May 18, 2017

Chris Cornell's "I Am the Highway"

Edit 5/18/2017, upon the sudden and shocking new of Chris Cornell's death:  I'm re-posting this old blog from 2007.  Here is the Civilian/Audioslave demo of this song--

Ok, I have to admit that the first few times I listened to this song (from Audioslave's eponymous debut album), I found it very cheesy. I mean, the dude is singing about not being a flying carpet. Then in May of 2005, I took two weeks off from work and drove the length of Route 50, a mostly 2-lane highway that cuts through the middle of the US from Maryland's eastern shore all the way to San Francisco. Because of the highway and traveling references, I decided that this would be my theme song for the trip. After a few days of listening and thinking about the song as I drove, the words began to mean something to me. I have no idea if my interpretation matches Chris Cornell's intended meaning, but I'd like to think that it might.

Pearls and swine, bereft of me.
Long and weary my road has been.
I was lost in the cities,
Alone in the hills.
No sorrow or pity for leaving I feel.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky

Friends and liars, don't wait for me,
I'll get on all by myself.
I put millions of miles
Under my heels,
And still too close to you I feel.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky
I am not your blowing wind
I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon
I am the night

Things are about to get deep here, and I may ramble a bit, so bear with me. You know how sometimes it's possible to "lose yourself" in a relationship (or at least it is for some people)? To me, this song is about fighting to not lose yourself in that way. Relationships can be damned hard, and one of the things that screws them up the most is the issue of perception. I'm not talking just about romantic relationships here, either. Whether it's with a mother, a friend, a lover, a brother, a colleague at work... in any relationship, we are to the other person what they perceive us to be. They see something in us that fulfills some want or need that they probably don't even realize they have (and vice versa, of course). That's why the first six months of a romantic relationship are so magical: We're busy forming those perceptions, feeling that need satisfied, and haven't gotten to the point at which we begin to feel that maybe that person isn't what we thought they were after all. On the flipside, some people go out of their way to make themselves fit the other person's perceptions, to be what that person wants, just to hold the relationship together. I think that in most cases, all of this happens at an unconscious level, but it really seems to explain that "We just grew apart" thing, as well as the "I lost myself in the relationship" thing.

As a kinda-sorta student of Buddhism, I realized that what it comes down to is seeing things as they really are. In Buddhism, great emphasis is placed on seeing the reality of things, on learning to realize when we're projecting our own "story", our own attachments and aversions, onto an event or person we're dealing with. If you do that in a relationship, then you're just setting yourself up to get miffed when that person doesn't behave as you've come to expect them to, or when they have unrealistic expectations for you. I've dealt with plenty of this myself, from both sides of the coin. From my father and mother, to my sister-in-law, to the last guy I dated, to people at work who just rub me the damned wrong way... After coming to this realization, I now try to stop myself and ask "Am I looking at the reality of this person, or are my own expectations and assumptions getting in the way and creating this issue?" Even harder when you're dealing with someone you care for is to ask "Is this person seeing me as I am, or are they wanting me to be something for them that I'm really not?" Before I begin to sound totally sanctimonious here, let me assure you that I don't always succeed in asking or answering these questions. In any case, even if you can see the reality of the situation, it does no good if the other person can't.

To me, it seems as if the character in Cornell's song is someone at that point in a relationship, someone who's maybe experienced it before and is determined not to again. It's the ultimate anthem to self-realization and independence. This person would rather be on his own than to lose himself to another person in such a way. He'd prefer to be "lost in the cities, alone in the hills" than to be under someone else's thumb just for the sake of being in a relationship.

To take it a step further, he even tells the person on the other side of the relationship what's going on. When he sings "I am not your carpet ride, I am the sky", he's saying "Not only am I not just what you see me as being, I'm more than you can even comprehend of me as. I am greater than your conception of me and I will not be boxed in by your expectations." "No sorrow or pity for leaving I feel." A bit harsh, perhaps, but sometimes that's what it takes to get through to that other person.

Again, I have no idea if this is really what the song is about, it's just what it means to me. For all I know, Cornell was stretching his metaphoric muscles in another direction and I'm totally off-base. Either way, it's become a personal anthem of sorts. "I am the highway...", indeed.

If you can, try to get ahold of the demo version of the song that was leaked to the internet back when Audioslave was still just a rumour. Cornell's vocals on the chorus are much more dramatic. And, yeah, I realize that it's really Audioslave's song, but the words are Chris' so as far as I'm concerned it's his song (No offense to Tom, Tim and Brad. Sorry, guys.).


josepherdon said...

Hey, nice post.

I also think that there's a deep meaning behind this song. please check out my interpretation here:

I Am The Highway


sean said...

I figured I'd find some remembrances here today. Been listening to his songs this morning. Terrible business.

(And I enjoyed your very insightful observations about relationships.)

KaliDurga said...

Thank you. It is terrible, isn't it? He mostly got credit for his voice and his wonderful song-writing was too often overlooked.

I've been visiting your place lately, too, you've posted some wonderful things. But I haven't been able to comment due to password issues with Wordpress. I need to get that straightened out.

Spanglefeather said...

HI Kali
Yes the Cornell suicide affcted me deeply altho I a,m not a big fan of his music; it was the end of an era, and a capitulation to depression, and a failure of fatherhood I found hard to stomach. I was able to visit both the Sound Garden and the Black HOle Sun since they are nearby in Seattle, and found mmany mourners and bunches of flowers that week.
I think these are awesome lyrics, very evocative if somewhat gloomy and directionless. To me they sometimes even sound defensive or maybe even a but threatening, like "Please stop underestimating me, won't you..."