Around 5:30am Thursday morning I logged on to Facebook only to utter a “No!” in my silent house, while my family slept. That’s when I saw the news that Chris Cornell had passed away. Disbelief washed over me as the news that one of the Mount Rushmore musicians of my teenage years was gone.
For some, the death of another celebrity is interesting news, but in the same category as the weather report for that day. For me, the death of someone that touched my soul with their lyrics, music, and singing runs much deeper than that. I never met him of course, but did see Soundgarden three times: 1996 on the Down on the Upside tour, 2013 on their reunion tour, and then just 2 weeks ago. I was going to see them in 1992 at Lollapalooza, but the plan was to lie about where I was going to be, and then I managed to get grounded, and knew to go through with it would be insane. Would have been an amazing show, seeing them and Pearl Jam in the early days of the 90s rock explosion.
My personal transition from the rock of my youth (Poison, Whitesnake, Ratt, etc) began when I was in 9th grade. It went like this: R.E.M and Nirvana in 1991, then Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in early 1992. That’s 25 years ago, during a highly formative time in my life. “Outshined” was the first Soundgarden song I heard. Part of it was being on the cusp of this huge movement in society and culture-this massive wave that was building. The only thing I can imagine it is similar to is when The Beatles blew up in the early 60s. But most of it was the actual music. Buzzing, thick guitars and tribal drumming. Then that voice. The unearthly howl that conjured up so many emotions, soaring above the music. I went to Turtles and bought Badmotorfinger, and poured over the lyrics in the liner notes. Most of them were cryptic, with interesting wordplay but not personal. In fact, “Outshined” might have the most personal lyrics on that album, which makes how personal and harrowing the lyrics on Superunknown are that much more powerful. I remember trekking back to Turtles to buy that album on the day in came out, in March of 1994. It might be my favorite album of theirs, just for the sheer range of songs and brilliance on it. From the poetic depression of “Fell On Black Days”, “Limo Wreck”, and “4th of July”, to the thunderous rock of “Spoonman” and “Let Me Drown”, to the epic resignation of “The Day I Tried To Live”… I could go on and on. His words and voice could summon rage, desolation, and catharsis like few could. When even he wasn’t sure what a song was about, like “Black Hole Son” (he admitted as much in this interview), you still could feel the bittersweet melancholy and longing that it conveyed.
What makes his death so hard to wrap my head around is that this was not something people saw coming. This was not Kurt Cobain being missing for a few days post-rehab, and then being found dead (that was not surprising but still a blow to me as a 17 year old). This was not some elderly person near the end of their life, dying at an age that is expected. This is someone that survived the drug related deaths of close friends and musical peers in a decade that veered from exciting and ground breaking to exhausting and waning. He lived through hitting bottom with drugs and alcohol around 2000, only to emerge from rehab and join Audioslave and find success again. Then in 2010/2011 Soundgarden got back together and in 2012 put out a great reunion record, King Animal, that is way better than anyone could expect an album to be by a band that’s been away for around 15 years. He seemed stable, sober, and in a good place. He spoke articulately about enduring those devastating losses of his friends in the 90s, and while he acknowledged his struggles with drugs and alcohol and depression, he seemed to have found a peaceful life with his second wife. With 2 more children, a reunited band who was touring regularly and working on another album, the future seemed wide open and promising. It’s a reminder that depression and anxiety are mystifying and multifaceted. The statement by his wife makes me feel both better and worse at the same time, because an accident isn’t premeditated but it is still an accident that could have maybe been prevented. I can’t imagine what his wife and kids are feeling right now. Secondarily, I can’t imagine what his bandmates are feeling right now. Most importantly, they’ve lost their friend, but they’ve also lost their band. As for me, it’s left me shaken and sad, but thankful to still have the music.
In the wake of all the celebrity deaths last year, a viral tweet explained “We don’t cry because we knew them; we cry because they helped us know ourselves” (this article explains this thought in more detail). I feel like by expressing himself so honestly and openly through his music and lyrics, Chris Cornell helped many people to know themselves and their emotions in a way they could not articulate. I know that’s true for me, and for that I will always be thankful.