When my brother called to inform me that Chris Cornell had died, I was shocked and disheartened, especially when he said that initial reports indicated that it was a suicide. Then I became angry, not just because we lost yet another talented musician from my generation, but because it was a suicide that took him away. Cornell wrote song after song about suicide, dark days, black hole suns, and the daily struggle that is trying to live in the insane worlds we have created for ourselves. Songs such as these don’t come from an adolescent fascination with death or depression. They come from deep inside. They come from a well of blackness that only someone who has witnessed and battled the kind of abyss-inducing depression that can only be felt, and not described. Alright I didn’t know Chris Cornell, I can hazard a pretty solid guess that Cornell failed to exorcise his demons through his music. The catharsis he created with his music and lyrics wasn’t enough to purge the darkness from himself, even as it was for incalculable numbers of Soundgarden’s fans. What a tragedy. How could someone with so much much to live for, and who had apparently conquered his own black days, throw it all away?
As more reports came out though, the public learned via Cornell’s wife, Vicky, that he wasn’t himself when she spoke with him the night after what would end up being Soundgarden’s last concert. Light was also shed on the fact that he admitted to taking an accidental overdose of Ativan. It was then that I realized that Cornell probably was successful in exercising his demons and may not have thrown it all away purposefully. Ativan is a sedative often prescribed for anxiety and is especially prescribed in cases where the patient is a recovering addict, such as Cornell, a man who battled alcoholism. Side effects can cause suicidal thoughts and actions, especially if an overdose occurs. Again, Cornell didn’t just throw it all away, and his time with Soundgarden (and later on Audioslave) did help him, as well as his listeners, work through their dark days. This doesn’t excuse Cornell’s final act. He willfully took the “extra Ativan or two,” but he, by all accounts, didn’t mean for it to have the affect it did. Nevertheless, we are now bereft of yet another generational icon and one of its defining bands.
Soundgarden was a band that had an incredibly positive effect on their generation of fans, even though their lyrics and sound were often very dark. “I think I’ve always struggled with depression and isolation, so those could come out (in the lyrics)…” remarked Cornell to Rolling Stone magazine in a 2014 interview. Soundgarden was a viscerally heavy, almost earthen, sounding band whose music matched Cornell’s darker lyrics. Its dropped-D guitar riffs roiled like an earthquake induced wave of soil over the listener. Cornell didn’t write lyrics about light topics like romantic or physical conquests, nor did he write trite songs about broken hearts and lost love. He wrote about what I can only sum up as the arduous and amorphic “struggle.” This struggle is different for everyone, and Cornell recognized that. His lyrics were impressionistic and artistic in a way that was more akin to poetry than pop and were intentionally meant to appeal and apply to anyone. Many of his peers are, or were, gifted lyricists as well, but few were as poetic as Cornell. Eddie Vedder is powerfully poignant and political. Kurt Cobain was anarchically sober, and Layne Staley was supernaturally sublime (many of his lyrics-as well as his vocal delivery-sounded as if they were already from the other side of the grave). Cornell’s lyrics were profoundly poetic though. His use of allegory and metaphor was unparalleled amongst his early 90s rock movement peers.
Cornell became our brother in suffering as we listened to him. He didn’t have the answers, but allowed a generation of listeners to acknowledge that what they were feeling was real, had merit, and most of all, could be overcome. While the songs themselves didn’t often end with a ride off into the sunset, they allowed the listener to pick themselves up with the strength to live another day knowing they weren’t alone, or crazy, or divorced from the great chain of being.
Cornell affirmed that there are individuals, like himself, who were rich, culturally powerful, and immensely talented who still struggled in the exact same way they did, but overcame their struggles in ways that allowed their talents to address them positively. Soundgarden’s music, and in particular Cornell’s lyrics, helped me during some dark times in my own life when I was away from home, isolated, and friendless due to a move I undertook, alone, for a job, and was still a few years from getting medical control of my own anxiety and depression-something I’ve battled with for most of my life. As is the case with many others, Cornell’s lyrics and music didn’t provide me with answers. They did provide me with hope that one day I too would sing, metaphorically, about my own “black days” from a position of distance that softened their initial blow, and inspired me to create, in whatever meager way I could, something that could help someone else since I too would live through my experience. I would one day, in the future, be able to look back on my black days like Cornell was looking back on his own, knowing they did indeed pass, but still acknowledging the affect they had on him. Rock lyrics cannot take the place of a true friend’s ear, company, and time. Fortunately, I did have many of that during that dark time as well, but often in the lonely early hours of the morning, Soundgarden’s music, amongst others, was crucially there when that friendly and compassionate ear wasn’t available.
Unfortunately, even though Cornell’s journey to help others, either directly (he and his wife created a foundation for vulnerable children called The Chris & Vicky Cornell Foundation) or indirectly (through his music) doesn’t have a happy ending, his journey does leave us with a powerful and uplifting legacy. Over the course of six albums with Soundgarden and four solo albums, he helped many listeners break the rusty cages, described in “Rusty Cage” off of Badmotorfinger, that kept their spirits trapped. The ice picks that rained on the steel shore of our minds eventually stopped falling, and the steely determination that shored up our resolve to battle our destructive urges held with the help of his lyrics. We, along with Cornell, strove to think of something sweet as the sour taste of the metaphorical bullet he bit down on, in the lyrics to “Like Suicide” off of Superunknown, engulfed our senses. We maintained the integrity of our personal steely shores. We remembered the sweet tastes that made the sour ones, even the ones that tasted like bullets, bearable, if only for a few moments longer. We broke the bars of our own rusty cages, or are still valiantly striving to do so, even when they appear to be unbreakable. We do all this, even while we are bearing witness to loved ones whose cages we know might never be broken. We do all of this with the help of Chris Cornell’s lyrics. Just as he did for 52 years. Thank you for the help all these years Chris. You, and it, will be greatly missed.
Many stars chimed in to share their thoughts:
I love you, brother. Thank you for your friendship and your humor and your intellect and your singular and unmatched talent. It was a great honor to know you as a friend and as a band mate. I am devastated and deeply saddened that you are gone dear friend but your unbridled rock power, delicate haunting melodies and the memory of your smile are with us forever. Your beautiful voice and beautiful self will always be in my heart. God bless you and your family.
— Ozzy Osbourne (@OzzyOsbourne) May 18, 2017
“I’ll wait for you there… like a stone”#chriscornell 🙏🏾
— Wale (@Wale) May 18, 2017
— Jason Aldean (@Jason_Aldean) May 18, 2017
— Michael Franti (@michaelfranti) May 18, 2017
RIP Chris Cornell
Incredibly Missed. pic.twitter.com/pKNI4tKiXz
— Jimmy Page (@JimmyPage) May 18, 2017
— Alice Cooper (@RealAliceCooper) May 18, 2017
I’m very sad to hear about Chris Cornell passing. Especially when one is so young and talented. Love & Mercy to Chris’ family, friends, fans
— Brian Wilson (@BrianWilsonLive) May 18, 2017
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) May 18, 2017
Very sad news about Chris Cornell today. A sad loss of a great talent to the world, his friends and family. Rest In Peace. pic.twitter.com/BlgxE6cJLH
— Joe Perry (@JoePerry) May 18, 2017
I AM SO SADDENED BY CHRIS CORNELL PASSING. @soundgarden
TOTAL SHOCK.GREAT MAN.GREAT BAND.GREAT LOSS. LOVE TO EVERYONE IN HIS WORLD. XXX
— GAVIN ROSSDALE (@GavinRossdale) May 18, 2017
Shocked & saddened by the news of Chris Cornell’s passing. RIP. https://t.co/zewHDnsv1N
— Slash (@Slash) May 18, 2017
Rest in peace Chris Cornell. sad to see you go so soon 😦
— dead mow cinco (@deadmau5) May 18, 2017