I heard the news a week ago, listening to Q on CBC. On Wednesday night, Soundgarden played Rock City, and two hours later, Chris Cornell was dead. Suicide. I was floored. Couldn’t breathe. I felt sick. Gutted.
I didn’t know the man. I wasn’t a fan girl. I loved a lot of his music, but I followed his career casually at best, and I’m not even sure I’d have recognized him on the street. And now I can’t stop googling him.
I’ve sat down at least 5 times over the past few days to post pics of my new paintings and write about some legit awesome news, but I just can’t.
Instead, the last seven days have seen me spend hours at my computer looking at pictures and watching videos, reading countless articles and tributes. This is strange behaviour for me, especially right now as I’m hustling to make new work for some shows this summer. Instead of hitting the easel, I’ve been rocking out to mind-blowing live footage and old videos, listening to interviews, tearing up to acoustic ballads. When I leave the house, I drive around way too fast blasting Temple of the Dog, Soundgarden, Audioslave out the sunroof, my foot heavy on the pedal, screaming lyrics that I didn’t even know I knew. I notice that I’m not alone… I’ve heard the same tunes blasting from a few other cars driven by fortysomethings… we catch each other’s eye, nod at each other with sad smiles and drive on.
My Chris Cornell fascination has surprised me, quickly becoming a morbid obsession that’s I know is going to hold my attention for a while yet. I’ve been trying to figure out why his death has affected me so deeply. Like many GenXers, grunge was the soundtrack to my twenties and thirties: Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains… but Cornell’s passing touches a hidden nerve, something much deeper than having to face the fact that those days have become part of the long ago. And it’s clear from the number of articles, posts and tributes all over the internet that I’m not alone in how I feel about him, about his music and about how profoundly his death has shaken me.
A lot of what I’ve been reading follows the trend of people asking, “Where would my life be without his music?”
After a few days thinking about it, I’ve come to realize that it’s a lot more than the whole cliché thing about his music as the soundtrack to my life and my generation: for over 25 years now, Cornell’s voice has with me almost daily. Without exaggerating, I can say that not a week has gone by since the early 90s without my hearing his voice several times, and I’ve listened to my favourites thousands of times on repeat. My most listened-to playlists feature at least one of his songs. I turn to his music and words so often because I totally get everything he’s saying, and his music, from every style and genre, reflects who I am and what my experience has been in this life, in some way.
And of course, I have tremendous admiration and respect for his unparalleled talent as a singer, musician and writer. The man had deep, deep soul (check out this performance of When I’m Down). For me, his voice is “THE” voice, and I’ll always be in awe of his incredibly powerful four-octave range, which has been described as “volcanic… a dark, enormous voice”. His lyrics are the poetry I still turn to on ordinary days as well as the black ones: part of his genius was to be able to pen words that succeeded in being both personal and universal. He wrote love songs, breakup songs, angry songs, darkly nihilistic songs… his themes were often insightful barbed comments about society’s ills, often speaking about trying to be a better person. About what it’s like trying to live in this fucked up world. A true virtuoso, he wrote and performed music in just about every genre, spanning the gamut between perfect harmony and demonic dissonance. And of course he looked the part of the rock god: I had to laugh reading somewhere that he seemed genetically engineered to be a rock star (sorry to the author, I can’t remember where I read it). He was beautiful, for sure.
Craig Jenkins wrote about how Cornell’s voice transcended generations in an eloquent analysis of his life’s work:
“…he was a master of his craft who made vital, inspirational art. He helped his audience make sense of loneliness and depression… ”
Anthony Toto from The Pop Break sums up Cornell’s genius best:
“His catalog is immense and highlighted with some of the most gorgeous displays of songwriting over the last thirty-years… Even beyond Soundgarden: Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and his solo catalog opened my eyes to the possibilities of capturing elegance in the darkest territories; heartfelt honestly that emotionally broke barriers, innovated new tunings and rhythms, and forever changed the landscape of rock music. I see a lot of friends and strangers posting the lyrics to “Black Hole Sun” as a tribute but I challenge you to listen beyond the hits: his catalog is immense and highlighted with some of the most gorgeous displays of songwriting over the last thirty-years. Songs like “Call Me A Dog,” “Pushin’ Forward Back,” “Limo Wreck,” and “Let Your Eyes Wander” – this man could thrive in any genre or setting whether it was a heartfelt piano ballad like “When I’m Down” or dowtuned uptempo groove metal such as “Birth Ritual.”
Think about it – Soundgarden formed in 1984 and released their first LP Ultramega OK in 1988. Chris Cornell proceeded to create a timeless catalog that is unmatched in terms of its unorthodox artistry and musical consistency. I want unfamiliar readers to grasp the enormity and difficulty of this achievement. Only a few weeks ago, Cornell performed his new single “The Promise” on The Tonight Show. This man was DaVinci esque with his ability to sing with such relentless range and his innocence played a huge role in unleashing the full potential of his songwriting.”
Elegance in the darkest territories… exactly. I can’t think of another voice I’d rather listen to at any time, no matter what vibe I’m up for. The opening chords of Hunger Strike still give me chills, even 25 years on. Sunshower is the song that’s got me through the darkest days of my life. Say Hello 2 Heaven, Like a Stone, Cochise and I am the Highway will always be top of list on my road trip jams and my painting playlists. His acoustic solo songs are in heavy rotation when I need to chill out.
Beyond taking the time to listen anew to the music I love and reflecting on how important Cornell’s work has been to me, I’ve been wondering… what the fuck happened? He’d spoken out in several interviews over the years about addiction and depression, talking openly about his existential crises, self-destructive behaviour, the deaths of friends who’d died from drug overdoses, and his eventual choice to walk away from that lifestyle. He’d been off the booze, the oxy and the other stuff for years, but he was still battling anxiety and depression.
I think most of us Gen-Xers can relate to Cornell’s struggles to some degree. Whitewash grunge and Gen-X all you want, but booze, heroin (and/or other assorted drugs and addictive substances) and the darkness of depression are to some extent and in some form or combination, a fundamental part of the zeitgeist of our generation, no matter how far you were from the scene. Writer Rich Larson describes depression as Gen-X’s legacy:
“It’s possible that, along with grunge, Generation X’s other great gift to society is depression. I mean, of course it was here long before the Baby Boomers started re-producing, but we talk about it more than those who came before us. We talk about it as a demon or a monster. It’s a dark shadow that shows itself at any point in time without warning. It surrounds us, isolates us, and quiets us. Depression likes to blame things. We feel like shit because of mistakes we have made in life or because of the state of the world or because we aren’t perfect. Without a lot of help and a lot of work, it’s impossible to know that it really is a chemical imbalance in our brains. After twenty-plus years of trying to de-stigmatize depression, some of us still have a hard time recognizing it for what it is. And even then, it doesn’t always matter.
You might think grunge is about anger, but that’s not completely true. Yes, it can sound that way, but it’s really about depression and cynicism. Those two go hand-in-hand, along with their nasty little sister, anxiety. When the three of them get going, they just eat hope as quickly as it can be summoned. That leaves despair and despair is exhausting, not just for those who experience it, but for the people around it as well. So we keep it to ourselves because we don’t want to be a burden. And then it gets to be too much. Doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a mom, an accountant or a rock star. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written about it your entire life as a means of keeping it at bay. It doesn’t matter if the music you made about it brought in fame, respect and millions of dollars. It doesn’t matter if your entire generation has suffered from it. Depression makes you feel totally alone. You hit the breaking point, and then, like Chris Cornell, you die alone in the bathroom.
This was a well-respected member of his community; a beloved musical hero who seemed to have it all together. This could have been any of us.”
But still… what the fuck??? By all accounts, things seemed to be going well for him. He’d been free from the booze and the drugs for years. He seemed happy, with a wife and children whom he clearly loved and who loved him back. He had a family to keep him grounded in reality. He was at the height of his creative powers, with a thriving career and a lifestyle that anyone would envy He was a philanthropist who spent millions to help children. He was respected and loved by his peers. Watching recent interviews and performances, he seems lucid and in control of himself, a man confident in who he’d become in his prolific middle years. He didn’t seem like a guy on the verge of offing himself.
So it makes no sense that he’d hang himself in a hotel bathroom shortly after playing a show.
Of course you can’t know what’s going on in a person’s life by looking at the internet, but his wife’s refusal to accept the simple explanation of suicide due to depression is telling. They seemed close, so I would guess that she’d know that something doesn’t jive. It also seems unlikely that a guy whose entire life was about expressing his feelings wouldn’t have written a note. And then there’s the footage from his last show: there are moments when it’s clear that something’s wrong, that he’s struggling. His energy seems off, his movements look heavy with some kind of exhaustion even though he’s still performing. He walks off the stage holding his head. It came out yesterday that the sound engineer is saying that Cornell was somehow fucked up during the show, that he seemed “high”, that he was not depressed.
I’m not alone in speculating… did he fall off the wagon? Prescription drug side-effect? Migraine? Was he having a stroke? A psychotic break? Was the cost of keeping his depression at bay and hidden from everyone around him finally just too much? Any or all of the above combined with reaching the limit of what he could stand to suffer from the darkness that must have overwhelmed him that night?
It kills me that there will now be silence where there was once such brilliance, and the thing that’s been bothering me so much is that this man who gave so much to so many died alone, in agony. And no one can ever really know what happened.
Rock and roll is a vicious game.