Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 18, 2017

Chris Cornell’s Blackest Day 

. (Aka “Hope is a basement window, broken, to exit out of a dark alley”)

Fell On Black Days -video, acoustic solo, Chris Cornell

Whomsoever I’ve cured I’ve sickened now

Whomsoever I’ve cradled I’ve put you down

I’m a search light soul

They say but I can’t see it in the night

I’m only faking when I get it right

Cause I fell on black days

How would I know that this could be my fate

Fell On Black Days, Soundgarden, on 1994’s Superunknown

Chris Cornell has died, reportedly by his own hand. Who will be able to replace that beautiful wolf now, howling at the moon, trying to pull it down and ingest it whole?

In My Time of Dying -article detailing his final performance

  • [Article linked above is about Cornell’s final show, just this week… and his carefully chosen swan song, a plaintive shout-out to God.]

There are musicians. And then there are artists who transcend their chosen genre, field, form or medium. 

And then there are the great souls: greatly influential strugglers, battlers, many of whom bear the burden of an entire generation’s struggle to find or create meaning and hope amidst the chaos. Kafka. Picasso. Shakespeare. Cash. Beckett. Stravinsky. Hitchcock. Marley. Eliot. Dylan. Monet. Ramone. As unhappiness stalks them, they invent entire new art forms and movements, by the sheer force of a fierce imagination and a hunger to expose some elusive truth on behalf of us all. Or at least they strip away our illusions, so we might have a chance to glimpse the truth on our own thru the fog (possibly made by an onstage fog machine).

Then there are also the paired powerhouses, who –simply by being contemporaries, or foils, if not partners– challenge and collaborate and compete and make each other better, and bring millions of us along on their wild, conflict-filled ride:

Miles and ‘Trane. Kahlo and Rivera. Simon and Garfunkel. Dali and Magritte. Bird and Dizzy. Dylan and Cohen (the original “twin sons of different mothers”). Lennon/McCartney. Mick and Keith. Townshend and Daltrey spawning three generations of punks. Plant/Page. Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash. Pryor and Carlin. Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of Metallica. I’m sure I’ve missed dozens more in various fields. 

Even more rare: trios like Bowie, Iggy, and Eno. Or Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg.  Moe, Larry and Curly.  (I’m only half-joking here. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.) 

We may not like everything –or maybe anything!– that these giant souls did (or are still doing), either together or in parallel. But still, they must be reckoned with.

And now I would add Chris Cornell of Soundgarden (plus Audioslave, Temple of the Dog, and some excellent solo work) to one or all of the above lists. 

    What we have now is A trio in search of a fourth.   Cornell. Cobain. Vedder. If there is a Mount Rushmore of what used to be called alternative rock and is now called Modern Rock, Chris Cornell is on it, with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain on one side of him and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the other. Auditions for the fourth face on the mountain shall begin tomorrow, at a Seattle warehouse near you. 

In other words, we can discuss Alice In Chains, Rage Against the Machine, Nine-Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Cornell’s pals Linkin Park, or various metal, nu metal and post-punk music till the end of time. But for average fans and casual Facebook browsers, from now on (partly because Cornell was likely a suicide), the historical, sociological and creative connections between Cornell, Cobain and Vedder now bind them together in our minds. These symbolic and yet very traceable links between them far surpass those with any of the other equally talented but less influential musicians to emerge from their era.

Cornell was the captain of this rag-tag team, too, in my opinion. The more level-headed, less popular elder statesman of the movement. Based on my understanding of what came to be called the grunge scene– and Here I point directly to Cameron Crowe’s excellent “Pearl Jam Twenty” 2011 documentary for testimony of this– Cornell was the glue. He was the Zelig, the class president, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon guy, the guy everyone knew and almost everyone loved. A superb writer, and the best pure singer of the bunch, by a mile.

I’m actually much more of a Vedder/PJ fan, but even I can admit that Chris’ vocal technique and diction are better. And while I can also admit that Nirvana was important, I think that Kurt’s  “influence” points more to the screwed-up nature of our culture than to Cobain’s ultimate talent (which was substantial, but not enough to canonize him like some folks have). Compare him to James Dean: not a very large body of work to point to, not every performance brilliant– but a tragic end made cult heroes of both men before they had time mature or to “fade away” (and yes, the Buddy Holly reference is intentional, though he was likely the most important of any of the above “tragic end”  figures–with Holly more on a par with Prince, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston or John Lennon, to cite a few other tragic ends in music). 

Yet somehow, as I put it to my sweetheart today, this Cornell thing is different for me. He was more of a “quiet giant”. He had suffered from clinical depression for a long time, as I do, but by all accounts seemed to be kicking depression and addiction’s twin asses for some time now. Here’s what I said to my fiancé:

It’s not a big deal, but in my case, it’s like: Jeez, I didn’t realize how much I liked that guy (Cornell) UNTIL he died tragically. A weird feeling. Different than someone like Lennon, Bowie, Cohen or Prince.

Plus, he was my age. 52. (I’m 51, but let’s not split hairs… I don’t have any to spare!) If he hadn’t conquered his demons by now –like his equally awesome Audioslave bandmate Tom Morello apparently has– then that suicide makes a depressive and aging “starving artist” like me pretty frickin’ nervous. 

I read Springsteen’s memoir a few months back, and he too talked about mental health as a daily battle, but a winnable one with good support. Cornell appeared to have that support. I’d like to believe I have it figured out too, that I’m winning the war (despite losing some battles, at multiple stupid  day jobs and one “failed” marriage). But what makes a man like Cornell take that leap into the abyss? As blogger, actor and ubergeek Wil “Star Trek” often says: 
Depression lies

So we keep asking questions, looking past those lies, to the foggy outlines of the truth out ahead of us. The divine Presence has not and will never abandon us. Cornell sang his way toward that, with songs like “Higher Truth” on his terrific 2015 solo album. 

So I keep seeking and questioning  myself, too: 

  • Why do I want what I want? (To write novels and/or screenplays, in my case.) 
  • If it never comes to fruition, am I still a valid human being? (Hint: YESSSSSSSS! Next question please…)
  • What are my own safety checks and support needs?
  • And do I need to check myself before I wreck myself? (For example, watch for substance abuse potholes, liars who tell me I’m a failure, or shame-bound/perfectionist tendencies within myself.)

I have to put this to rest, for now. I’m doing okay. I am writing in the right direction, “singing for my life”, as Christian folkie Bob Bennett once wrote.

Nevertheless, we lost a good one this week. If grief leads us to greater gratitude, then Chris’ death is not altogether tragic. We will never have the whole story. But we will have his songs and performances forever. 

Mystery loves company… take my hand. We’ll get through this.


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