My sister used to say that Chris Cornell, who was a tall man with a surfer’s lean, muscular build, looked like a vampire — the kind you’d encounter in an Anne Rice novel. At 52, Cornell had lost none of his charisma, but his good looks had taken on a refined, sage-like quality. With long curly hair and a lengthening beard, he could just as easily have traded in his denim and leather for a hooded cloak. At his final show at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 17, Cornell played and sang with the same soaring urgency that made his performances at once so provocative and so arresting.
And then, to everyone’s utter shock, he would perish in his hotel room that very night, leaving behind a wife and three children.
Though the coroner ruled his death a suicide, Cornell’s wife is disputing that he “knowingly and intentionally took his life,” contending instead that his anti-anxiety medication fatally impaired his judgment. Certainly, these details shed some needed light on the circumstances surrounding his death. It’s unlikely, however, that they’ll provide any real closure, especially for those who loved him most. This is part of the vicious double bind of an untimely death: The frantic search for reasons only leads to more pain and confusion, and that pain and confusion only pushes the frantic seeker to redouble her efforts.Perhaps the healthiest way to cope at this point is to remember Chris Cornell’s place in our lives.
Because of Cornell’s celebrity, the public will enact its own mourning ritual: We’ll play the now-familiar game of searching for cryptic hints of a future demise in his lyrics. There’s ample material for this exercise in Cornell’s body of work: “Pretty Noose,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” and “Just Like Suicide” will prove especially fertile ground for such speculations.
Digital media being what it is today, we’ll scrutinize the footage of his final moments onstage. Some will claim they can pinpoint telltale signs of acute psychological distress: “He looks tired,” “deflated,” “hollow,” “empty,” “lost.” A wavering note, a faltering step, a forlorn side-glance — it’s in times of tragedy that we recognize how deeply ambiguous all these supposedly innocent human gestures can be. One of the most common, profound, and inscrutable questions we can put to anyone is, “What’s on your mind?”
This sad news arrived on the heels of a protracted media exposé that involved everything from the commander-in-chief’s leaking of highly classified information to a fresh investigation into the possible malfeasance within his presidential campaign. Many tired thumbs tried to compete with the relentless proliferation of headlines. There were repeated references to Nixon and the Watergate scandal. The phrase “Putingate” gained traction. Ross Douthat offered an earnest plea for recourse to the 25th Amendment.
In the midst of this maelstrom, many of us complained of news overload. It’s now safe to say that our era’s trademark paranoia and anxiety are slowly giving way to weariness and sadness. It’s hard to remain a spectator when you belong to the wreckage that’s being surveyed. You may curl your lip in disgust at the state of your country, but it’s still your country. That sadness was compounded for many of us when we found out that we’d lost Chris Cornell.
Cornell’s death also adds to a growing preoccupation with suicide in popular culture. From S-Town to the massively controversial 13 Reasons Why, the subject is increasingly hard to avoid. The eerie quality of this latest tragedy is compounded by the fact that you can watch footage of the concert that took place hours before Cornell’s death. It’s hard to deny that the digital age adds a haunting new dimension to the artifacts of the deceased. The remaining social media profiles, text messages, voicemails, and video footage — these all put me in mind of a phrase coined by John Milton in Paradise Lost: “Darkness visible.”
We look on these scattered traces of the people we’ve lost, and see a kind of physical absence, a darkness visible that only reinforces the irrevocable nature of that loss. Try to look at Cornell’s last tweet without seeing it in a spectral light. Surely there’s some hint embedded in the assuming verbiage. Chris Cornell left behind family, friends, and a whole body of work that will, for a long time, play out as another troubling note in current culture’s grim soundtrack.
Understandably, many headlines describe Cornell as a leading figure in music’s grunge movement. After all, he’s best known as the frontman of Soundgarden, a Seattle band that pioneered the city’s gnarly sonic explosion that came to full fruition in the early ’90s. He even had a cameo in James Cameron’s Singles, a film that now functions more as a time capsule for a bygone era than as a lasting contribution to cinema. No doubt, Gen Xers will recall the apocalyptic “Black Hole Sun” music video, with its rictus-grinning cast of suburbanites who barbecue Barbie dolls and comb their hair with switchblades.
Press into the details, however, and you’ll quickly find that “grunge” — like so many generic monikers — is really nothing more than a convenient label for music journalists. In fact, the only common thread running through bands like Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees is the fact that they all hail from the land of abundant evergreens and lumberjacks. With its polyphonic mix of alternate tunings, jazz chords (“Black Hole Sun”), world music (“Half”), and primal rhythms, Soundgarden stood out as one of the area’s most eclectic and musically adventurous outfits. As such, the band had more in common with Led Zeppelin than Nirvana.
Genre discussions aside, Chris Cornell was acclaimed for his unique voice and stratospheric vocal range. From Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog to his solo records and work with Audioslave, there didn’t seem to be a note the man couldn’t hit. It wasn’t just a matter of hitting notes, though. Many singers can competently slip into the higher registers with a sly falsetto, affecting that seamless pitch that is simultaneously soothing, hollow, and strangely unsatisfying. Not so with Cornell.
When he hit the notes, they were full, dense, compact, rich, and lustrous. And his high notes weren’t soothing. Listen to “Outshined” and “Slaves and Bulldozers” for a crash course in Cornell’s ferocious delivery. That said, he could also exercise remarkable restraint. Think of his languid delivery in “Like a Stone,” or the introspective reverie of “Seasons.” As each of these songs demonstrates, Cornell’s musical range almost matched his exceptional voice. Almost.
What’s there to say at this point? We didn’t expect to lose Chris Cornell like this. Once we’ve moved past the aforementioned rituals, we’re simply and profoundly sad. And we confront the stark reality of loneliness in all of its myriad forms once again.
There’s the loneliness of being here when so many are gone. There’s the loneliness of being locked out of another person’s thoughts and intentions. There’s the loneliness of being confined to your own echoing headspace, the loneliness of just being you. And with Cornell’s death, there’s the loneliness of listening to a voice that won’t sing again.
Perhaps the healthiest way to cope at this point is to remember Chris Cornell’s place in our lives. For most of us, the memories will revolve around his music. I seem to remember a pale and lanky high school kid damaging his voice while playing a solo round of car karaoke with the song “Superunknown.” (I dare you to try your hand at hitting those notes.) I remember staring into the roiling and inky waters of a lake one night as I listened to “Fell on Black Days” on repeat. I remember really relishing the line “Hit like a Phillips head into my brain” from “Rusty Cage.”
No matter what I felt, Cornell seemed to feel it more furiously and deeply than I ever could and I loved him for it.
Lists are yet another outcome of a famous musician’s passing. We search their catalogues for the ten or twenty best songs. Maybe we rank their albums. It’s an easy article for journalists and bloggers, and it’s a way to occupy the time as the darker reality of their permanent absence solidifies. I’ll spare you my top ten, but I will leave you with one of my favorite Cornell songs, which comes from his Temple of the Dog side project.
“Times of Trouble” is less well known than “Hunger Strike” or the classic “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” but it’s a much more earnest and somber piece of music. In the chorus, Cornell sings, “Don’t try to do it/Don’t try to kill your time/You might do it/Then you can’t change your mind/You’ve got a hold on to your time/Till your break through these/Times of trouble.”
Times of trouble are inevitable, but they need not have the final word. Though our sense of isolation is sometimes crushing, we are never alone. In times of trouble, I remember the Psalmist’s words: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Psalm 139:7-8). Oddly enough, some of Cornell’s bleakest soundscapes continue to remind me that I’m not alone. There is one who never leaves my side, even in the most seemingly destitute of spaces.