I can’t claim to be the biggest Soundgarden fan. I like them. Their music has always been right there on the edge of my consciousness… But in the great grunge war, I chose Team Pearl Jam and all others were casual listens at best for me. Soundgarden fit into that group. Which is no shame. They’re there alongside Nirvana, STP, Screaming Trees, etc… It’s good company, and they all get a spin from time to time…and I sure like Soundgarden better than I like Cornell’s later work in Audioslave, with no disrespect intended. (Even the latter-day Soundgarden resonates with me better than Audioslave–it’s not just fond memories of my youth.)
That said…I was very sad to hear today that Chris Cornell is dead and that it has been ruled a suicide. It took me back to the day Kurt Cobain died. At that time I was a big Nirvana fan; they only got relegated to the “they’re not Pearl Jam” section after the Foo Fighters took off. I remember my high school making counselors available, my friends writing essays about how important he was in English class, and my band putting together a tribute set (which included a version of “Lithium” that I sang so off key that it made it sound like Kurt was singing ON key). And I remember thinking it was so weird that one of MY generation’s musical heroes was dead. I was 13 then. I’m 36 now. I’ve seen it happen a lot since. But when Scott Weiland died, I remember thinking, “Well…yeah…we all knew he had problems…” With Cornell…it’s different. This feels deeply significant. This feels like Kurt Cobain. It feels like things are unfinished and wrong.
Maybe it’s just that it’s a similar kind of death. Most of the grunge/rock guys who’ve died from anything other than natural causes have been overdoses or similar. In fact, most people seem to have assumed they were going to hear the same about Cornell, too. I clicked on an article just ten minutes ago that was TITLED: “Chris Cornell’s Death Ruled a Suicide” and the first comment was some jackass’s one-word reply… “Drugs.” Didn’t even read the title, I guess. Drug overdoses are always sad and often sudden… I don’t mean to take away from them… But if you know someone’s an addict, there’s a part of your brain prepared to rationalize the news pretty immediately upon receipt. Hence, “well…yeah…we all knew he had problems…” Suicide, though? Suicide rips the deceased out of the arms of those who would’ve held them forever. Even when you see it coming, you kinda don’t.
As a casual at best fan, I definitely didn’t see it coming with Chris Cornell. As a dedicated fan in the 90s, I didn’t see it coming with Kurt Cobain either, even though there were definitely very public signs in his case. As a fan, it’s not really in your power to know that the star is burning out. You’re not one of the people they’re able to reach out to, you’re a voice among a sea of voices… But your heart still sinks a little when it happens. You still want to write an essay. You still want to get your band together and learn “Jesus Christ Pose” in time for a tribute set in front of your friends… You still choke up a little bit the first time you say it out loud… And like I said, I’ve never even been a HUGE fan.
But…come on… “Rusty Cage” is a GREAT fucking song. Johnny Cash even saw that and covered it. (In fact, in my mind it’s more of a Johnny Cash song than a Soundgarden song. Cornell himself more than once stated that, “he made it sound like he wrote it” as a compliment.) I mean, “Spoonman” was stupid… but RUSTY FUCKING CAGE? Timeless. As is “Hunger Strike” and “Say Hello to Heaven” and “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun…” I may not know many deep cuts, but the guy has a hell of a greatest hits album.
When I got home tonight, I went to my record shelf and pulled out my pink-vinyl copy of the “King Animal Demos” which was a Record Store Day exclusive release a few years ago. Hadn’t listened to it since that time. I set up my phone and streamed it “live” on Facebook. Facebook (of course) wouldn’t let me save it and keep it accessible because it’s got copyrighted music in it (although, y’know…they’ll let a guy live-stream himself murdering a stranger…but whatever…), but for about 30 minutes, me and about 40 people had a good time. The point wasn’t to keep the video. The point was to quietly honor someone whose music shouldn’t have stopped the way it did. Jesus, man…he played a gig just a few hours prior to killing himself.
Grunge music was all about chronicling the bad stuff. In fact, most rock music is about that in one way or another. Oh, sure, you’ve got the occasional happy-as-shit hit song that’s on everybody’s lips for a Summer…but look through your “Great Songs!” playlist that I KNOW you keep on your MP3 player or Spotify app or whatever. Count how many of those songs are about walking on sunshine or being in love on a Friday. I’m going to bet it’s way less than 50%. Rock music is mostly about pain, rejection, sadness, and loss. Just sometimes in a major key… That’s something I struggle with from time to time. Like Rob says at the start of the movie High Fidelity, “What came first, the music or the misery? … Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” And it’s not even JUST pop music… The Christian hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” has a devastatingly sad backstory. (In brief, the composer’s four daughters died in a ship-disaster. When he went overseas to reunite with his wife, he passed over those same waters and floating above the place his children drowned wrote, “when sorrows like sea-billows roll…”)
I’ve always felt that the goal of most music is commiseration. In my own writing career, I’ve tried to make my overall message the very simple mantra of “you are not alone.” I’ve always thought that if we can sing in sorrow’s face, then the fucker might not stick around too long…but since it’s the audience, we’ve got to acknowledge that it’s there, too. Rock is a genre that means well in trying to say, “We’ve all been there…so let’s sing together… Big and loud on the chorus, folks!!!” But sometimes that gets lost. Sometimes the pain is real, and sometimes the guy writing it needs somebody to stop yelling requests and start listening to him more closely.
For whatever it’s worth, Chris… I’m sorry we were cheering so loud that we couldn’t hear you. I hope you’ve found peace, where you are now.
The toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). Or you can visit them at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org, where you can also chat with someone online if you’d rather not call.