Back in March 1994, shortly after Soundgarden’s masterful Superunknown was released, Melody Maker‘s Everett True wrote a detailed and often insightful piece about the band on the road (in Tokyo, specifically). Chris Cornell spoke openly with True about his struggles with depression and fear:
“I write songs best when I’m depressed,” Chris tells me. “No one seems to get this, but Black Hole Sun is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous. Fell On Black Days is another one. Like Suicide is a perfect example.”
We’re they inspired by specific events?
“Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. Someday we might do an EP…
“It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realise you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realise one day that everything in your life is F—–!”
Exhibit A for a “chipper” version of the huge hit is this snappy, big band-ish, “are you kidding me?” version by Paul Anka (yes, the same Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—one of the very few Sinatra songs I find annoying, even revolting). And in the past few days, understandably, there have been a number of singers and bands playing the song as a tribute to Cornell, who took his life on May 18th, after a reportedly ragged show at Detroit’s famous Fox Theater.
I’ve listened to several of the tributes, all of which are deeply sincere and earnest, but none of them, in my unlearned estimation, can touch the version by Norah Jones—performed on the same stage, at the Fox Theater, where Soundgarden performed last, just five days after that show. Jones, of course, is a jazz musician—although her music incorporates plenty of folk, country, pop, and other styles—but not in the peppy, over-the-top mold of Anka. And rather than play “Black Hole Sun” straight up, like nearly everyone else, she improvises with the chords and brings a deeply reflective, melancholy hue to the much-played tune, teasing out the lyrics with a poignant combination of strength and vulnerability. It is beautiful. And sad. As it should be.
Perhaps there something in the song’s melody that speaks especially to jazz musicians, as the great Brad Mehldau, among the finest pianists of his generation (he is 46), performed a nearly 24-minute-long version of the song on the 2014 “Brad Mehldau Trio Live” album. Mehldau has also played covers of songs by a number of rock bands, including Nirvana, Oasis, the Beatles, and Radiohead. Here is Mehldau’s cover: