For Generation X, Chris Cornell’s Death Is Infuriatingly Sad: Soundgarden frontman’s death at 52 hits a tragic, yet familiar, nerve.
I did not want to wake up hearing that Chris Cornell, one of the best singers of my generation has died. It didn’t seem real at first–but these things never do.
It’s become a chilling, depressing and repetitive feeling over the years: a rock icon who defined your youth is gone. And even though it’s someone you’ve never met, it feels like a punch in the stomach. Like the death of a distant relative or a long-lost friend. First numbness, then anger, then sadness.
Rock music has faded from prominence in the 21st century. It’s not gone–but it’s buried. But in the 90s? Alternative Rock was EVERYTHING for Generation X. It was our cultural currency and a focal point of daily life. And the Seattle grunge scene left a mythic imprint on the decade.
Nirvana may be the biggest of the Seattle bunch, but they wouldn’t be shit if Soundgarden hadn’t paved the path. While they didn’t make it big until 1991’s Badmotorfinger, they were the first “grunge” band to sign a major label deal (with 1989’s Louder Than Love).
Whereas Nirvana were influenced largely by punk, Pearl Jam by hard rock and Alice In Chains by metal, Soundgarden indulged in all the above, with a dash of art-rock weirdness thrown in for good measure. And Chris Cornell was a frontman for the ages.
In the age where rock stars dressed like slobs in an attempt to be defined by their sound and not their image, Cornell was a reluctant rock god.
Sure he dressed the part, flannel and shredded shorts, and shunned the pop culture spotlight–but he looked like a matinée idol, blessed with a near four octave range that went from sultry croon to banshee wail (I continue to try–and fail–to sing along to Jesus Christ Pose in my car at the top of my lungs, much to my wife’s anguish).
He was practically genetically engineered to be a rock star, but did his best to knock over the pedestal, to be more relatable. And as we are now painfully aware of, he was as flawed and frail as the rest of us.
My generation was comprised of latchkey kids, many from broken homes, most beyond cynical. Music was our outlet, our internet, our social media, projecting and ingesting the lyrics and sounds from our heroes that gave us emotional solace. And Cornell, whether playing with Soundgarden, Temple of The Dog, Audioslave or solo, became a figurehead for us.
Cornell was never on the nose when articulating his thoughts and feelings–preferring metaphors. But he covered all the bases, be it sullen rage in Rusty Cage (I’m burning diesel burning dinosaur bones), or depression in Fell on Black Days (Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now/And whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down/I’m a search light soul they say/But I can’t see it in the night).
He could go beyond those two poles of course, and he had a flair for the romantic, as shown on acoustic based solo tracks like Seasons, Sunshower and Flutter Girl (the latter off his unfairly ignored solo début Euphoria Morning).
While Cornell’s death is shocking, the singer meditated on mortality with regularity. Take Temple of The Dog, the side project he formed with members of Pearl Jam. The self-titled album was a tribute to Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, Cornell’s friend who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. He gazed unflinchingly into the abyss on songs like Say Hello 2 Heaven.
That track remains a soulful eulogy, with some of Cornell’s most naked and poignant lyrics: I never wanted/To write these words down for you/With the pages of phrases/Of things we’ll never do.
In this way Cornell projected an aura of stability. Seattle has lost many favorite sons from that era. Kurt Cobain’s death was the most seismic, while Layne Staley’s seemed like a sad inevitability. But Cornell skated through the 90’s with barely a mention of his own addiction demons.
It wasn’t until the 2000’s that we learned he’d just been better at hiding them: he did a stint in rehab to cope with alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. In the end, his demons won (I just read his death has been officially ruled a suicide).
My friend Kristal posted this Facebook status shortly after the announcement of his passing: I’m tired of my generation’s icons dying too young.
I share that sentiment. We seem to be a generation where many are incapable of outliving their parents, or in the case of Cornell, a rock star outlived by musical forefathers like Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Iggy Pop. What is this black cloud that hangs over us? I don’t have the answer to any of this of course.
By all accounts Cornell played a slamming set with Soundgarden in Detroit last night, but it ended on a foreboding note, with the group performing a snippet of Led Zeppelin’s In My Time of Dying in-between their classic track Slaves and Bulldozers.
He also left a haunting final tweet, before the show with the hashtag #Nomorebullshit. I’m sure we’ll know more as time goes on, but I’m not looking forward to hearing about it. I’ll turn to the music instead: click here for my list of his 20 best deep cuts.
I feel devastated for his family and his bandmates. Our generation is smaller than the Boomers or Millenials. Our rock star idols are fewer and far between, which makes them all the more important. When they die, a piece of us dies as well. There’s not that many left.
I’ve played Cornell tunes throughout the day, and it’s conjuring so many emotions and memories–some happy, some sad, but all vibrant. We’ll soldier on of course, and his musical legacy will endure. But it doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye. After losing so many others, Cornell’s loss cuts deep.
The state of the world feels shakier than ever. Things are in constant upheaval. We lean on friends and family in times of tumult, but artists provide soulful sustenance. It may feel strange to grieve when we lose one, but it shouldn’t. They matter, more than we realize at times.
Say Hello 2 Heaven is being played and posted all across social media as a tribute to Cornell’s death. It certainly offers more solace than more dour songs like Fell on Black Days or (the particularly painful) Like Suicide. But that’s the package deal when a rock star passes: their songs take on whole new meanings and complexities, offering an obstacle course of their inspirations and darkest secrets.
I’ve nothing more to add, except this completely and totally sucks. We lost a great one, folks. It’s okay to be sad, or mad, confused, nostalgic and all things in-between. He left the perfect soundtrack behind to contemplate it all while we process our grief. Crank it up.