One More Time Around

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Chris CornellThe writer and scholar Albert Murray described blues music, and by extension all art, as “survival technique.” He felt it was important to dispel the melancholy associated with the blues. The blues idiom is not about sadness. Blues is about transcendence. The music of the blues acts as counterstatement to the words. If the words are about sadness, the music is about transcending that sadness. As he writes in Stomping the Blues, “If the lyric laments but the music mocks, the statement is not one of lamentation but of mockery.”

The blues is a particularly good illustration of this point. (It’s called “the blues,” after all.) It is not only a musical idiom but a state of mind. And while the word was used to describe a state of mind first (the OED dates “blues” to the 18th century whereas blues music arose in the late 19th century) the two concepts have a way of blending together in our modern psyche. But the concept of music (or art) as “survival technique” and “counterstatement” can be applied to many other forms of music. Rock ‘n Roll. Punk. Rap. Country. Hip-hop. Grunge. Even the beard-infested folk-type thing we’re having a hard time escaping from now.

Music represents a survival technique not only for the individual musician, but for the culture that embraces that music. Songs make up rituals and the rituals make up a religion and what else is religion but survival.

I have written about these ideas before. I will go on writing about them until I die.

One more time around, then.

***

Although I came of age in the 90s and was a proper grunge disciple, I was never really a big Soundgarden fan. As a proper grunge disciple, though, the ambient tenor of Soundgarden nevertheless permeated my psyche. It has been the toasted breath of my living. Today, my soul, in some small part, is at least partially comprised of Chris Cornell’s 4-octave resonance. We all have a soundtrack to our lives and he is part of mine, and likely part of yours, whether you like his music or not.

I never bought a Soundgarden album. I never attended a Soundgarden concert or watched one on TV. (Nirvana and Pearl Jam were more my, uh…jam.) But I have definitely liked more than a handful of Soundgarden songs over the years, and I’ve long had a particularly strong fondness for the “The Day I Tried to Live.” I have listened to this song hundreds of times.

I do this with some songs that I really like. I listen to it on repeat one. I try to uncover the mystery of it. I try to access the reason why I like it (it often has to do with rhythm). I try to capture the feeling it gives me. I try to put that feeling into words. I’m not really ever that successful. But I do enjoy trying.

Every song is a ritual. It is the same every time you listen to it. In the case of studio recordings, songs are literally the exact same, every time. And yet, despite that sameness, we bring different feelings and emotions to that same song. We perform the ritual of listening to it in different states of mind. We come to the ritual looking for something. We come to it for comfort. Forgiveness. Reckoning. We come to it for answers.

The day after Chris Cornell’s apparent suicide, I listened to “The Day I Tried to Live” at least a couple dozen times.

***

I was a fan of this song for many years entirely based on the music, and not the words. I didn’t even really know the words. I knew the chorus line “One more time around (might do it)” and that was pretty much it.

The lyrics weren’t integral (or even supplementary) to my liking of the song. I liked the musical patterns the song formed. I liked the non-standard time signature, how it alternated between 4/4 and 7/4. I liked how the bass drum cut the verses and made you question your counting of time. I liked the awkward beginning and how the beat started slowly and yet jarringly after the guitar intro–the song almost seems to begin by accident.

We are all awkward beginnings. We are all jarred by starts. We are all questioning of time.

Before I knew the lyrics, the song always felt transcendent to me. It seemed to scream at futility. It seemed to give a defiant middle finger to depression.

Chris Cornell himself supported this interpretation of the song. In a 1995 Rolling Stone Interview he says:

“A lot of people misinterpreted that song as a suicide-note song. Taking the word ‘live’ too literally. ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ means more like the day I actually tried to open up myself and experience everything that’s going on around me as opposed to blowing it all off and hiding in a cave.”

***

I’ve been wanting to start a new series here at Atticus Review, one that is comprised of pieces that are “close readings” of songs. The idea would be to take into account a particular song’s musical and lyrical components, and setting those against personal reflections. The way the songs makes you feel, or the events that make the songs important. There is no single thing I’m looking for, I suppose. I just want it to tie together music and meaning.

I’m sure all of us have songs that hold special significance. Maybe some of you would like to write a few thousand words about that and send it to Atticus Review. If so, you can now do that here.

I suppose this piece serves as a kind of a kick-off for that series, which I think I will call Superunknown: Stories about Songs after the Soundgarden album that “The Day I Tried to Live” was on. I’ve been wanting to do this kicking-off for some time, and I had several songs in mind to start it. None of those songs were Soundgarden songs, though. I never thought I would feel compelled to write one of these for a Soundgarden song. I never thought I’d name the series after a Soundgarden album, as I have just now done. I am jarred by both of these things. It seems I have started jarringly. And I like that. I like that it feels spontaneous and unexpected and a little uncomfortable. I like that it feels necessary instead of contrived and brooded over.

Writing should feel necessary. If it is “survival technique,” then writing (all art) should come about as a resistance to death. According to this Rolling Stone Interview Cornell did in 2014 upon the album’s re-release, Superunknown did this for Chris Cornell. He says, “Superunknown …. was showing that we were not just a flavor of the month. We had the responsibility to seize the moment, and I think we really did.

I feel similarly about Atticus Review. Thanks, Chris.

***

The English-nerd in me, the one who likes to do close readings, wants to say that Cornell’s statement about “The Day I Tried to Live” in the 1995 RS interview was either a deliberate distraction from the song’s true meaning, or a case where the artist intent is irrelevant and perhaps even counter to the textual implications.

I woke the same as any other day
Except a voice was in my head
It said, “Seize the day, pull the trigger
Drop the blade and watch the rolling heads

The song opens with this voice declaring a usually positive life-affirming expression: Seize the day. But here, the expression is applied to negative, possibly suicidal, actions: “pull the trigger,” “drop the blade.”

The day I tried to live
I stole a thousand beggar’s change
And gave it to the rich, yeah

The day I tried to win
I dangled from the power lines
And let the martyrs stretch, yeah

These next several lines describe failed attempts at doing good. The word “tried” is repeated, conveying unsuccessful attempts. He “tries” to live, but winds up stealing money from the poor and giving it to the rich. He “tries” to win but he only ends up dangling from power lines.

Expectations go unmet.Trying results in failure. This really comes out explicitly in the second verse:

Words you say, never seem
To live up to the ones inside your head
The lives we make never seem
To ever get us anywhere but dead

And finally defeat in the third verse, with the verdict that he “should have stayed in bed:”

I woke the same as any other day you know
I should have stayed in bed
The day I tried to win I wallowed
In the blood and mud with all the other pigs

In the 1995 Rolling Stone interview Cornell says:

“It’s actually, in a way, a hopeful song. Especially the lines ‘One more time around/Might do it,’ which is basically saying, ‘I tried today to understand and belong and get along with other people, and I failed, but I’ll probably try again tomorrow.'”

Look, let me just say: I don’t believe him. Or rather, I do believe he thinks this is what the song means. But authorial intent is irrelevant. And the subconscious is a powerful force. If a piece of art has meaning, the meaning resides in the piece of art, not in the creator’s conscious intent.

We can have a discussion around whether or not an author successfully executed his intent with something s/he wrote. But we shouldn’t make the writing conform to the author’s intent if it’s not there. We shouldn’t have to apologize for an author if what s/he writes does not succeed in what s/he claims to be the intent.

Here’s my read. It was my read before May 17th, 2017, and it is a read which I think is made even more persuasive now, after May 17th, 2017. The “one more time around (might do it)” actually refers to what is implied by the voice in the opening lines: “seize the day,” “pull the trigger,” “drop the blade.”

One more time around: Might do it.

One more time around: might dangle from the power lines.

One more time around: might let the martyrs stretch.

***

I believe Albert Murray was right. I believe art is survival technique. On an individual level, we make art to make sense of ourselves and to make sense of the world. We find and repeat patterns. We perform rituals. And these rituals help us survive.

The writing of “The Day I Tried to Live” probably helped Chris Cornell survive. This song, and scores of others, helped him survive for several decades.

On a cultural level, the song contributed to a larger sound that was a reflection of the generation that built it. It is a sound that helped a generation survive. It is a sound that still helps that generation survive.

***

Chris Cornell played “The Day I Tried to Live” on the last night of his life. Here is a recording of that. When I watched this video, less than 24 hours after the actual concert, it already had over 95,000 views on YouTube.

I sent the clip to my friend and he wrote back and said it was “eerie.” I agree. There is something strange about watching this performance less than 24 hours after Cornell hung himself. With the death so recent, it feels like watching a ghost. The knowledge of what happens next is fresh in our minds. It’s not “eerie” to watch videos of Kurt Cobain, for instance, even videos of some of his final performances. But it is “eerie” watching this video the very next day, the same way it was eerie reading his last tweet.

***

On second thought, I don’t believe that Chris Cornell himself even believed the interpretation of the song he gave in that Rolling Stone interview in 1995. Maybe he did believe it at one point, but as he repeats near the end of the song:

I learned that I was a liar
(One more time around)
I learned that I was a liar
(One more time around)
I learned that I was a liar
(One more time around)

***

Despite my read on “The Day I Tried to Live,” I still think the song is about transcendence. I think the music achieves this, even if the lyrics do not. It’s statement and counterstatement.

There is a particular flavor of existential angst that covers the ice cream sundae of Generation X, and it is reflected in grunge music. It is reflected in the fusion of hard rock, punk, and pop blending together to form a particular sound that killed both the cotton-candy synth pop and shallow hair-band rock of the 80s. It lent context and meaning to our apathy and cynicism. It soothed our anger and confusion, our sense that things were not going to be “better.”

For whatever reason, the survival technique stopped working for Chris Cornell. But the victory, if there is one, is that it can go on working for millions of others.

***

Feature Photo of Chris Cornell used and shared under CC.

The Day I Tried to Live

I woke the same as any other day
Except a voice was in my head
It said, “Seize the day, pull the trigger
Drop the blade and watch the rolling heads

The day I tried to live
I stole a thousand beggar’s change
And gave it to the rich, yeah

The day I tried to win
I dangled from the power lines
And let the martyrs stretch, yeah

Singing one more time around
(Might do it)
One more time around
(Might make it)

One more time around
(Might do it)
One more time around
(I might make it)
The day I tried to live

Words you say, never seem
To live up to the ones inside your head
The lives we make never seem
To ever get us anywhere but dead

The day I tried to live
I wallowed in the blood and mud
With all the other pigs, hey

Singing one more time around
(Might do it)
One more time around
(Might make it)

One more time around
(Might do it)
One more time around
(I might make it)
The day I tried to live, yeah, I tried

I woke the same as any other day you know
I should have stayed in bed
The day I tried to win I wallowed
In the blood and mud with all the other pigs

And I learned that I was a liar
(One more time around)
I learned that I was a liar
(One more time around)
I learned that I was a liar
(One more time around)
I learned that I was a liar
(One more time around)

Singing one more time around
(Might do it)
One more time around
(Might make it)

One more time around
(Might do it)
One more time around
(I might make it)
The day I tried to live

Just like you
Just like you
One more time around
One more time around

Written by Chris Cornell • Copyright © BMG Rights Management

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About Author

David Olimpio is the Editor-in-Chief of Atticus Review. He grew up in Texas, but currently lives and writes in Northern New Jersey. He believes that we create ourselves through the stories we tell, and that is what he aims to do every day. Usually, you can find him driving his truck around the Garden State with his dogs. He has been published in Barrelhouse, The Nervous Breakdown, The Austin Review, Rappahannock Review, and others. He is the author of THIS IS NOT A CONFESSION (Awst Press, 2016). You can find more about him at davidolimpio.com, including links to his writing and photography. He Tweets, Instagrams, and Tumbles as @notsolinear and would love for you to join him.

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