Just after midnight on Thursday May 18th, musician/songwriter/vocal anomaly, Chris Cornell‘s body was found unresponsive in the bathroom of his hotel room at the MGM Grand in Detroit. He had just finished performing his final concert with Soundgarden at the Fox Theater, shortly before that. The 5,000-plus capacity venue was completely sold out. When I woke up that morning, I already had a text about it on my phone. I didn’t know what the cause of death was, and the truth of the matter is that I wasn’t really interested. I knew that the speculations were already flooding in and they would reach me, eventually.
Suicide, I heard, at some point. The more graphic details were that he had an “exercise band” around his neck and that he was discovered by the band’s security guard, after kicking in the door. Cornell had 3 children, all under the age of 18, and the people around him the most all seemed to believe that ending his own life didn’t, in any way, align with his recent attitude or actions, which all suggested that he was in a very content place in his life, with endless plans in the works and things to look forward to that he was incredibly vocal about his enthusiasm for. His wife has since come out with her belief that his prescription of Ativan (for anxiety) likely played a role, stating that he had called her with slurred speech, just prior, and confessed that he thought he may have taken an extra pill or two beyond his prescribed dosage. Although one such documented side-affect of benzodiazapines is that they have the potential to increase suicidal ideations, everyone on Youtube seems to be an honorary physician that knows better, or has some incredibly fucked up speculations about what really happened and why. That’s the type of shit that I hoped to avoid. Everyone has a fucking opinion, or something that they believe that they need to say. It’s a disease of this age, a byproduct of the digital world that we live in, where social media has provided everyone with their own little soapbox and, along with it, the delusion that their perspective actually means something… that it’s as equal to anyone else’s, regardless of topic, experience, or education, and that it’s worth a shit. The odds are that, in almost all scenarios, they aren’t.
Of course, everyone grieves in their own way, I suppose. I listened to the radio that day; specifically, the local non-commercial independent station, KEXP. For those that don’t know, the station has earned its place in Seattle (as well as abroad) as a highly-respected local staple — I’ve often seen figures like Pearl Jam‘s Mike McCready kicking about their facilities, or in meetings through the large glass windows of their conference room. Along with a really cool setup that allows visitors to check out live in-studio performances by bands, their new facilities also involve a tremendous gathering space which not only contains a coffee shop and a physical Light In The Attic Records store, but a stage and seating area that usually operates as a space for people to relax at tables and/or couches and work. That space, however, can also be utilized for a range of purposes that include larger on-air concerts, lectures, record fairs, the “punk rock flea market,” or, in cases of tragedy such as this, a location for the community to simply gather together, in an attempt to make sense of everything. KEXP addressed the situation and paid tribute to the fallen rock star throughout the day, even planning for a public memorial, of sorts, on the spot, for those who felt compelled to come down. Yeah… people grieve in their own way, but while I tuned in whenever I was in my car driving throughout the day, the concept of gathering around a mass of huddled crying strangers with candles wasn’t appealing to me. I remember seeing something similar when Kurt Cobain died, and with Jerry Garcia after that, and it can easily feel as if there is so much insincerity and spectacle mixed in with the over-dramatic responses for people that most of us didn’t know. That being said, there is, of course, plenty of pain and sincerity, as well, and KEXP did an incredibly respectful job with what they put together. Plus, with being in Seattle and the nature of the whole thing, you knew that there would actually be plenty of speakers who were, in fact, very connected and had something of value to bring to the table. I don’t doubt the station’s intentions at all; they saw a need, felt a duty, and didn’t hesitate to address it.
Still… it wasn’t really my scene and, among the content that they aired throughout the day, I was still guaranteed to hear at least one “expert” chime in about Chris‘s history of grief and depression, speculating about how this was a direct result of how he never really got over the 1990 overdose of his old roommate, Mother Love Bone frontman, Andrew Wood. Wood‘s death was the catalyst for Chris to release the one and only album from his project, Temple Of The Dog, alongside his Soundgarden drummer, Matt Cameron (now of Pearl Jam), and Mike McCready, Stone Gossard (Mother Love Bone) and Jeff Ament (Mother Love Bone) who would go on to form Pearl Jam — a collaboration birthed from a pair of very clear and direct Cornell-penned tribute songs: “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down.” Of course this author/expert could see Cornell‘s death coming a mile away, based on interviews that he’d conducted decades ago. Of course, Cornell was a “dark” and “tortured” artist. Of course, his old lyrics should all be retro-actively mined for clues and hidden meaning. I’m sure there’s truth to it, but it becomes a bit sterile, more like some rock star cliche than a human reality. All day, I would imagine that there were kids on Deviant Art who couldn’t reach for their prismacolor markers fast enough to sketch out an image of the “grunge god” in the clouds beside Cobain, Wood, and Layne Staley… maybe even a Scott Weiland or a Shannon Hoon or Bradley Nowell thrown in for good measure. In all honesty, I respect the folks at KEXP and what they provided to the community, but it’s the circus, overall — far beyond and disconnected from their efforts — that I found instantly nauseating and conflict with. It’s the fact that it seems nearly impossible for the majority of us to post the news that this man had died, without accompanying it with a self-important analysis citing the eras of his life’s work that we “weren’t really as into,” employing the tone of a press conference you actually believe that everyone has been waiting impatiently for you to hold and chime in through. It’s the people viciously arguing in Youtube comments over the details of someone’s death. It’s the bullshit commentary and how and where we feel the compulsion to insert ourselves in.
I didn’t want to be part of any of it, but after feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of comments that began flooding in from the moment that I first opened my eyes that morning, I did post the following. “Chris Cornell died and it sucks. I don’t really need to say anything else about it, but I hope his mom is alright.”
Karen Cornell is a numerologist out here in Seattle and, while I never met her son, I did know her slightly, albeit not as well as my mom, or older brother did. Still, just the fact that I had a human face to connect this tragedy to — a human that was actually both kind and helpful to me in the past, no less — there was no other way that I could view it than as a simple human tragedy. Not a dead rockstar, a mystery to crack, or a punchline to a tasteless joke, but a son, a husband, and a father that his family will be without. I have a son of my own. I am a father.
I’m sure that there are a number of factors that play a role in my particular reaction to this sort of news and the news of Chris Cornell in particular, but the truth is that I’ve recognized something about myself, which is that, rather than react to the news, these days, I’m often reacting much more often to how people react to news. As a society at large, we have become the ones that spread the news; we play to our audience and our social circles. We assemble and document our own reports through our various outlets, articulating our experiences and interpretations of everything and then wait for the reactions. We embed ourselves in the news and make ourselves part of the story. My more restrained post was a reaction to what I was seeing elsewhere. It was my own judgment on the judgment of others. It’s a position that I find myself in a lot; one where I’m confused, intrigued, and, at times, even disgusted by how we’ve all come to process and redistribute everything, making sure to get our grimy finger prints on it as we pass it forward.
A handful of days later, I became everyone else and posted something a bit lengthier on my own Facebook page (although, nowhere near as lengthy as this rambling introduction to it). It began as a post of the Soundgarden song “Limo Wreck” off of Superunknown and kept going. I suppose it was me trying to make sense of all of the swirling chaos, myself, once I felt it had finally begun to die down. It wasn’t all about Cornell, although his situation was clearly the springboard, and it wasn’t entirely an indictment on how we’ve come to operate as a digital collective, either, although my mind does seem to have the innate ability to cue up the melody of DEVO‘s “Through Being Cool” at all the right moments, as of late. It’s probably nothing at all, really, but it hit me that, if I wasted some time writing those words up on a Facebook wall rather than on an article here, maybe it would be easy enough to just relocate all that jibber jabber onto the website. What gave me that idea? The same thing that tends to encourage every other asshole like myself, the fact that a good number people began to respond to it and favorably. That and the fact that, when I don’t see my viewpoints and perspectives really being expressed or addressed anywhere else, I automatically become more inclined to chisel them out and present them, assuming that they might reinforce something for someone else that is inevitably out there feeling the same things, rather than burying them deeper with the assumption that I’m all alone.
Maybe, in the end, my reactions are really no different than anyone else’s, even if/when they may be a reaction to the collective reaction. It’s no secret that the topic of death has a way of making us analyze what’s important and there are an endless number of conclusions for an endless number of people to draw from such introspection. For those set on analyzing Chris Cornell‘s potential mindset and whatever connections it may have to his life’s work, however; I’ll play along and say that, whatever may have been born out of grief and confusion, I believe it was channeled with integrity. Perhaps, a large portion of my pull-back might stem from my belief that, whatever grief or confusion people have now, should also be channeled the same way — it is a lot to expect, though. Overall, I’d say that if there’s a through line connecting any of it, it all probably relates back to ideas of integrity and grief. Our humanity and how we wield it.
written May 21st 2017
I remember buying this album the day it came out (it was the same day that The Downward Spiral and the same week that NBA Jam on the Sega Genesis was released). This song, “Limo Wreck” was the one that I kept listening to over and over again from the jump. I was in junior high. The title reminded me of those little Crack-Ups die-cast cars and I liked the imagery of a limousine being smashed to shit with terrified people inside, screaming and spilling champagne on their sequined gowns and tuxedos. I also liked how doomy it was and kind of just lurched around. Even before the album became a worldwide smash, which didn’t take long, this one already felt like a hidden song.
I couldn’t tell you how many years it has been since I’ve really listened to this song or to Soundgarden in general. In retrospect, I believe that songs like “Spoonman” and how overplayed “Black Hole Sun” became — a track that, on first listen, was interesting for how they were playing around with some Magical Mystery Tour vibes — could so easily overshadow the fact that the band was truly entering into a lot of experimental territory and sounds with this release. It became a huge hit but, while they were always included in the names of Seattle bands of importance (“grunge” bands) prior to Superunknown, people might not remember that this was still their breakthrough album. As a fan of theirs prior to this that waited for this to come out, I remember that nobody else at my school even gave a shit, and most still didn’t really know who they were. Maybe my friend Mark but… that was pretty much it. Within a month of the release, those exact same people who literally expressed confusion toward me wanting to go buy it were wearing Soundgarden shirts and jackets, etc. and complaining that they’d wished they’d gotten tickets to the Kitsap County Fairgrounds show, before it sold out like I had. MTV had a lot of power in those days, in that regard. [My brother was going to take me to see them at Lollapalooza in ’92, before that, but my sister warned my mom that people smoked weed there and that it was a dangerous environment, so the kibosh was laid on that — then she went herself].
Still, I can’t imagine them writing some of that sludgier material like “4th Of July,” for example, and thinking, “This is the one guys! This is gonna be the album that finally breaks through!” They could have easily remained in Mudhoney status, writing music that holds up better than a good portion of their contemporaries, yet despite that — or maybe, because of it — never had that commercial success. I’d put on Piece Of Cake right now, before most things from that era, but like Melvins, while influential as all get out, Mudhoney just remained in their own lane. But… that’s for another post. The point is that, while Superunknown was a major commercial success, it doesn’t sound like they were trying to write a commercial success. Grunge had already blown up and bands like BUSH were successfully crawling out of the woodwork to adopt a sound that would place them right into the mix with radio play. Meanwhile, Soundgarden was still defining and expanding the parameters of whatever their own sound was.
I’m revisiting this stuff a bit since Chris Cornell‘s passing and am appreciating a lot of it more than I expected. Once your musical tastes shift so much and you wind up listening to so much left field wingnut shit — half-hour drone jams and freak jazz — and being a typical nerdy dick about that type of shit, it can be easy to forget that there were bands like this that also changed the way you heard sound in your youth, before all that. There will always be the Grateful Deads and the Ornette Colemans or Terry Riley types that might open your minds to experimental soundscapes and approaches you never knew were possible, but I think Soundgarden did that in their own way at a particular point in my life, and in a way that I never could, even now, fully grasp. They primed me for some weird shit to come, in tone, if nothing else. So much gets lumped into “eras” and “genres,” and some acts definitely package and market themselves to capitalize off of that. While Soundgarden helped establish the foundation for the “Seattle sound” early on, they didn’t rest on their laurels in that respect, still trying to make something new outside of, not only that genre, but anything else that existed anywhere else.
It’s no secret that death can be a sad thing, but I’ll be completely honest and say that I was surprised that Cornell‘s affected me like it has. Part of that has to do with the fact that i knew his mom and she was someone that tried to help me, when my life was really going into a dark fucking place, so it seems that much more real and hits me on a personal level. But, beyond that, life is weird and I can compartmentalize the different periods of my own from where I either lived in one town, or regularly enjoyed certain things that I may not, anymore. A lot of the time I can see those periods as “how I used to be,” or things that I misguidedly believe that I’ve “evolved” out of, but as time progresses, it’s clear that’s not true at all. Things impact you and, if/when they do, that means that they stay with you, even if it’s not always in the forefront or in ways that one can easily recognize. In hearing this old stuff, it hits me in a weird spot. I feel it in a section of myself — an intangible one — where it feels like it’s part of my identity in some lasting way.
I guess the point is that, if you’re making and sharing something from a genuine and artistic place within yourself, it holds value, even if it seems like you’re wasting your time, a lot of the time, or that it evaporates before it touches anything. [My girlfriend] and I have albums that we listen to that never went anywhere, whether it’s because I got some early download sent to me from a publicist and they never took off, someone gave me something, or I saw them open a show, before they broke up. Soundgarden just happened to get some hype, and a lot of it. For some people, that gives them value and, for others, it seems to devalue the work. As people, we’re stupid fucking animals. So many posts after Chris‘s death involve critiques of what he made, rating and comparing periods of his career. We don’t know how to process anything. Some people are even making tasteless jokes. Right now, I’m just feeling appreciative of life and those who choose to dedicate theirs to channeling some honesty into their work and sharing it with others. And if you listened to “Say Hello To Heaven” during the live KEXP memorial that they aired the other day and didn’t need to pull your car over or wipe your eyes, you’re a cold fucking robot.