A solemn cloud fell over the rock scene in Columbus, Ohio, and around the world, as news reports of Chris Cornell’s death surfaced less than forty-eight hours before his band was set to headline the first night of Rock on the Range. As he burst on the scene with Temple of the Dog, defined an era in Soundgarden, and brought the noise and the funk with Audioslave; Cornell, and his high-powered, soulful voice, boast a resume with the potential to reach The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in multiple projects.
Regardless of his endeavours, it is difficult to find a rock-and-roller who has not been influenced, in some way, by the music of Chris Cornell. “I think of what an inspiration he has been on me, [and] that what he meant to me was ‘passion’”, says Tom Cline, the front-man for Noise Auction and The Tom Cline Project. “A desire and fire for his voice and words to be heard. He definitely cried louder than ‘some million dollar baby’. He was the voice of rock & roll for my generation”. Cline is certainly not alone in his opinion. “Chris was one of the few that is directly responsible for the foundation of a genre”, said Dread Engine drummer, Jay Coughlin “I liked his music, and I liked his outlook on sharing talents in the industry. People like him are one of the reasons I became a musician.”
As some millennials begin to reach into their thirties, and gen-Xers push toward fifty, Cornell’s career is one we could follow since our childhood. While many millennials spent, what felt like, most of 2016 mourning the passing of stars like David Bowie, most of them were accomplished, elder-statesman, by the time the average millennial discovered music. Chris Cornell, however, came into prominence just as many millennials were developing their own identity. “He reminds me of my childhood, and listening to Soundgarden on a lake while fishing with my dad”, says Steve Hatmaker of Zoo Trippin’, and Throwing Rocks at Girls. As Cornell’s career grew and developed, millions of fans grew up alongside him. His death, along with the 2015 death of Scott Weiland, come at a time when young adults can, just now, look back and see where they have been in their lives. Cornell is also not the first grunge era vocalist to leave this earth before his golden years. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain put a gun to his mouth in 1994. Layne Staley of Alice in Chains was found dead in his apartment in 2002. Scott Weiland overdosed on multiple drugs in 2015. Cornell hung himself last week. Of the singers from grunge-rock’s big-five, only Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder remains.
The death of a rock-and-roller hits differently than the death of any other celebrity. When an actor passes, we, the general public, remember the character(s) before we remember the person. When a musician dies, we remember his or her work. Each artist pours their heart and soul into every note, and every lyric. It is a way for them to talk about the things that excite us, unite us, scare us, and divide us. “Chris’s lyrics were almost always deeper than a line-in for a song”, said Ben Canton of Personal Public, “the dude strove to make messages and tell stories, and when the subject matter was dark or painful, he only got more powerful.”
Darkness and pain are not uncommon topics in rock-and-roll. It is part of what makes the art so appealing. It reminds us we are not alone. “Soundgarden’s last album, ‘King Animal’, got me through some rough times”, says Aaron Pauley of The Redvines. “Weird memories of watching my son at swimming lessons, and then, four months later, working-out to it to get through my divorce”. The day of his passing, Rock on the Range organizer, Gary Spivak, spoke on 99.7 The Blitz, saying “to sing the blues, you have to feel the blues, and it’s obvious from his writing that [Chris] felt the blues”. Many artists use songwriting as a coping mechanism to deal with the troubles and tragedies of life.
Sam Stockdale of Dread Engine explained, in an interview, that those who gravitate to heavy metal have anger somewhere, and alluded the anger and darkness in their lives is the fuel for the engine that is their music, and if that fuel was ignited in a different environment, it can be very dangerous, and deadly. You will not find a Chris Cornell album that does not have any “dark stuff” in it. Applying that analogy, you may wonder, what would have happened to Chris Cornell if he did not have music in his life? Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding Cornell’s death raise questions about how he dealt with that darkness. Stockdale offered an uncomfortable, and pervasive, sentiment. “Suicide is a very real, and scary, thing. Unfortunately, we’ll never truly know why he did what he did, but I’m disappointed in him. Once you become a star, an icon, you have a responsibility to your followers whether you believe it or not. Chris just set a terrible example for his fans. He basically just told millions of people that it’s okay to give into the stresses of life. I don’t care how talented someone is. This was an act of cowardice, in my opinion”, he concluded. Ultimately, time will be the judge of how Cornell’s decision to take his own life will affect his legacy.
As we await the toxicology reports, Chris’s wife, Vicky, indicated that her husband may have taken extra dosages of a Ativan. Ativan, like Xanax and Valium, is an addictive depressant-medication that is used to treat anxiety, seizures, withdrawal symptoms, and assist with sedation. It is not recommended for people a history of addiction, or depression. Given Cornell’s history of depression and prescription-drug abuse, there are likely to be questions regarding how this drug came into Cornell’s possession.
Rock-and-roll, at its core, stretches far beyond a genre of music. It is a way of life. We can cover it up in suits and ties, but where words fail, music speaks, and Chris Cornell knew how to speak to all of us. For me, it was Audioslave’s eponymous album. For Pauley, it was his first solo work, “Euphoria Mourning”. For others, it was Temple of the Dog. We all have pain. It is a part of life we cannot escape. Yet, for all the different levels of pain we face, it seems there is a Chris Cornell song to go along with it. For that, we say thank you. Thank you for washing away the rain. Thank you for being the highway. Thank you for taking our burdens in your hand. Thank you for going hungry. Thank you for breaking our rusty cage, and, finally, say hello to heaven for us.