Father (for Chris Cornell)

Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, is not a big deal in our house. (If it was, we’d be in trouble, because as Canadians living in Britain, we have two Mother’s Days to deal with.) It was a big deal growing up – and sometimes a raw deal, when it would fall on the same day as my mother’s birthday and then my brother and I were on the hook for two breakfasts in bed with no help in the kitchen. So I have some residual feelings, stoked by all the advertising propaganda that’s been building for a few weeks now, reminding me how funny I am and how I am always there. Apparently.

But this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of another dad – one who is no longer there. That would be Chris Cornell, once the singer, guitarist, and lead songwriter for Soundgarden, and a corking big influence on me as a little grungey kid on the West Coast in the 1990s. Found dead in his hotel room after a gig in Detroit, Michigan just one month ago, Cornell leaves behind not only a legion of fans and some crushed and confused bandmates but three children.

So really, when I say Cornell is in my thoughts, it’s his kids who are more heavily in my thoughts. I found a video this week that broke my heart, clicking through YouTube as I do from time to time over lunch break. It was posted just three days after he died, but the video comes from a concert in Seattle in 2007.

I love just about everything in this video (the background vocalist is no Eddie Vedder, to be sure.) Starting with the preview picture – Cornell crouched right down at their level, looking at them, engaging with them. There’s a stadium full of people watching, but in that moment, he is just with them.

I love their massive headphones, worn to protect their young ears from the big sound on stage. I love Christopher, not yet two, in the Black Hole Son shirt. These make me think that this visit on stage was anticipated. The hometown crowd probably didn’t know when they turned up that it was Take Your Kid To Work Day. I think Cornell had an inkling.

I love the smile and wave the bassist gives them as they spring on stage.

I love how they occupy the space. Toni, three, sways back and forth to the music, just like her daddy. It’s a safe space for her, and that’s down to her father. His behaviour throughout the song gives an intimate portrait of fatherhood that happens also to be intensely public. He shares his children with the crowd that loves him and his music: it’s not exploitative, but it is Cornell delighting in their presence.

And yes, he gets to be Goofy Dad, making self-deprecating jokes, and Clumsy Dad, nearly taking out his son with the mic-stand. Pedagogical Dad, teaching them to bow after the performance and say thank you. Loving Dad, carrying them both in his arms as he brings them to one of the crew to take them off stage as the next song begins.

One can’t help but notice how comfortable his daughter Toni is on the stage. So it was not with surprise, though with a fair bit of proleptic trepidation that I clicked on the next video promoted on the YouTube sidebar.

Here is the same little girl, eight years later. She is confident, even when he jokes about it. She trusts him. His introduction, which the account holder also captured, notes that she wanted to sing this at her school, and he helped. Some dads help their kids build papier maché volcanos for science fairs. Some end up volunteering as hockey coaches because their kids take an interest. Cornell made a backing track for Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” so she could sing it in front of her classmates. If my dad did that, I’d be over the moon.

We get something better: the two of them, performing together. And generously, Cornell gives her the lead, supporting her with beautiful, spot-on harmonies that don’t interfere and (importantly for such a young vocalist) don’t distract her. You can tell they did this a lot at home. I like the moment when they come back to the repeated second verse after the instrumental bridge: he gives her a quiet preparation, then slows down so she can choose when to come in. Less than half a beat behind her, he’s there again, precise harmony as the vocal equivalent of the hands holding the child in the swimming pool, the back seat of the bicycle as she coasts down the street. It is magical. And I weep to see it, because he is gone and she is only two years older than this. Just becoming a teenager. And the daddy who held her up with his voice and invited her onto his stage is no more. That was a month ago. This Father’s Day, I am thinking of her.

My daughter is as old as Cornell’s daughter was when that second video was taken. She has a lovely voice, and in the past year, I’ve been able to harmonise with her. My wife’s sense of melody is not as strong, so unless she knows the tune really well, she tends to follow me when I go down or up. So I’ve kind of held off with my kids, but now she can do it.

When she was still growing in my wife’s womb, we went to a pre-natal class, and the nurse asked all the people present what quality of their partner they wanted the new child to have. I picked “precocious”; my wife picked “musical”; we both got what we asked for. Since she was small, her melody retention has been fantastic. (This is a little problematic for her folk-jazz-oriented daddy, who likes to take liberties: “No, Daddy, it goes this way.”) Her littlest brother is still young, but he shows some of the same skills with melody. Pitch is alright, though right now it tends to come in too loud. Her bigger little brother loves music. His pitch and melody retention aren’t as natural, but he has great enthusiasm and he’s prepared to work. He’s always singing, and since he joined the choir last year, he’s improved so much. He has a lovely sounding voice, and he’s learning how to make it do what he wants. I’m proud of him – proud of all of them.

When my daughter was very small – between the ages of the two kids who joined Cornell on stage in the first video – I was playing a gig with my longest-time collaborator, Ira Pelletier, in Nanaimo. We’d come back to the Coast for Christmas to show off her little brother, our brand new baby, and Ira had fixed us up a gig at the Mermaid’s Mug. My little daughter charmed everyone by cheering, “Yay, Daddy!” after each song. And during “Daughters of Etobicoke”, she left her mummy’s arms, walked up to us, climbed onto my lap (I was strumming the ukulele at the time), and held the microphone to my mouth. It was one of those moments in parenthood I’ll never forget.

I’m glad that footage exists for Cornell’s kids to watch, to remember how their father loved them, welcomed them, and supported them. It may be hard to watch right now – it may always be hard to watch. But I hope it helps.

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