beach in wonderful New Jersey. In short order, Ryan loves the Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, the Black Keys, the Roots, his family, The Wire & the writing of Dave Eggers although his last couple books have been “meh” at best. He does not care for waiting, appreciates someone who maintains a nice front lawn, and harbors a constant fear of losing his keys.
To read more from Ryan, visit GiddyUpAmerica.com