Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson Remember Young Chris Cornell: 'He Was Almost Otherworldly'

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(L-R) Inductees Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart and presenter Chris Cornell speak onstage at the 28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on April 18, 2013 in Los Angeles. 

The Heart sisters --  Ann and Nancy Wilson, speaking separately -- remember Chris Cornell as a “seer.”

Ann: Back in the late ’90s, early 2000s in Seattle, my house was kind of the central meeting point for bands like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

Nancy: There was a real sense of community among all those amazing Seattle musicians. It felt like we suddenly had brothers we’d never had in our own family.

Ann: It was obvious to me from the get-go that Chris was an extraordinarily complicated and sensitive, bright person, somebody who was almost like a seer, otherworldly. He was very shy, with these bright, penetrating eyes.

Nancy: I remember him sitting cross-legged at Ann’s feet, trying to pick her brain: “How do you do it? How do you survive when you’re not onstage?” “Well, if you play with your dog in the yard, that helps. Just do something kind of normal and fun.” But that’s not how he worked. He never stopped feeling as deeply as he felt.

Ann: A lot of the times in those gatherings, the guys just blew off steam, sitting on the kitchen counters with their cigarettes and beers. We all got wild and loose together, and then I’d call cabs for them.

Nancy: I sensed that he was searching for a way to deal with the normality of being in the world. But he wasn’t always Mr. Furrowed Brow. He was really acerbically funny in the perfect Seattle way: a sharp sarcasm that was observational, not at others’ expense. He was a master quipper.

Ann: I think that on one level, he relished the fame. But there’s a fine line between achieving notoriety and having to measure up to other people’s ideals. These guys were expected to be voices of a generation. I don’t think he was comfortable with that; I don’t think any of them were.

Nancy: He didn’t seem open and easy to read, and I took it to mean he was a kind of lofty guy. But I found out later that he had such a respect and admiration for the work we’d done that he was a little bit shy. The night before our Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction [in 2013], he told us, “No, no, I was just nervous around you for decades!”

Ann: The last time I saw Chris was when Soundgarden played in Los Angeles about two years ago. I think the idea of stardom is one thing, and then when you live it, it’s much more difficult. I don’t think he was made to live under that pressure.

Nancy: He meant it; he never phoned it in, ever. He was screaming at the heavens.

As told to Rebecca Milzoff.

A version of this article appears in the June 3 issue of Billboard.