SOUNDGARDEN
ARTICLES

Reprinted without permission from Details, June 1996

ROCKET MAN
Soundgarden's Chris Cornell Comes Clean About His Lifelong Addiction to Speed
as told to Gavin Edwards

Some things are better when they're done slowly: drinking, having sex, and any job that pays by the hour. But for most things in life, I prefer speed. In Soundgarden, we're constantly trying to catch up with our own momentum. We write songs that are incredibly fast...and then discover we can barely keep up. As we get better at playing them, they start getting too fast. That acceleration in our music means that we've always made great albums for driving. Just don't sue us if you wreck your car.

I don't need any encouragement to speed up...ever since I was a kid I've been a little tightly wound, which is why I've never taken amphetamine. Even drinking too much coffee can make me start to stutter. And when I'm writing, I often get ahead of myself: I'll try to write the word "fight," for example, and begin with the letter h. It's hard to spell when your mind's in fast forward.

Speed is true escapism. When you're going really fast you have no opportunity to think about anything else in your life. Stuff that might bug you gets forced out of your brain. When I want to clear out my mind, I'll usually go driving late at night on roads where I know there are no police...who only cause more traffic problems anyway. I've ridden my motorbike as fast as 140 miles an hour, but let me be clear: I don't have a death wish. I'm careful on the road, and I've never broken a bone in my body. I grew up in a neighborhood of Seattle that has a lot of hills, so naturally I spent most of my childhood going down them at maximum sped. At six, I'd try to break the sound barrier on my little red wagon; by eleven, I'd graduated to a motocross bike. My friends and I use to tear down a nearby hill, jump over a gully, and then land right in front of the big, pronged iron fence outside the local cemetery. One day, my friends were all jumping better and higher than I was, so I decided the solution was more speed. I screamed down the hill, heading for the graveyard. In second, my friends' awe turned into fear. I hit the jump and kept going: As I was flying through the air, heading for the fence, I calmly said to myself, "Fuck." Luckily I landed in some sticker bushes in front of the fence. My full body sticker gashes were a lot easier to deal with than the permanent piercing those iron spikes had in store.

When the band first started and we toured across the country in a van, I would always volunteer to drive, because otherwise I'd get bored. My mission was to go as fast as I possibly could without getting a ticket. With my natural antenna for speed traps, I never received a moving violation (still haven't), but I did get into fights with the rest of the band, who'd say things like "It seems like you're driving outside of your ability," or "You drive like a freak." Part of the fun of driving fast is discovering the edge of your ability, when you're almost going to crash. Here's a litmus test: If you smack into a pole, then you were going too fast. A better way to tell when you've exceeded your personal speed limit is by noticing how your focus changes. You stop concentrating on the road because you get nervous. At that point you can do one of two things: Freak out (the wrong option) or remind yourself that everything shifts into slow motion when you're in a crisis and take advantage of it.

Not long ago, I was riding my Kawasaki motorcycle on a nice sunny day. I'd taken the face shield off my helmet so I could get some air, and was cruising along at 85 miles an hour when a giant bumblebee flew right into the helmet and started stinging my eye. It felt like somebody was sticking an ice pick into my head, but taking my hands off the handlebars to do something about it would definitely have been the wrong option. Trying to ignore the pain, I gradually slowed down and took the bee out with one hand. Then I got off the freeway so I could pluck the huge stinger out of my eyelid. Two days later, my eye was swollen shut and we had to cancel some live shows, but at least I didn't become road pizza.

Aside from driving, parts of life that are better when done double time include making decisions: Even if they're important, you shouldn't labor over the. And anything that feels like work, you should do as quickly as possible. When Soundgarden began to take off I was working in a kitchen as a prep cook, with dull assignments like slicing vegetables. As the band got busier, I wanted to be in the kitchen less and less, so I'd go at top speed and cut up a week's worth of potatoes in two days. My bosses dug it because it saved them money, and I was happy to have negotiated a flat rate. And quickly.

One of the best places to achieve liberation through speed is on the slopes. A few years ago I was in a snowboard shop with a pal when I ran into my friend Eddie Vedder. He asked if I was going to take up boarding. I said no, I didn't have the time, I was too busy writing songs. A month later I woke up on a Christmas morning and found that Santa had paid a visit: There on my front doorstep were two enormous boxes with Eddie's handwriting on them. He'd gotten me a full set of snowboarding gear...everything except the boots. Still, I didn't strap on the board that entire winter. My friends starting bugging me about it, because I had all this brand new equipment that I wouldn't use and that I wouldn't loan to anybody. The following year, I finally tried it and thought it was pretty cool. I went again a few weeks later with a friend: He broke his leg, but I was hooked. I ended up going twenty times that year, and I still snowboard whenever I can. There's a slope about an hour and a half away from Seattle...or 45 minutes when I'm behind the wheel.