CHRIS CORNELL: 1964-2017
by Jeffrey Thiessen
In 1991, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, Pearl Jam's Ten, and Nirvana's Nevermind all came out within two months of each other. I was old enough to realize there was a lot of seriously loud and awesome music hitting me from bunch of different angles, but that was basically the extent of it. The gravity of this movement hadn't hit me on any discernible level. Chris Cornell died last week, and I think for whatever reason, it was only then at the age of thirty-four, I started to really understand what that era's body of music meant to me, meant to the world.
There is a romanticism to the 'grunge' era, and it's likely due to a few factors, the main one being that it's arguably the last true musical movement to sweep up millions of people into one collective cloud of shared discontent. These were albums that dove into some of the most tragic material imaginable, lyrics that focused on crippling addiction, suicide, depression... I mean one of the biggest hit singles of this era revolved around a student walking into a full classroom and shooting up the joint ("Jeremy"). And these weren't songs lurking on mixtapes, or on college radio late at night, slowly but surely building up a following. They were invading stereos from all angles, FM radio ate it up. I vividly remember my parents casually mentioning the Nirvana song title "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" (found on the Beavis and Butthead Experience) one day casually over supper. This was aggressive, drug-addled music that had invaded the mainstream and killed without mercy.
Factor two: it became clear in fairly short order these guys walked the walk too. Cobain and Love had social services take away their kids (after Hirschberg's infamous Vanity Fair piece on Love, which made the claim she was shooting heroin late into her pregnancy), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon) overdosed and bought the farm, stories leaked to the public of Layne Staley (Alice In Chains) being little more than a heroin-stained skeleton who wouldn't (or couldn't) leave his apartment. Scott Weiland was arrested for drug charges almost habitually, and appeared in the "Sour Girl" video as a heroin-stained skeleton. All of this isn't mentioned to sensationalize the intense drug addiction of the scene, but it's worth noting in regard to the music, as these reports did confirm the authenticity of the songs - these guys truly were doomed and even if the listeners weren't, many felt they were, and found it easy to connect with so many albums that came out during this period.
And lastly, it was the last real musical trend that enveloped a nation. After grunge, almost as a ridiculous 'fuck you' to all those who adored it, we were subjected to the big-beat electronica phase (which to be honest, wasn't that bad), and then the nu-metal one immediately after (which to be honest, was incredibly fucking bad), and then P2P sharing sort of took over and brings us to the present, where music is a fragmented, single driven world, devoid of a collectivist embrace of anything. There are no movements, only shifts of power in how we absorb this random hodgepodge of music hurled at us with a gentle whisper, the apathy cloaked in every single debate over which streaming service is pushing to the forefront.
And now, Cornell is dead, one of the last remnants of this swan song we seem to beautify more with each passing day. And I'm sitting here writing something I never thought I would, at least not for another twenty years or so, trying to figure out what Chris Cornell meant to me, what he meant to this incredibly important and beautiful scene. He really was the anchor of it all. He never did fall into junkie lore like Staley, Cobain, and Weiland, but he was never chastised as a leech on the scene like Vedder (unfairly) and Corgan (fairly) were. Everything grunge lacked, according to its detractors, all the shortcomings, he made up for. Cornell was one towering overlord standing in the middle of it all, with his near four-octave voice scorching through all the barren valleys and ruined villages the rest of his contemporaries were content to squat in as long as this life would have them.
I loved Soundgarden, and I really loved their fans. Now is probably as good a time as any to look back at their three biggest albums, Badmotorfinger, Superunkown and Down on the Upside, a 1-2-3 punch about as strong as there is out there. Look what they did over the course of those three records. First, they effortlessly brought metal into grunge. Not just subtle influences either, like Alice in Chains... you could almost argue Badmotorfinger was a metal album. Considering the narrow blinders this scene had, that's no small task. Hell, even the ultimate rock critic narcissist Robert Christgau admitted he was foolish to argue metal-heads wouldn't bite on their sound. All of this is sort of besides the point anyways. The point is, Badmotorfinger sat on their huge amplifiers and weird time signatures, and almost no punk sound to speak of... and were accepted in the exact same context as their contemporaries who all fit pretty squarely within the grunge label as the public defined it. I think this says more about their fans than it does about the scene in general, but we'll get to that more later. Badmotorfinger blew me away, and still does.
Cornell may have been geographically linked to these other groups, but he never seemed to be aware of this, or at least didn't give a shit. Nirvana was great, but Cobain was always painfully aware (to a fault) of how his band was being perceived, obsessing over it really (to the point of hiring Steve Albini to buy Nirvana's punk-rock credentials on In Utero). As someone trying to figure out the scene, and seeing cover stories with Cobain wearing ironic T-shirts, Eddie giving sanctimonious speeches at award shows ("how can you judge art?") and Corgan ending off his album with some ridiculous 8 minute fuckaround mediation on life and death, I always found myself coming back to that Soundgarden guy who stood silently outside of Bridget Fonda's car in Singles and watched the newly installed stereo blow up all the windows.
But Superunkown is when I really, really fell in love with the music Cornell was throwing into the world. To this day, I still remember exactly where I was, and even what direction I was facing when I put on the listening station headphones at HMV, and heard the first couple minutes of the opening cut "Let Me Drown." This may strike some of you as a reoccurring pattern of this piece, but this record really shouldn't have worked within the context of the scene. Superunknown is over seventy minutes, has middle-eastern sounds ("Half"), doom metal ("Forth of July"), a whole shwack of psychedelic stuff. This should have been scorned, or at the very least a pariah destined to be ignored and appreciated a decade or two later. Yet somehow, this weird album that really has almost zero to do musically with the other ones out around this time, found serious footing within the scene. It was accepted, celebrated. As was the vastly underrated Down on the Upside, which got even more strange, more distant from the scene that effortlessly embraced this strange band with bizarro tunings, time signatures, influences, and a singer that almost seemed ashamed how talented he was in relation to the rest of the front men he was always being compared to.
From the savagery of Badmotorfinger, to the '70's rock hippie leanings of Superunknown, to the utterly unpredictable melting pot of Down on the Upside, there should have been some serious blowback from fans, at least some serious hostility bubbling among even their most ardent followers. But there never was, and I could never figure out why. Even the most forgiving fanbases tend to cry foul when they experience such enormous sea changes in a band's sound. I was always confused why Soundgarden fans (me included) always found it so easy to appreciate whatever direction they took us in. Even King Animal, which was probably their weakest album made after years of inactivity, wasn't that hard to get behind on some level. And it wasn't until Cornell's death that I figured it out... we always blindly followed Soundgarden's lead, because of him.
Cornell's voice and words are what carried us from Point A to Point B, and we didn't even realize it while it was happening. The hardest thing in this life is confronting our pain and working through it. He did that every song, and still found a way to smile at the end of all of 'em, sometimes even in the middle. That junkie scene stuff found its way home a lot of the time, but a lot of the time it was unhappy vertigo. Nothing to grab onto. Cornell always made sure there was something to grab onto, even if he couldn't pull us to safety. Perhaps this will sound hokey, but I think his death seemed to hit people unreasonably hard because he made himself available to us. He didn't hurl himself down screaming, flailing, trying to get out of his own skin, nor did he make grand declarations of personal release he was lucky enough to find, and sort of hoping we all do the same.
There was no begotten spiritual pride found in any of Cornell's words. There was an emotional nakedness in what he's singing, but it never undercuts the words, never undermines what he's pushing us towards, which is a struggle, but a worthwhile one.
This is what makes his suicide so bewildering.
I think that mystery has been taken away almost completely from rock n' roll as a whole, but this event throws a wrench into that theory. If you take away something from this piece, know this: Cornell never sought to glorify pain, or transcend our existence's harshest credentials. He was constantly trying to nudge himself into a strategy, a workable aesthetic to make his struggles seem trivial and beatable. He never ironically tried to mock them, and thought too highly of himself, and by extension us, to give them life. For every odd time Cornell ventured into 'redemptive truth' territory (like, "Zero Chance," for example), he quickly brought us back into a moral dimension he just could not figure out, but was never embarrassed to ask us to come with him. It never felt this way, but in hindsight it's hard to not assume Cornell was protecting himself and us by guarding his words to a degree.
It's impossible to know for sure, but it's entirely possible that redemptive truth I spoke of was more present than we would like to believe, and would've overwhelmed us, and even Soundgarden, if he let it. There was probably a widespread rejection of beauty in that nineties scene. Somehow Cornell found a spot and let us all believe (or, conveniently forget) that he was part of something bigger, more connected. He always knew the score, but the game seemed like it would go on forever. For us anyways. We all had our theories, but never cared to talk about 'em. He was our rock, our lifeline. He never demanded anything of us, but perhaps we should've realized that sophistication is always a sham. It always ends badly, or falls apart when we least expect it to.
"I'm on the wire over and higher
Over the pretence over the spire why
On and connected I'm overfloating now
I'm overfloating alone"
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