If I wrote one of these every time a musician that I liked died, writing eulogies would be my full-time job. The last couple of years have been absolutely relentless in seeing talented people whose work that I admired passing on. And I know I’m a few days late to the party (what else is new), but Chris Cornell’s passing has stuck with me, and I need to get it out.
Soundgarden was one of the original Seattle bands, playing way before I’d ever heard of ‘em. Like a lot of people, my introduction to grunge came with Nirvana, and “Nevermind.” At least that’s what I thought, until Alice in Chains was lumped in with that group, and I distinctly remember having seen that creepy-ass video for “Man in the Box” that I equally dreaded seeing and secretly looked forward to seeing. By contrast, “Superunknown,” Soundgarden’s diamond-certified masterpiece, was released a couple of years later (shortly before my 18th birthday, during my senior year in high school). In other words, at exactly the right time to make a maximum impact on my life.
I liked all of the grunge bands, although I had to come around to Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden took up a permanent place in the soundtrack of my life. I retroactively got into “Badmotorfinger,” and even loved “Down on the Upside.” I got to see Soundgarden play a show in Seattle near the end of their first run together, when they reportedly couldn’t stand each other, and it was still one of the heaviest, most incredible concerts I’ve been to. Oddly enough, Chris Cornell and I both caught the flu that was going around Seattle at the time, which was good, because I was laid out during finals week, having to read “Great Expectations” for a test, and if they hadn’t delayed the show by a week to accommodate Cornell’s illness, I never would have been able to see Soundgarden play.
I was even kind of excited for Audioslave, even though I’m not the world’s biggest Rage fan. I was just happy to see Cornell playing full-on rock again, and I got to see them play on the tour for their first album. One of my favorite concert experiences was hearing Cornell (solo, playing acoustic guitar by himself) cover Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” as the US military was bombing the shit out of everything in sight in Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s so funny, indeed. I generally liked the Audioslave albums, but a compilation would probably hold together better.
One of the things that was great about grunge, for me, a kid from the northwest, was that it was music that no one else wanted, yet still dominated everything for a while. The northwest tends to get ignored by the larger music industry (which led to the gestation of the Seattle scene), and until Nirvana broke through, there were only rare, sporadic incidences of bands from the NW getting any kind of national attention. There was Heart, of course, from Seattle, and then nothing until Queensryche (and not to dismiss them at all, “Operation: Mindcrime” and especially “Empire” were fantastic), but they didn’t feel so much like a regional product. Things were even worse in Oregon. Until Everclear, and then the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, the best-selling record from an Oregon band was, I believe, a Nu Shooz album from the 80’s that hit 250k in sales (or perhaps it was Quarterflash). To say the least, up until the early ‘90s, the idea that anyone from this corner of the country could make any kind of an impact nationally was beyond a long shot. As a kid with creative aspirations, there was a clear message that all you could really hope for is a moral victory.
And then Seattle blew up. And for a glorious span of maybe two or three years, being a flannel-clad loon from the edge of the known universe wasn’t an immediate disqualifier for success. And then, the wheels feel off the whole thing. The very thing that had sparked national attention for Seattle bands swallowed the scene whole. It’s disingenuous to suggest that Kurt Cobain’s suicide was what did it – Andrew Wood had died before his big album even got released years before, which led to the Temple of the Dog album (Cornell was Wood’s roommate), and sort of to the launching of Pearl Jam. Mia Zapata of the Gits was raped and murdered, an unsolved crime for years, but one that did launch Home Alive, and got Joan Jett involved. By the time Kurt Cobain died, heroin and death were already hanging over grunge like a spectre. Even people who were alive and playing music were having some fairly serious problems. Alice in Chains sputtered out, with Layne Staley going recluse, eventually dying alone in his apartment (he lived one block north of my first apartment in Seattle, at the same time I was there). Hole sputtered. Pearl Jam chugged along. But by this point, radio was mostly bad imitations of Seattle bands, hailing from everywhere but Seattle.
Even though Soundgarden broke up in the midst of all that, Chris Cornell kept releasing music. Once we got out of the ‘90s, taking a look around at who was still making music from that scene felt more like a survivor’s club. Heavy, loud music wasn’t part of radio once the aughts hit; post 9/11, it was vapid or nothing. But it at least felt like the people who had made it out of the ‘90s had actually made it out of the ‘90s. Things felt a little more stable, at least until Scott Weiland died. He wasn’t a Seattle guy, and the Stone Temple Pilots took their lumps for trying to sound like they did (at least on their first album), but he’d made it out of ‘90s, even if not entirely sober. There were warning signs, a video on YouTube of him performing with his new band, singing in a monotone, unmoving, looking half-sedated and half-terrified. He finally succumbed to years of drug abuse on his tour bus, aged 48 years old. I’m turning 41 tomorrow, that doesn’t seem so far down the line anymore.
The last few years seemed to have been good for Chris Cornell. He’d patched up whatever problems he’d had with his bandmates, and Soundgarden was performing regularly, released a new album, and have been reissuing deluxe versions of the old ones. He played a short reunion with Audioslave recently. There was new solo material, rumors of new Soundgarden material. They’d made it out of the ‘90s. We had all made it out of the ‘90s. You don’t worry about people when they’re working, when they’re producing new material. So yeah, it was a shock to hear that he had died, in that Detroit hotel room. It was more of a shock that he did it to himself. That he’d apparently suffered from depression for most of his life wasn’t a surprise; depression seemed to be a feature of grunge bands, perhaps one reason the music was so resonant for kids who had a lot of problems. Chris Cornell died aged 52, that doesn’t seem so far down the line anymore.
One of the conceits of youth is that you inevitably figure things out as you age. One thing that a lot of audiences will react with extreme negativity to is that this conceit might not be true. It’s okay to be depressed when you’re a teenager, or struggling when you’re just out of school. Present people with the idea that you might still be struggling with that into your 40’s or 50’s? People will completely shut down over that. Things get better, right? Things always trend upward, right? I think that a lot of the time, people just learn to better cover up their struggles over time so as not to concern the people around them. If you don’t, you will find yourself alone, abandoned, and with people angry at you for not being able to handle. You’re an adult, so what the hell is the matter with you? Adults aren’t supposed to have those kinds of problems. It’s scary for adults to have those kinds of problems; how can life make any sense if there are no rocks to rely upon?
I don’t know what moved Chris Cornell to commit suicide. The battles with depression seem like a fair place to start. His family has blamed a prescription he was taking. At least one bone-headed musician has just decided that Cornell was weak, and selfish for depriving his children of a father. Probably a million more people without a clue as to what they’re talking about have said the same thing in comments sections online. Even Jerry Garcia’s death was dismissed by Rush Limbaugh as being “just another dead doper,” so one constant is dumb people without enough common sense just to be quiet about things they don’t know about.
But one thing Cornell’s death has done is remind me, you never escape. Maybe we’re out of the ‘90s, but nobody ever actually gets out. The demons that chase you don’t give up, they may occasionally rest, but they never quit. I hope his family is right, that it was a horrible side-effect of an anti-anxiety medication that he may have taken a bit too much of. It seems too much to bear to think that he’d survived the loss of so many peers and friends, and years down the line lost the battle. Because then I, and everyone, really, has to look in the mirror and wonder if whatever has chased each of us is really lost in the rear-view, never to rear it’s head again, or if it’s just resting and waiting for an opportunity for an ambush, for a sure victory.
Alternatively, maybe all it takes is having a bad day and misjudging whatever we’re using to soothe frazzled nerves to create the same end result. If these are the two roads, they’re both terrifying, and that fork in the road grows less hazy and less distant by the day.
Chris Cornell’s music, and that of his peers has been both formative and a source of great comfort over the years. Writing this hasn’t brought me any joy, or really any comfort. But maybe articulating complex and competing emotions is worthwhile, even if there’s no tangible benefit to it. Maybe it’s all there is, and we shouldn’t expect resolution. In that case, there are just the things that bring us momentary peace, things like the music of Chris Cornell, which I’ve listened to for years, and will continue to listen to for years.