Saturday, May 20, 2017

Head Down

The spate of musician deaths in the last few years has been partially the result of age. So while it's been difficult to accept the loss of greats like Bowie and Lemmy and Chuck Berry, it's sort of understandable. What's tougher to deal with is when someone dies younger. Certainly, Prince's death was a surprise; at 57, it still seemed like he had a lot of years left. And then there are younger rockers who have died--like Cobain and Layne Staley--while shocking and sad, neither came as a surprise given the path they were on.

The death this week of Chris Cornell is tougher to take. At 52, he was still relatively young and vital. And really, of all the big stars of his generation, he seemed to have his shit together. Obviously, it's come out in the last day that police believe Cornell may have committed suicide, and that he's battled depression throughout his life. Still, he always seemed so with it, especially compared to contemporaries like Cobain, Staley, Andrew Wood, Shannon Hoon, Scott Weiland, etc. If you were to tell me a 50something rock star just died but made me guess who, it would have taken me quite a while before I guessed Cornell. He was always supremely confident and really, a guy who had it all: talent, looks, family, success.

I first learned about Cornell after reading a Rolling Stone review of the Temple of the Dog album in the spring of 1991. I was unfamiliar with Soundgarden at the time, but after picking up the TOTD CD, I was quickly sold on the band, especially Cornell's powerful vocals. Later that year, I bought Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger and was bowled over by the monster riffs, the general dark aesthetic and the way it was so much better than all the hair metal crap that was being released at the time. It came out a few months after Nevermind and Ten, but it was the first of that trio that I owned.

Soundgarden was the bridge between the hard rock I grew up on and the alternative rock I grew to prefer. They were able to straddle those worlds, touring with Guns N Roses and Skid Row pre-"Smells Like Teen Spirit" and then firmly ensconced in the alternative world after that. A big reason for that was Cornell, who was the Robert Plant of his generation: handsome, charismatic and in possession of THAT VOICE. He stood in stark contrast to his angst-ridden peers; unlike Cobain, Vedder, et al, Cornell seemed to be perfectly comfortable in the spotlight. He would be screeching at the top of his lungs on metallo-punk scorchers like "Beyond the Wheel" one minute and then crooning acoustic numbers like "Seasons" the next. And then he'd cover "Billie Jean" and do an album with Timbaland (the latter of which, admittedly, was ill-advised).

I saw Soundgarden three times: at Avalon in April 1992, at Lollapalooza a few months later and at Fitchburg State College in 1994. Cornell was a terrific live performer and sadly, I never saw him again. Soundgarden split up in 1997 and reunited a few years ago. In between, he released some solo albums (including 1999's excellent Euphoria Morning) and teamed up with 3/4 of Rage Against the Machine to form the ultimately disappointing Audioslave. I wish I'd caught one of the recent SG tours, but I never expected Cornell to be gone so soon.

Right now, we're dealing with grief and speculation. Why did he do it? His family says he wasn't depressed and wouldn't have committed suicide. I've seem some lame-ass articles analyzing his lyrics, but that doesn't really hold water. Cornell wrote about death and darkness his whole career; there was no sudden change in his attitude. But that's the thing about people with depression: it's possible for nobody else to know what they're thinking and how far they would go to deal with those feelings they may have. Somebody who may seem really on top of things could be in serious trouble, but others may have no idea. When Robin Williams took his own life three years ago, it was jarring and troubling, but he always had a pretty manic personality. Cornell always seemed so chill. Just goes to show you never really know what's going on in someone's head.

The other guys in Soundgarden have to be thrown for a loop right now. The band was in the middle of a tour and had been working on new music. And last November, Cornell did a tour with Temple of the Dog, the side project he created in 1991 to remember Andrew Wood. I watched an entire show from that tour on YouTube and Cornell was chatty, appreciative and in command. Certainly didn't seem like someone who was depressed. Even as recently as last Sunday, he posted a Mother's Day message to his wife that was very positive and upbeat. Looks can be deceiving, I guess.

There has been a lot of loss in the last two years. This one has hit me hard, just because he's from my generation and I've spent so much time over the last three decades digging his music. Hopefully, if we can get anything good out of Chris Cornell's death, it will be to encourage other folks dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts to get help before it's too late.


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