Friday, May 19, 2017

Requiem for the Prince of Wails: A Fan's Farewell to Chris Cornell

When I awoke yesterday--fairly late, as tends to be my norm--I glanced at my phone and saw two text messages from close friends.

One alluded to stunning news and it being a "black day indeed," but the other left no room for mystery, simply saying "RIP Chris Cornell" with a link to a news story about the musician's death in a Detroit hotel room.

A day later it's still somewhat hard to believe...and accept.

Especially given the seeming reality that he took his own life by hanging (though his family is now asserting that his actions may have been affected by taking too much of the anti-anxiety medication, Ativan).

But even before more was revealed throughout yesterday--with coverage of Cornell's passing still ongoing--the news was certainly stunning.

My friend Dave, who had texted that, could have said "One of your musical favorites died," and my mind would probably have gone to fifty other cherished artists before I thought of Cornell.

Not that he wasn't a clear favorite of mine. I loved his primary band, Soundgarden, and saw them four times--including three truly phenomenal performances in the last six years. (In Chicago in 2011 and 2013 and at Lollapalooza Buenos Aires in 2014, where they were the best band.)

I also saw Cornell twice solo--first in 1999, when the rock god seemed almost timid standing onstage by himself, his long locks shorn.

And, to an extent, I enjoyed his work with Audioslave, formed with 3/4 of Rage Against the Machine (excluding singer Zack de la Rocha).

The Audioslave albums have some good stuff on them--particularly "Be Yourself"--though seeing the supergroup twice live also made me think they weren't as good as either RATM or Soundgarden.

For whatever reason, when Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger album was released in late 1991--around the time their Seattle brethren Nirvana (with Nevermind) and Pearl Jam (with Ten) were commencing the mainstream ascendancy of grunge--I didn't buy it or become enamored with the band.

That came in 1994 with the release of Superunknown.

I still remember my workmate Steve and I rocking out to "Let Me Drown," "My Wave" and "Spoonman," atop a parking garage near our office.

And on a trip to Los Angeles in 1996--I had lived there from 1990-92 but moved back to the Chicago area--the then just released Down on the Upside was the main thing I listened to as I tooled around in my rental car.

Bittersweet today, given Cornell's cause of death, but I fondly remember blasting "Pretty Noose" as I drove around.

Though I figured Soundgarden was poised to become football stadium huge like Pearl Jam, in November 1996 I caught them live for the first time at the Aragon Ballroom. After that tour ended, the band broke up in April 1997--and wouldn't reunite until Lollapalooza 2010 (I wasn't there).

Somewhat oddly, the tour Soundgarden was currently on did not include a Chicago date.

If it did, I undoubtedly would have bought a ticket (or at least tried), and given typical tour routings, the show could well have been this week. 

I respect this Detroit Free-Press article suggesting that something seemed off about Cornell during the concert, as I realize troubling nuances can be hard to discern via YouTube clips.

But based on several such clips I've watched yesterday and today, including "Rusty Cage," the show's second-to-last song, Soundgarden and Cornell--truly one of the most gifted rock vocalists ever--sounded routinely fantastic.

I know both too much and too little about depression, let alone the effects of Ativan in prescribed or excessive dosages, to suggest true bewilderment that someone could sing and play--Cornell was a guitarist in Soundgarden along with the lead singer--songs of considerable complexity and quality, to a raucous reception, and take his own life seemingly less than two hours after leaving the stage.

Though Cornell's demons, whether depression or substance abuse, never seemed as publicly pronounced as those of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley (of Alice in Chains) or Scott Weiland (of Stone Temple Pilots), his lyrics didn't exactly hide his inner turbulence.

"Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try"

"I can't get any lower, still I feel I'm sinking"

"I fell on black days"

"I wield a ton of rage, just like suicide"

"So kill your health and kill yourself and kill everything you love"

"Burn out any memory of me ever breathing"

"Hang my head, drown my fear, til you all just disappear"

"In dreams until my death I will wander on"

I can't say I gave acute thought to all these lyrics--and many more--until I looked them up and typed them just now.

Clearly there must have been hope, or dare I say presumption, that Cornell was purging his darknesses via alt-rock aggression that made him a star, although to my eyes he was never quite the strutting, machismo frontman people may have imagined based on his 4-octave voice and godly hair.

Certainly his death is stunning, and for me tremendously sad. He was just a few years older than I am, and leaves behind a wife and kids, who by all accounts he dearly loved.

Though the music that will no longer be made isn't the tragedy here, I will acutely miss Soundgarden, one of the truly great rock bands--and, not so incidentally, one of the most real.

When you really think about it, Chris Cornell's far-premature death may not seem all that surprising, even if there was no known reason to acutely see it coming. 

So I'll simply end this by thanking him for brightening many of my days while sorry the "Black Hole Sun" couldn't sufficiently brighten any more of his.

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