May 22, 2017
By Brian Bentley
It took a very long weekend for me to process the tragic suicide of Soundgarden singer and front man, Chris Cornell. This was not a slow fade to black like Scott Weiland. The news came out of left field and the shock has yet to wear off. There has been no shortage of analysis, but little real insight into what was certainly an unexpected and devastating act of resignation.
I’ve always believed that intelligence, insight and a sense of humor are the keys to survival, even when depression is so overwhelming that a human being is obsessed with morbid thoughts night and day. Chris Cornell was the smartest, most articulate and seemingly well-balanced musician the “Grunge” movement ever produced. Cornell had it all.
Soundgarden was one of the first groups to join Seattle’s groundbreaking Sub Pop label and the first to break nationally by signing to a major label (A&M Records in 1988). They provided a template of how to balance commercial instincts with artistic integrity for countless Northwest bands (like Nirvana). When Soundgarden disbanded in 97, Cornell made a seamless transition to a solo career and later was the engine driver behind Audioslave, one of the most successful rock bands of the 00’s.
Chris was a stable family man, physically blessed beyond belief and the owner of a spectacular, five-octave vocal range. Because he so effortlessly blended punk and metal, Cornell was loved by the world, respected by everyone – a senior spokesman for all of rock and roll. Only Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl have higher “Q scores.”
But success forces you to continually meet or exceed both financial and artistic expectations because your legacy and your bankroll depends on it. That's a lot of pressure. Cornell was notoriously moody and temperamental. He had struggled with drugs and done his share of rehab. There were times onstage when his band mates were hapless bystanders if Chris was feeling ornery and difficult. His often gentle and easygoing nature served as a neat front for a brooding intensity and struggle for perfection that was rarely satisfied.
At the core of Cornell’s personality was a frightening level of passivity and nihilism. He often accessed the identical “Fuck you and all of this” worldview that made Kurt Cobain throw in the towel. Because of the tremendous strain to hit those notes that few rock singers could reach, Chris' voice had been partially blown out years ago. His stage manner increasingly gave the impression of a person who'd rather be doing something else.
There have been many observations regarding Cornell’s lyrics. The subject matter was darker than Edgar Allen Poe at the bottom of a well. Songs like “Fell on Black Days,” “Let Me Drown,” “The Day I Tried to Live” and “Like Suicide,” left little to the imagination. But this was prose inherent to the musical genre that Soundgarden was in. Mick Jagger wrote some pretty dark lyrics and it never mattered. It always seemed that Soundgarden was mostly bleak in a theatrical sense. These were smart guys who understood the dumbness of living out your song’s themes to your own detriment.
Is there any way to find some closure to what led Chris Cornell to hang himself in a Detroit hotel room, two hours after a show and in the middle of a sold-out tour? Can we process this in the slightest? As someone who has sunk to levels of depression that only ex-girlfriends appreciate, I can attest that the outer trappings of life will not save you.
Even self-insight is not enough. If the brain is chemically wired wrong, it has a fascinating way of processing and rationalizing data to make you believe that no matter what you accomplish, you are still a failure. It leads to all-or-nothing, black and white thinking that only recognizes when you fuck something up, and rarely celebrates what you have to be grateful for. Ironically, this can also be the mental make-up of very successful and creative people.
In Detroit, at Soundgarden's last show, May 17, 2017
Let’s add another scenario. You are Chris Cornell, arguably one of the three or four best rock singers in history. You’ve accomplished everything possible and are at the summit of your profession. Yet, you still feel like shit. Now what? The depression is woven into your soul and there’s nowhere to go but down.
Maybe you’ve had a bad week/month/year. A lot of your contemporaries have died. You’re feeling the downward spiral that soldiers who are lone survivors in battle go through. You ask yourself. Who were my brothers in arms? Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone. Kurt Cobain in Nirvana. Layne Staley in Alice in Chains. Even Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. THEY ARE ALL GONE. Why am I still here? I have done it all before and better.
Now you finish a discombobulated live show in a classic music city, Detroit, not far from Illinois, where your musical journey began. Your mind and body are tired. You’ve contemplated ending this for years. An impulsive sense of anguish hovers over every thought. How can you finish this tour? Are you headed for a career disaster, like when Nirvana bailed on headlining Lollapalooza ‘94? Why tell the band and your agent and your family and put them through all that again? It’s your problem and you know what to do. Just take care of biz, man. Fucking finish it.
I present these thoughts only as possible theories for a tortured mental state, a catalyst for Chris Cornell to blow up his outside world. What's clear is that we’ve lost another chapter of our youth, in an age where everything good seems to be going and everything bad seems to be staying. When a man with so much to live for chucks it all, what are we as lowlier worker ants supposed to think? It certainly seems to lower the standard for the phrase, "Nothing to live for." Cornell’s passing could even be interpreted as a challenge, a suicide gauntlet thrown at the feet of anyone with worse circumstances to get a clue.
As of this writing, the Detroit press is reporting that Cornell called his wife, Vicky, from the dressing room after the show to say, “I am just tired.” This is what alarmed her enough to call for help. His depressed state of mind was not about an extra Ativan pill or two, despite what celebrity ambulance chaser and rehab gasbag, Dr. Drew Pinsky, proclaimed to any media outlet who would listen.
Many years ago, my cousin dropped by my parents’ house for the holidays. He brought along his best friend, Mark Silver. Mark’s sister is Susan Silver, formerly the biggest manager in the Seattle music scene and Chris Cornell’s ex wife. The couple had just gone through a divorce. But Susan said that Chris had taken his acoustic guitar to a holiday party and sang Christmas songs for all the children. They sat around him in a circle, mesmerized and thrilled.
This is how I choose to remember a man who was not only an incredible singer, lyricist and guitar player -- he was a trailblazer who made it a little easier for every artist who followed him to be heard. Chris Cornell is gone but his work lives on, any time music is close by. Rock is about aggression and rage, but Cornell demonstrated how it can also include grace, humility and a vast, sensitive intelligence that cuts deep.