By Adam Waldman
Waking to the news that Chris Cornell passed away left me shocked and somewhat numb. Over the past few years, we’ve grown all too accustomed to watching musical icons pass before their time. We commiserate with others on social media about the sadness that we feel and celebrate the music that brought us joy. After a day or two, the world usually moves on. It’s the nature of the beast. However, sometimes, the world loses a once-in-a-lifetime talent in such a tragic manner, that moving on doesn’t happen easily. This has happened twice in recent memory – with the death of David Bowie and then with the death of Prince. There’s a reason why there have been countless tributes to Chris Cornell since his passing. Transcendent talents like Cornell are few and far between.
Because he was at the forefront of the Seattle music scene, dressed the part, and allowed the darkness in his soul to come through in his lyrics, he gets placed under the grunge umbrella. It’s an understandable label, but not one that is entirely accurate.
As a vocalist and poet, Cornell is much more Robert Plant than he is Kurt Cobain. I’m using the present tense because to use the past tense is to accept that the time has come to say goodbye to the voice of a generation. It hurts in a way that I never could have anticipated. With each passing tribute, both musical and through hearing others express what Cornell’s music meant to them, the pain sharpens just a bit more.
Before paying homage to one of the greatest talents that I’ve had the pleasure to experience, I decided to absorb all of the tributes that came in the aftermath of his passing. I also wanted to get the full story about the events that led to his untimely demise. When it was revealed that Cornell committed suicide, I was truly shocked. I wasn’t when Cobain did it at the age of 27, and I wasn’t shocked at any of the number of deaths in the grunge genre either.
So what makes Cornell different?
The passage of time, and the musical gifts that he has given to the world in recent years put even more distance between him and his grunge roots. His battle with alcohol was thought to be in the distant past. His affable personality combined with his willingness to embrace the limelight is the polar opposite of the downtrodden grunge musicians who died before their time.
We learned with the suicide of Robin Williams that depression has many faces. It can be worn on your sleeve (like Cobain), or it can be well-hidden (like Cornell). With the passing of each seemingly happy, brilliant talent, we learn more about what depression really is (and what it isn’t).
In the past, I was guilty of thinking of suicide as a “selfish” act, but I opened my mind in recent years as I became more educated on the subject. Those who don’t suffer from debilitating depression can fall into the trap of thinking that it is something that you can just “snap out of.” That same mindset tries to apply logical thinking to situations where logic doesn’t stand a fighting chance.
I’m not mad at Cornell for committing a “selfish” act. I’m sad that his depression won the final battle at the hands of a drug that was meant to prevent the very thing that it helped to cause. Anyone who doesn’t believe that prescription drugs can lead to suicide should pay attention to the possible side effects that are raced through at the end of commercials for many drugs. Often times, I listen to the side effects being listed and wonder if it is even worth the risk to take certain drugs. Unfortunately, sometimes there isn’t much choice because the risk of doing nothing is far worse.
There have been too many amazing tributes to Cornell since his passing to mention, but there have also been too many comments made about a tainted legacy to accept. It’s not only unfair, it’s also cruel to the loving wife and children that he left behind. They are the ones who are left with a void that will never be filled. They are the ones who will feel this loss long after the rest of the world has moved on with their lives.
I never had the pleasure of meeting (or even interviewing) Chris Cornell, but his passing has hit home with me in a visceral way. We are separated by only a few years in age. We both have children around the same age. Up until this week, many in my position would have been jealous of Cornell’s life. Perhaps his talent, fame and fortune makes it impossible for people with much less to comprehend what would make him end his life. However, the blessing of being Cornell came with the hefty price of the curse that came in the form of the only disease that draws harsh criticism with regularity.
We mourn the loss of rock stars who die from diseases that were (often times) brought on by a lifestyle choice. When a rock star smoker dies of lung cancer or a heart attack, or an alcoholic musician dies of liver cancer, we never talk about a tainted legacy. We shouldn’t let closed minds allow us to belittle the loss of one of the greatest talents that the rock world has ever seen.
Chris Cornell is the voice of a generation, but it isn’t necessarily mine. As someone who grew up on ‘80s metal, I have bemoaned the rise of grunge on more than one occasion because it helped to bring the music that I loved to a screeching halt. However, I have always appreciated Cornell’s immense talent. His darker music with Soundgarden may well fall under the grunge category, but there was always a beacon of light shining through the darkness. Maybe it was his four-octave range, maybe it was the beauty of the imagery that he painted with his lyrics. I suspect that it’s a healthy combination of both.
As much as I appreciate the music that Cornell created with Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple Of The Dog, it is his solo work in recent years that put him in a category of his own in my eyes. There is simply no one better at writing or performing acoustic rock music. And though he is a brilliant songwriter who could have chosen to only share his gift in the form of original music, he also brought the work of other legends to life in a way that no one else can.
Often times, cover songs are a poor man’s version of the original. Other times (when done well), a new interpretation stands on its own. From Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and more, Cornell’s ability to stay true to the original while making it his own is unrivaled.
Cornell’s final song in concert on the night of his passing was Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time Of Dying.” Whether it was meant as a goodbye message or not is unclear (and always will be). When it comes to Zeppelin and Cornell, I will always think of his stunning acoustic performance of “Thank You” (which is a fitting ending to this goodbye message).
Thank you Chris Cornell for sharing your gift with the world. Thank you for touching the lives of so many in a meaningful way. I hope that you find the peace in heaven that you so richly deserved on earth. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.
Rest In Peace…