Trying to understand Chris Cornell’s death: While We’re Waiting

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

This being a sports website and all, I know you guys probably want to talk about this silly Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Boston Celtics. Or maybe you’re itching to start talking about the NBA Finals now that we know for sure that the Golden State Warriors will be there. I know, I know, we shouldn’t do that…not until the Cavaliers take care of their own business. And I shouldn’t be so sure about the Cavaliers getting there, especially not after losing a game at home to the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics. But….you know. I know. We all know. Unless the Cavaliers completely fall apart, they’re going to be in the Finals against the Warriors.

But I don’t want to talk about that today. I know Craig Lyndall touched on Chris Cornell’s passing on Friday, and he did a beautiful job discussing it while it was still raw and new. I’ve had the luxury of having almost a week to think about it and prepare something to write about it, so that’s what I’m going to talk about today. I’m sorry if this isn’t your thing and I completely understand if you’re disappointed that I’m not talking about sports in my While We’re Waiting today. But I need to talk about this.

So yes, I’ve had a week to prepare for writing about this, and indeed, I’ve been working on a piece that is pushing 4,000 words on this. Don’t worry, I’m not going to use it here. First of all, it’s entirely too long, and secondly, it’s not really appropriate for Waiting For Next Year. Finally, after reading what I had so far, I decided I’m not ready to share it with anyone anyway. It’s really more of a personal thing that is helping me deal with some things. But I’m going to paraphrase some of the things I want to talk about this morning.

The first thing is, I am still stunned at how hard Cornell’s death hit me. I’ve never been one to get too caught up in celebrity deaths. I did write a bit about Robin Williams’ death a couple years ago (I can’t believe that was in 2014, it seems like it was just a few months ago), and I did make the same point back then. And back then, I talked about some of the celebrity deaths that impacted me in some way, including Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Dale Earnhardt, Greg Giraldo, and Chris Farley. But Chris Cornell’s death hit me so much harder than any of those.

When I woke up last Thursday morning and opened Twitter and saw this tweet from another of my heroes, Mark Lanegan, I couldn’t comprehend it:

Was it some kind of cruel joke? Did something happen? Was he murdered? My head was spinning and I was numb. As I saw more information, I realized it was true and that he was found dead in his hotel room. My first thought was that it must have been a heart attack or an aneurysm or something. A small part of me feared “the worst”, which I thought was a drug relapse and an overdose. I can tell you what I never, ever even considered, not even for a millisecond: suicide.

I’ll be honest, I sort of shut down a bit after learning of his death. I mean, sure, I still went to work, still functioned as a part of society. But for a few days, I didn’t read anything online other than stuff about Cornell, I didn’t listen to any music other than Cornell’s. I wasn’t watching or reading the news, I wasn’t watching or reading sports. Nothing else really seemed important to me.

And then I kind of wondered, why was this so hard for me? Why was this so different and why was I taking this in such a personal way, as though Chris Cornell were family? First of all, his best work was likely behind him and all of the great music he made is still here. I can still listen to him whenever I want to. All of his music that means so much to me did not go with him. It’s not like his death changes my day to day life in any way. I didn’t know him. I’m not going to have that personal void in my life like his family and friends now have. This is their tragedy, not mine. Why the hell am I so sad about this?

So I find myself really pondering that point. It would be easy to just point to how much his music meant to me. To be clear, Chris Cornell was my favorite singer ever. His song “Seasons” from the Singles Soundtrack is my favorite song of all time. My favorite concert I’ve ever been to is when I saw him on his Euphoria Morning tour at the Newport in Columbus. When he played “Seasons” there, it was the single most impactful concert moment of my life. I was frozen, every hair on my body standing on edge, tears forming in my eyes. This song means something heavy to me. And there I was, in a small little venue watching my musical hero playing my favorite song. It was surreal.

But that’s not the extent of why his death hit me so hard. There’s something much deeper at play. And to understand this point, perhaps I need to talk more about the why. Why Chris Cornell meant so much to myself and so many other people my age.

Yes, Chris Cornell was a great singer. The best rock singer of our generation. Maybe even ever. Freddie Mercury and Chris Cornell can have an amazing singing competition wherever they are to settle this score. He was a brilliant songwriter, capable of writing songs in so many different styles and emotions, from Soundgarden to Temple of the Dog to Audioslave to all of his solo albums, each with a completely different sound from the next.

The thing that really spoke to me, though, was the lyrics and imagery of Chris Cornell’s music. The music was dark and the lyrics were even dark. There was a real mysticism with Soundgarden and Cornell was a major part of that. And as a stupid kid growing up, trying to understand the world around me, Cornell’s lyrics helped me better understand many of the frustrations, anger, and isolation that I often felt. But it wasn’t just darkness, there was a balance there.

Any interview you ever saw with Chris Cornell, it seemed so clear. He represented a certain hope. He was the elder statesman of the Seattle music scene, the big brother that everyone looked up to. I can’t fully explain it with words, but Cornell sort of showed a lot of us how to balance those two sides of the coin. That it’s ok to be dark and moody but not have that be the totality of your existence. You can be funny and charming and an example that everyone looks up to, but you can also embrace your own insecurities. Nobody did that better than Cornell.

And that’s really the crux of the issue for me and why I’m so sad about his death and even more so by it being reported as a suicide. I don’t want to say I was wrong about Cornell being able to balance those two sides because I know nothing about his actual life. I don’t know why he took his own life, and what that means about him, his music, and his lyrics. That would all be projection and conjecture. But what makes me sad about it is that all this time I had this hero that was doing so much for me, and perhaps that entire time he was dealing with something much bigger. It makes me feel selfish and small, and that’s the problem when our heroes are people we don’t know.

It’s such a one-way street. I could never express what his music did for me and there’s nothing I could do to change anything that happened. I wish I could have done for him what he was able to do for me.

There’s so much more that could be said about suicide and depression. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, though. I just know it makes me tremendously sad to know that for some people the depression is just too much of a burden to bear. The Seattle music scene was this thing I idolized and mythologized. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Mother Love Bone. For me, it was something I looked up to, something I deep down always aspired to be a part of. I thought about how great it must be to not only be in a great band, but to a part of this community of other great bands who all play together, hang out together, and have intertwined lives in various ways.

But it left behind such a trail of destruction. And death. Andy Wood, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, and now Chris Cornell. That which seems glamorous is seldom as it seems. But this one, Chris Cornell’s death….this one is different for me. Chris Cornell was the one who made it all seem ok. He was the survivor. He was the one who lived to tell us the tales. Soundgarden was there before any of the other Seattle bands. They experienced it all.

If some of this seems confusing and rambling and talking in circles, well, it’s because that’s exactly what this is. Confusing. I’ve talked to so many people who were also enormous fans of Cornell’s, and that’s the one sentiment that is repeated. This is confusing and hard to accept. And, of course, just tremendously sad and just a monumental loss to us all.

Rest in peace, Chris Cornell. You changed so many lives and gave us all the lasting gift of your music, but I would give it all back if it would have brought you peace and happiness. You will be forever missed.