If you’re writing a Chris Cornell obit today and not finding room for at least one “Say Hello 2 Heaven” reference, you might be overthinking it a little.
The 1991 ballad, written for the Temple of the Dog supergroup (featuring members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam before either group went supernova commercially) in tribute to late Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood, stands as one of rock’s great see-you-in-the-next-life anthems — the grunge era’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Several Temple of the Dog members were bandmates with Wood, but Cornell was his good friend and roommate, and the song is written with a combination of familiarity and hurt inherent in saying an after-the-fact goodbye to someone crucial to your everyday life who never gave you the chance to offer a proper one.
The thing that really unnerves about “Say Hello 2 Heaven” — always unnerved me, anyway — is the song’s unlikely steadiness. “Hunger Strike,” the most famous song from the Temple of the Dog set and very probably the greatest power ballad of the entire 1990s, sounds much more explicitly elegiac, set at an obvious crawl so that every guitar echo and chorus wail screams out with maximum impact. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” is just as big but a little more even-tempered, its riffs and rhythms always trudging forward without getting too high or low. The best part of the song might be after the second chorus, as Cornell repeats the title and the stereo-separated backing vocals chime in gorgeously harmonized support, like pallbearers trying not to fall out of step. There’s something comforting and tragic in its resolve.
But of course it’s to Cornell to deliver the official eulogy, and he’s certainly up to the unenviable task. The song comes from an understandable place of both empathy and frustration — best expressed in the first verse’s “He came from an island/ Then he died from the street/ And he hurt so bad like a soul breakin’/ But he never said nothin’ to me” — with the singer alternating between zooming in on and panning out from Wood’s death for most of the first two verses. The third and final verse is the gut-punch, though, as Cornell breaks back into first person and even breaks the fourth wall a little (“I never wanted/ To write these words down for you/ With the pages of phrases/ Of things we’ll never do”) to express his disbelief and unsatisfiable grief at his friend’s ODing.
As the chorus reaches its climax, he does his best to let go of his own feelings about being left behind and just hope to welcome his friend to where he’s going next: “Since you can’t say to me now/ How the dog broke your bone/ There’s just one thing left to be said/ Say hello 2 heaven.” The phrase itself coveys a surprising amount in four words: compassion, peace, hope and devastation.
Words aside, if “Say Hello 2 Heaven” proved one thing beyond a doubt, it was that when it came time for you to greet the great beyond, Chris Cornell’s voice was the one you wanted seeing you to the other side. Among the great singers of any genre in the ’90s, maybe only Whitney Houston was capable of hitting the notes Cornell could. Not just in a strict octave-scaling sense, but in the way that when most people try to express emotions so powerful and overwhelming that they end up unable to make a sound at all, Chris Cornell’s golden goose of a gut could actually communicate those f–kin’ things. When he gets to those final, point-of-no-return song-title shrieks, it comes out in a sound so clear, piercing and understandable that it feels like a decree from a higher power. Maybe it was.
For better and definitely for worse, “Say Hello 2 Heaven” can’t seem to die in American musical culture, because we keep needing to refer to its titular sentiment to help us make peace with the untimely passing of musicians from its time and place. Andrew Wood, say hello 2 heaven. Kurt Cobain, say hello 2 heaven. Layne Staley, say hello 2 heaven. Scott Weiland, you weren’t from Seattle, but you were still a crucial part of that musical moment and you wrote songs as good as anyone, so say hello 2 heaven. And now Chris Cornell — really?? — looks like it’s time for us to wish you the same. Pity the poor singer first tasked with paying the favor back to Cornell on this one, though: If the question is “Who could do a ‘Say Hello 2 Heaven’ tribute justice?,’ the answer is nobody. Zero singers alive.
It’s always a revelatory experience when you hear of a beloved artist’s death, and you reach for your music player of choice to begin your grief-listening: What’s the first song you turn to? Is it your favorite song by that artist? The first thing you heard by them? The one that you have the strongest memories associated with? “Say Hello 2 Heaven” isn’t any of those for me with the Soundgarden frontman, but it’s also just about the only song I want to hear today, or for the foreseeable future; the only song with both the grace and the emotional strength to be a proper shoulder to lean on right now. Chris Cornell never wanted to write these words for Andrew Wood, and none of us ever wanted to hear them this way for Cornell himself — but it’s hard to imagine how much tougher today would be without them.