In my time of dying I want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home
Well well well, so I can die easy
– “In My Time of Dying” by Led Zeppelin
As 2017 began, I had hoped the black plague of untimely rock star deaths that blighted most of the previous year had come and gone. Sadly, that is not the case. On Thursday, May 18th I woke to the news of Chris Cornell’s tragic death at the age of 52. To say I was shocked is an understatement. While the dark and depressing details had yet to emerge that morning, Chris Cornell is one of the last iconic musicians I would have ever pegged for an early, self-destructive exit. Yes, he emerged from a music scene rife with premature deaths (Andrew Wood, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain). Yes, the music that defined “grunge” was the sound of existential misery and the fight for meaning in a meaningless world. Yes, that music was born in Seattle, a city known for its endless rain and high-depression and suicide rates. And yes, Soundgarden’s song catalog was almost exclusively a paean to the dark side of life: “Fell on Black Days,” “Let Me Drown,” “Ugly Truth,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” “Zero Chance,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “Black Hole Sun” and, most prophetically, “Like Suicide” and “Pretty Noose”. Yet for all the creative alliances with his shadow self, Cornell never came across as outwardly tortured as his contemporary Kurt Cobain (or even a young Eddie Vedder for that matter). He’d had his battles with addiction and the music business during the crazy heights of the ‘90s grunge scene and his first marriage to manager Susan Silver ended in bitter divorce, but he somehow survived pretty much intact and externally none the worse for wear. He was part of the Mount Rushmore of grunge (along with Staley, Cobain and Vedder) and had navigated a career that now encompassed the best of all creative worlds. He’d also managed to find stability and, by all outward appearances, genuine happiness in marriage and fatherhood the second time around. For his legion of passionate fans, this is where the mysteries truly begin.
I’ve been a huge Chris Cornell fan ever since the early ‘90s. Weaned on classic rock, it was so refreshing after years and years of being subjected to party clown hair metal and the dance pop of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and C+C Music Factory on constant radio and MTV rotation, to watch the alternative music scene explode and wipe the slate clean. For all the labels like “grunge” and “alternative,” it was essentially the return of guitar-driven rock; this time, from the perspective of the disenfranchised. It was also the return of socially conscious sensitivity in the songwriting, with genuine rage and indignation defining most of the anthems of the era like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Jeremy”. While never as fully mainstream as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden were the true pioneers of the Seattle scene and musically more diverse, virtuosic, and hard-hitting. Using complicated time signatures and muddy, droning guitar tunings, the band rocked harder and heavier than pretty much all of their contemporaries. With influences ranging from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to psychedelic-era Beatles, Soundgarden sounded both current and classic at the same time. And then of course, there was The Voice.
Chris Cornell could sing. Really sing. Having picked up the mantle of ‘70s-era Robert Plant, Cornell’s voice could be startling in its raw, operatic power. It was a voice that enthralled both men and women equally. I was blessed to see Chris perform live during Soundgarden’s reunion era and his solo acoustic shows and can readily attest to the visceral and enrapturing spell of his singing. He was the real deal and to share a room in his magnetic presence is something I will never forget. He also had incredible depth as an artist. While his rock and roll vocal chops are unquestioned and respected by all peers, Chris was equally rooted in R&B and folk, genres he would explore throughout his solo career following the dissolution of Soundgarden after 1996’s Down on the Upside. The sensitive singer-songwriter side would emerge in his contribution to the Singles movie soundtrack (“Seasons”) and his first solo album, 1999’s Euphoria Morning (re-titled Euphoria Mourning in recent reissues due to Cornell’s original intention, the album is filled with many undiscovered gems like “Moonchild,” “Sweet Euphoria” and “Steel Rain”). He would also band together with members of then-defunct Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave. The supergroup would produce a string of memorable fan favorites like the blistering “Cochise,” “Like a Stone,” “I Am the Highway” and “Be Yourself”.
For 2007’s solo Carry On, he tapped into his R&B side, with the great takeaway being his epic cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”. He crashed and burned with 2009’s Scream, an ill-conceived foray into Timbaland-produced EDM. As a fan of Prince and soul music, Cornell experimented with taking his vocal gifts into completely new sonic terrain, but to his longtime rock base it seemed like he’d lost his mind, chasing then-current music trends (and bad ones at that). Scream was very poorly received, but in hindsight is the only creative dud in his entire catalog, an incredible fact for someone with his output and longevity.
Personally I am thankful for the Scream album, as the critical and commercial failure seemed to refocus him. Not long after, Cornell reunited with the members of Soundgarden for a tour that soon re-kindled the creative spark in the group. They followed the reunion tour with a strong (and unexpectedly final) studio album, 2012’s King Animal, and would tour off and on until the night of Chris’s passing. He also managed to balance life in Soundgarden (and a brief Temple of the Dog reunion) with his ongoing, and equally compelling, solo career. It was the ideal Neil Young career model, being both rocker and acoustic troubadour, which both Cornell and Vedder followed faithfully. His solo acoustic tours produced 2011’s Songbook, a live album keepsake of truly stunning performances, especially set opener “As Hope and Promise Fade”. The acoustic jones would also produce his final and arguably best solo album, 2015’s Higher Truth. Filled with bittersweet poetry and organic arrangements that blanketed his still-unmatched vocals, Higher Truth was a creative triumph and one last excavation of deep insight, heartache and ultimately love from an often underrated master.
As further details surfaced throughout Thursday and Friday about Chris’s death, the story became even more heart wrenching. At the same time, the myth-making media machinery went into overdrive. There were the cryptic final Facebook and Twitter posts (fans will forever read into the #nomorebullshit hashtag in Cornell’s final tweet). During “Slaves & Bulldozers,” the final song of Soundgarden’s Wednesday night set in Detroit (Rock City of all places), Cornell slipped in the refrain from Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying”. While the official cause of death is listed as suicide (by hanging) with rampant speculation about the amount of prescription medication involved, it still leaves a black hole of uncertainty as to how much, if any, premeditation was involved. Did Chris plan on taking his life that night? Was it just the result of one too many Ativan’s (an anxiety medication often prescribed to former addicts)? It’s still too soon to know, but certain things do not add up and probably never will. The real answers died with Chris that night.
For me personally, it ultimately doesn’t matter what really happened. Whatever it was that led to Chris’s demise, it still comes down to a tragic end for a gifted and brilliant artist – one of the best of my generation. While my own shadow side would love to know and understand what was on Chris’s mind that final night after show time, the answers might already be staring me in the face in the rich, deep and slightly tortured legacy of his art. His words and music triumph over the demons that ultimately took him away. The same finely tuned sensitivity it takes to create work of this caliber can also make life itself quite unbearable. Whether or not that was Cornell’s final dilemma remains to be seen (or not). All I have now is gratitude for what he gifted me through his incredible songs and performances. Looking like the long-haired rock god he was to the very end, Chris Cornell gave us everything he had before slipping off into the Superunknown. From the bottom of my heart Chris, I thank you for the trail you left behind.
Won’t you take one link from this misery chain
Keep it to remind you of a long forgotten time or a place
So that you recognize it ‘til it’s understood
And that every trace of this misery chain is gone for good
‘til every trace of this misery chain is gone for good
– Chris Cornell (1964-2017)