Chris Cornell, and Why I Can't Let Go
Early last Thursday, I woke up and did my usual morning thing. Groaning as I plodded downstairs in search caffeine and a podcast for breakfast, deepening in the realization that I am not a morning person. Most mornings, I drag myself away from bed as Gollum would the One Ring. I hit the bottom of the stairs still in the morning autopilot.
Did you hear Chris Cornell died? My wife usually has better morning greetings for me than this. Having been asleep for the last six hours, I had not. The commute that morning was less than pleasant. Like many sad events in my life, I didn't stop to process this. I got in the car and drove to work as I would any morning.
Hey, you know anything about Soundgarden? My then-manager and now podcast co-host looked at me as though I were asking if he'd ever heard of vitamin C, comicbooks, or beer - the things life are made from. It was 15 years ago, and I was still a kid. A little too young to have been around for grunge and the ascension of the Seattle music scene, but not too old to remember watching the music video for Black Hole Sun on MTV1, and as many 11 year olds likely were at the time, going to bed that night a little creeped out by the visuals, and haunted by the preternatural sound of Cornell and Thayil. Though probably cliché now, the rotovibe and delay used on the verse of the song, coupled with the visuals in the video were positively surreal. Years later, I realize that though terrifying a younger me, they probably helped shape my view of music for years to come.
In 2017, Chris Cornell was the front-man for some of the biggest bands of the last 30 years. Soundgarden, surely a band deserving a spot on a Pike Place equivalent of Mount Rushmore, would be a difficult act to follow. After the band broke up in 1997, there wasn't much doubt that Cornell would go on and keep playing, though following an act like Soundgarden is something that most artists never accomplish. Forming with the wreckage of Rage Against the Machine, Cornell managed to fit into a band almost completely unlike his previous work, and seem to make all parts better for it. Trading the harsh, spitfire rhyming of Zach de la Rocha for Cornell, former Ragers Morello, Wilk, and Commerford initially found challenge in accompanying Cornell's melodious style. Of course, they overcame, and we got amazing music. Cornell was definitely not a remnant of a 90's sound, but an true artist. I can only glaze over his successful solo work, or his contribution to Temple of the Dog, and for that I'm sorry.
Having a long commute, the car ride was full of Chris's music. Attempting to belt out the high notes from Jesus Christ Pose prove clearly beyond me. I am not gifted with Chris's four octave vocal range, and don't possess nearly the talent that he did. I am not nearly so gifted. I spend the next few days alternating between watching a tribute or three or four, as well as many from the man himself. Clearly, Chris is an artist of caliber not often seen by this world, and his music touches many. Though I have been a fan, I'm not yet sure why I dwell.
Around fifteen years ago, my phone rings. I've recently purchased the latest in cell phone technology, and already I'm thinking
Couldn't they just text?2
Hey, have you got a second? It's my brother. We don't call each other much, so I am not expecting anything good. After a short conversation, we hang up.
Is everything okay? My girlfriend, now wife, can tell that something is not. I shrug.
My uncle is dead. He hung himself. I give her a hug, let any feeling of this bury itself deep in my psyche, and go to work. It's a normal day.
This past Thursday after work, I read the details of Cornell's death. He had hung himself. It comes as a surprise to those that knew him. Bandmates will say that something felt off about Chris that night, and he was behaving strangely. His wife will say later that he was taking medication that she believes contributes to his suicide. It will be days of obsessing over this death that I make the connection to why it bothers me so much. I am not the type to greatly indulge in the parade of stories and
look at me posts that come about when a celebrity dies, though I realize the irony of this in an article doing the very thing I claim not to.
I had grown up with my uncle for relatively few, but formative years. When I was ten, I went to live with him and my Aunt. My aunt did the lion's share of raising me, but with my father dead since I was six, and there not being a constant father figure in my life until I'm ten, I realize now that my uncle helped shape a big part of who I am, and my pre-pubescent identity gloms on to any masculine figure it can. For Christmas that year, after having been accepted into their home, I'm given a 286 computer. It's a little dated for the time, though not much, but it runs Wolfenstein, and Commander Keen, and if after some time tweaking config.sys and autoexec.bat, I get Doom to run as well. It's a hand-me-down from my uncle, and he helps get me started in what will prove a lifelong passion. I learn enough about computers to hooked. I take drafting classes in high school since he was a drafter, and even my handwriting for a time, a style after his - blocky, capital letters that you often find on a drafting board, though at the time he and my classes have moved on to computer-aided drafting. I start my first foray into programming, as he did in the early part of high school.
It's not entirely fair to remember things this way. It gets rocky from there and my uncle has his share of problems, putting it kindly. Though I take several traits and find many things in common with him, it's my aunt that takes care of my brother and I. She gets us to school, she makes us dinner. She does most of the helping with homework, though math is my uncle's domain. She puts up with more than her share of Teenage Angst™ and downright awfulness from me and my brother. I won't forget that.
But looking back, it's hard not to view my uncle with rose-colored glasses. Youth blinds us to the true nature of those around us, especially those we admire. It will be a decade before I learn the details of my uncle's death. I will spend that decade largely burying the question of it as is my nature, and occasionally wondering how someone I looked up to so much will come to this. I will fail to see this person important to my own identity simply as a person, flawed and struggling like the rest of us.
This is really hitting you hard. I've played Songbook about a million times in the last few days, and my wife questions it. Like I said, it's not a normal thing for me. I realize the connection now. Out of character, unfortunately, I tell her two sentences about why it resonates for me. I'll still think about it for a while and for now, I'll go put Superunknown on again.