Chris Cornell, 1964-2017

Chris Cornell died early Thursday morning. His band Soundgarden played a show on Wednesday night at the Fox Theater in Detroit. Two hours after the show ended, he was gone.

For two days, I’ve been working on a piece to pay tribute to him, and it’s been a struggle. Usually when I have a problem like this it’s because I’m staring at a blank screen trying to figure out what I want to say. That’s not the problem this time. The problem is I have way too much to say.

I’m not going to sit here and claim to have been a huge fan of Soundgarden. I didn’t dislike them, I just had to take them in small doses. I was a fan of Cornell. I love “Seasons,” the solo song he had on Cameron Crowe’s movie, Singles. It’s a droning acoustic song about isolation and the meaningless passing of time. Your basic nihilistic statement written at what was probably the peak of rock’s most nihilistic period.

I was a fan of Cornell as a person. Of all the great musicians that were packed into Seattle in the late 80’s and early 90’s, from Mark Arm of Mudhoney to Jeff Ament of Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam to the Great Tortured Genius himself, Kurt Cobain, Cornell seemed like he rose a little bit above the others. He was the unofficial communicator of the Seattle scene. Like a Pacific Northwest Sinatra, he had a charisma and a calm grace about him. He was thoughtful, even charming, in interviews, unlike his compatriots who disdained fame and accolades (or at least pretended to). Cornell was the guy who seemed most like he could handle all the attention without turning it into an existential crisis.

Now he’s dead because, as it turns out, he had been dealing with an existential crisis most of his life. I was a fan, and I had a ton of respect for him. But it’s taken me a little while to understand why his death has affected me as strongly as it has.

At first I thought it might have something to do with the fact that I was mostly a bystander while the music of my generation was taking over. Just as Nirvana and Pearl Jam were making that gigantic breakthrough in 1992, my fiancé and I discovered we were pregnant. So instead of investigating mosh pits at the 7th Street Entry, or watching Soundgarden and Pearl Jam rule the stage at Lollapalooza (it was a traveling festival in those days), I was hastily throwing together a wedding and then changing diapers. My wife and I got an early jump on things, so we’ve always told ourselves that we’d make up for lost time in our forties and fifties.

Well here we are, and something like this just makes it feel like we’ve arrived too late. But while that’s a legitimate thing, I don’t really think that’s exactly what is bothering me.

Then I thought maybe it’s a generational thing. Grunge is the gift that Generation X gave to the world of music. We took all that slacker cynicism, mixed it up with our older siblings’ sneering punk attitude, Zeppelin’s low end and, if we’re being honest, a little heroin. The result was the musical version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It was gorgeous art that was absolutely sure that nothing really matters, making it feel immediate and important. It was the sound of a generation telling everybody, including ourselves, to fuck off.

And while we were wallowing in our splendid alienation, our spokespeople, predictably, started dying. First it was Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone. A lot of us didn’t know about him until Cornell, along with Wood’s erstwhile bandmates (who were about to form Pearl Jam) memorialized him with a one off tribute called Temple of the Dog. Somehow, Wood’s story made death part our music’s romantic foundation.

A couple years later, Cobain killed himself with a shotgun. He was 27. Our Bob Dylan, the voice of our generation, threw it all away because he was afraid he was becoming a cliché. At least, that’s what we told ourselves at the time.

Shortly thereafter, Kristen Pfaff of Hole overdosed and died in a bathtub. And then Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon overdosed and died on a tour bus. It felt like people like D’arcy Wretzky of Smashing Pumpkins, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, and, perhaps especially, Courtney Love – Pfaff’s bandmate and Cobain’s widow – were all headed in the same direction.

Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley died of a gruesome overdose. The fact that his body was not discovered for more than a week felt somehow fitting. He was a emblematic of a generation that just wanted to be left alone.

And just when it felt like our music, and maybe our entire generation, would never live to see 30, things turned around. Love and Weiland cleaned their acts up (at least for a while). Bands like Pearl Jam thrived long after the term “Heroin Chic” disappeared. Before we knew it, we were a decade into a new century and a lot of the Poets of Grunge were still standing. Some of them were even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It felt like our heroes were out of the woods.

When Weiland died of an overdose of cocaine, alcohol and MDA at the end of 2015, it felt like an echo, and not something rooted in the present. He had become the most notorious addict of them all over the years; in and out of rehab so many times we had all lost hope for him. His death was something that had been predicted so often for so long that it might as well have happened in 1997.

But Chris Cornell died of suicide on May 17, 2017, at the age of 52. He was a dad. He was a philanthropist. He was becoming an elder statesman of rock. He was a grown up. Cornell was aging gracefully, even doing that thing where some guys get better looking as they get older. He got Soundgarden back together, and they made a great new album a couple years ago. His voice still had all the power and strength it had displayed in his youth. Much like the rest of us, the world had kicked his ass a couple times, and he survived.

But now he’s gone, and goddammit, his is the death that bothers me the most. As I’ve been thinking about this, I’m realizing that it’s both a personal and a generational thing. Cornell had a long struggle with depression. As have I. As have many of you.

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. And brothers and sisters, if it’s you, don’t mess around with it. Please find some help.

Cornell is speaking to us all one last time. This isn’t something we left behind with our twenties. This isn’t something cured by age or financial security. This isn’t something you “outgrow.” If it’s allowed to fester, depression is stronger than wisdom. Depression is insidious and tenacious. Depression can get to anybody. It can make you feel like an old man at 27. It can make you feel lost as a child at 52.

Call it a senseless tragedy. Call it a second-act cautionary tale. Call it whatever you want. Just don’t blow it off as meaningless.

Rest in peace, Chris.

 

Rich Larson is a freelance writer and budding publishing entrepreneur. If you like what you’ve read here, please consider this. He can be reached at richlarson@nexttenwords.com

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1,354 thoughts on “It’s not what you think

  1. It is an illness that people don’t see or accept. They think you can just snap out of it. Would they ask someone to just get out of their wheelchair???

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  2. Thanks Rich. this loss was also great for me, and took me time to come back and put my thoughts into words (if you’re interested, please have a read and let me know your thoughts: notwaitingblog.wordpress.com) I love what you said that depression is stronger than wisdom. In my mind – I think what’s definitely true is that depression is stronger than insight. Chris had so much insight into the world, into all of us. But insight didn’t heal him – not completely anyway. Healing comes from tapping into *something* within – and it just escaped him. Thank you again for putting your thoughts out there for us.

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  3. Am going through the same thing but I guess it’s different for anyone going through this as I have been going fighting this for over 15 years and all but one of my friends is still by my side no matter what not even my family stand by me, I tried to understand their way but I don’t cause when they needed something from me I was always there for each and everyone else but. They know what half of the things that happened in my life but they don’t have the strength to stand by me. I know that this will not take my life cause I will fight, I will die very old woman.

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  4. First, I want to say ‘wow’! I didn’t understand a word you said about the music and the music world because I come from way back before all of that started, but something made me read it and I remembered how I felt when Robin Williams died and was so shocked that he suffered the same death syndrome that caused his suicide eventually. We thought he had everything as a comedian and actor. At six years old I started out onto a busy highway because I was so depressed I just wanted to get away. My dad saw me and got me back into the safety of house and home, but he never new why I wanted to be away. What could I tell him at six? I was eventually hospitalized (by request) and it was helpful. You get a different view when you are locked in somewhere. I was thinking of taking my life. In fact it was about all I could think about. I have the advantage of not being a drug user, smoker or alcohol user so I did not have that problem to deal with. I believe I survived because I had something to hold on to…a grounding. That belief is my faith. I can only pull myself together at times by prayer and study of what he created me for. I do believe we each are here for a purpose. I found my purpose and it is not something that makes everything alright all the time, but it can and does pull me back to the surface. I am 84 years old, on oxygen full time, but I still write (otherwise am retired) have three books published and try to give what I am capable of giving to others who suffer. Enough about me. You are a great writer. I hope that you are able to find that rock to hold on to. You are talented and to be commended for the pain you feel over this loss. Don’t give up. My niece Erin Rew travels with a music group…a woman Can’t remember her name. Best Wishes for your future

    Marie Atwood

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  5. I am a masters level therapist so when my amazing boyfriend followed through with finding and making sure I read this article…I figured it must be a good read…and.I apologize for underestimating the validity and significance that your article embodies…I had no idea that my entire life would change instantly.

    Having also grown up “grungy” I felt myself traveling back through my own lifes journey thus far with each thought and memory you shared…you are an amazing writer btw. I have so much I would love to comment and commend you for but I wont BC this article is a masterpiece.

    It is quite possibly the most educational piece of literature that not only helps those of us who can “relate” unfortunately…but as I make copies to share with my clients…my Co workers as well as our team of MDs and Psychiatric dept…I am convinced that this article will revolutionize a society of a confused majority. This article will finally open everyone’s eyes..and ears….and mouths…so that depression…anxiety…will NO longer have the power of confusion…now maybe we can turn this story around…so thank you…wow…THANK YOU…You will always be remembered by myself in the category right next to Freud….he would have admired you as well. Bravo….

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  6. I’ve been a huge fan of all of the above bands since their inception. Can’t pinpoint whether it was the anxious desolation of lyrics or the haunting ferocity of the guitar that drew me in. But I felt like I belonged. The first death to truly tilt my world was Layne Staley’s. As you said, dead for a week before he was missed. Alice in Chains was poetry for my depression. Bless my daughters. They grew up listening to tracks over and over. The death of Kurt Cobain registered but didn’t move me. Soundgarden, Chris Cornell solo, then Audioslave helped me move through the depression. Music is such a healer. I only wish it had healed Chris. I have great sorrow for his children.

    Thank you for writing this. I struggle still. Maybe we all do. I struggle to be here now. But it keeps me here with my grandson, another generation to introduce to Loud Love and Jar of Flies.

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  7. Chris Cornell was taking Ativan. Ativan is a benzodiazepine prescription drug that made my happy, successful mom suicidal out of nowhere and for no reason 29 years ago. Xanax (another benzodiazepine) did the exact same thing to me 4 years ago. I was completely happy with my life, career, and marriage when doctors prescribed it for symptoms of aging. I wasn’t depressed or suicidal before taking it. After starting it I woke up every single day with a one-track mind thinking of ways to kill myself for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Doctors insisted it wasn’t the med doing that to me. SMH. It was. After stopping it the suicidal thoughts and actions went away completely, and I returned to my normal self. I believe thousands of people on benzodiazepines commit suicide because of those meds, and that they would not have done that in their non-medicated minds. I can say this with certainty because of my experience. I survived four needless suicide attempts while terrible doctors denied the dangers of benzodiazepines. Those drugs are EXTREMELY dangerous in many, many people. RIP, Chris. I’ve tried to get this message out since 2013 when it happened to me in an effort to save people from it. I sincerely pray that celebrities and musicians will create a commercial and ads about the dangers of benzos to prevent more unnecessary prescription drug induced suicides.

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    1. Exactly right, and what his wife has been saying all along. He wasn’t depressed as many might think. He was a victim of prescription medication just like millions of others.

      Chris Cornell died from abusing pills, not depression. I am not saying depression isnt real because it is. But Chris wasn’t depressed; he was high on the wrong sh*t.

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  8. Depression it’s a complex and powerful desease. It’s not just your body, your feelings or your sadness. It’s also look your life, your education, your vision of the life. I think is such complicated to find the answers when all the answers comes from you, and you’re so sad to dig in your misery. Regards from Argentina

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  9. His death was a little weird for me too, and for the very same reasons you state here.
    He was the one who survived, the one who made it out, the one who got to grow up.

    Definitely disturbing.

    Plus accounts of his last interactions just don’t say – he is about to do it.

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  10. You can drop eyesight in the baseball as a result of arena lamps or maybe the sunshine. For that reason, tend not to look at the lights if the tennis ball is in the oxygen. Utilize the peripheral vision you had been born with to get the tennis ball.

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