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:Feature Article: Loud Love – What Does the Death of Chris Cornell Mean?

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Loud Love – What Does the Death of Chris Cornell Mean?

By William Nesbitt
Professor of English
Beacon College, http://www.beaconcollege.edu

The current story is this:  Shortly after finishing a show with Soundgarden, Chris Cornell hung himself in his bathroom.  If you review the footage from the show, something is off.  At times, his voice misses the target and he moves lethargically and unsteadily.  Clearly, something was wrong.  As of now, we don’t have the toxicology results, and we will never know what went through his mind and whether suicide was his goal or not.  Thus, this piece is not an attempt at trying to explain what we will never be able to explain nor is it an attempt at trying to understand what will never be understood.  Instead, this is about trying to figure out what his death means. 

I first came across Soundgarden via the “Loud Love” video on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball.  The banshee vocals and deep groove made an impact.  Badmotorfinger took what I liked about Louder than Love and made it better.  Around this time, Temple of the Dog came out.  Temple of the Dog born from the distress of Andrew Wood’s death is, I have always thought, Cornell’s purest record.  Andrew Wood—the Lost Hero of 90s alternative—sang and wrote for Mother Love Bone and he died of a heroin overdose just months before the release of their first full-length album.  Two of the band’s members went on to form Pearl Jam.  By now the whole Seattle alternative/grunge scene had exploded on the airwaves, radio, and magazine covers, changing the face of music forever. 

On March 8, 1994 Soundgarden hit their commercial peak with Superunknown.  I managed to snag a copy of the album a few days early by convincing a record store an hour away that I was indeed an out-of-towner who rarely made it out of town.  Superunknown started a new phase for the band.  Already on MTV, they would become even bigger, snagging mainstream radio airplay and magazine covers.  That he was probably the best looking of the grunge elite did not escape the notice of teenage girls who wrote odes to him and collected clippings in their journals.  Songs like “Fell on Black Days” seemed almost ironic with Soundgarden’s incredible success. “Black Hole Sun” is a great song, but it’s been played too many times.  Even now, it seems to be the song everyone covers as a tribute when there is so much other material.  And as we search for clues, foreshadowing, premonitions, and warnings, songs such as “Like Suicide” immediately grab our attention.  We will always read lyrics like “With a broken neck lays my broken gift / Just like suicide” in the dark light of Cornell’s passing.  We’ve been reading those lyrics differently ever since Kurt Cobain killed himself less than a month after Superunknown’s release with a shotgun to the head: “Bit down on the bullet now / I had a taste so sour / I had to think of something sweet / Love’s like suicide.” And like that the whole alternative thing started eroding.  By the time we knew it had come, it was already going.  The tide comes in only to go back out.

That high water mark of 1991-1995 was already behind us when 1996’s Down on the Upside arrived.  Some critics saw Down on the Upside as a decline compared to Superunknown, but I think of it as more a leveling off or maybe just a split down a parallel road.  And it has its share of breadcrumbs and hints with song titles such as “Pretty Noose” and “Zero Chance” that says, “They say if you look hard / You’ll find your way back home / Born without a friend / and bound to die alone.” Perhaps the clearest sign of what was coming came in the form of “Tighter and Tighter,” which states, “I have to say goodbye / Cause I feel I’m going / Feel I’m slowing down.” Down on the Upside was the band’s last release for many years.  On their May 29, 1997 cover, Rolling Stone called Soundgarden’s breakup “The End of Grunge.” What a hard spot Cornell must have been in with his band disbanded, his marriage ending, and various addictions taking hold of him. If he had ended things then, it might have made some sense. 

Instead, he released a solo album, the first of five.  A lot of the solo work reminds me of Robert Plant’s early solo work in that both were attempting to distance themselves from the sound of their respective bands and situate themselves within the pop landscape.  A powerhouse voice contained with an empty matchstick box. Cornell also recorded three albums with Audioslave (Rage Against the Machine minus vocalist Zach de la Rocha).  But none of it was Soundgarden.

The Knight of the Soundtable would ride one last time.  Almost sixteen years later, Soundgarden reunited and released King Animal.  While the album seemed incomplete, at least the band was back together again.  Who knew what the future might bring?  Maybe the next record would be a classic.  There was always the possibility. . .

Years ago I learned a big lesson the hard way about seeing bands.  I passed on seeing Nirvana about five months before Cobain’s suicide.  They were only playing an hour away and the ticket was twenty something dollars, but as I theorized, “they’ll be back.” I have tried to make it a point since then to see any band I want to see because you just never know for sure when or if they’ll be back.  For this among other reasons, we saw Soundgarden play in Tampa on August 11, 2014.  If that date seems familiar it’s because that’s when Robin Williams killed himself (people were announcing it between Soundgarden’s and Nine Inch Nails’ set).  I was skeptical about going as we had seen footage of recent performances and Cornell’s vocals seemed unsteady.  But we went.  The show was good.  No issues with the vocals.  The set closed with “Beyond the Wheel” and to this day, it is the single greatest vocal performance I have ever heard of a song.

I’ve read that a new album is in the works, ideas, pieces.  And the next thing we know he is dead.  This death feels different perhaps because I felt young when Cobain and Layne Staley passed.  This death is different because it reminds me in a way I can no longer ignore that all of my stars are going to die.  I am going to die and everyone in life will die.  Everyone I have ever known, or know, or will know, will die.  I’ve more or less always known this, I suppose, but it’s a truth that’s coming closer with every passing year, with every dead idol.  Yet the irony of death is that it’s something only the living spend time thinking about.  The dead are either elsewhere or nowhere, but either way they don’t have to worry about it.  Cornell will live on in some sense through all the interviews and articles and pictures and videos and all the songs that have come and will come in the form of live albums, unreleased tracks, and such.  Maybe it’s true in “Never Named” when Cornell sings, “Now I’m big like the sky.”

Generation X won’t last forever, but we’re here now.  And now is all there really is.

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