No One Sings Like You Any More
On Chris Cornell and Depression
In retrospect, it was as obvious as Amy Winehouse refusing to go to rehab. The song titles — “Pretty Noose,” “Like Suicide,” “Let Me Drown” — were unsubtle. It’s easy to dismiss darkness as a cheap rock star posture, but Chris Cornell, who hung himself last month at 52 immediately after closing out a Soundgarden tour in Detroit, was open about his depression and his history of substance abuse. As he told an interviewer a decade earlier, “I was depressed for a long time. If you’re depressed long enough, it’s almost a comfort, a state of mind that you’ve made peace with because you’ve been in it so long.”
“Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try, nothing is closing my eyes,” went the opening lines to 1996’s “Blow Up The Outside World,” and it’s hard to imagine a mentally healthy person writing those lyrics, much less investing them with feeling.
These were popular songs. Soundgarden released three hit albums between 1991 and 1996: Badmotorfinger (2x platinum), Superunknown (5x), and Down On The Upside (1x), reaching an audience on a scale basically impossible for today’s rock artists. They were critically acclaimed, too, seen as among the most ambitious and technically proficient of the Seattle bands that dominated the early 1990s. “This is easily the best — the most galvanizing, kinetic, sensational, catchy — Zep rip in history,” wrote Robert Christgau of Superunknown, adding “At 70 minutes, it’s what used to be called a double album, not quite as long as Physical Graffiti but a lot more consistent.” Anchoring their heavy, melodic, psychedelic sound was Cornell’s powerful voice, which from the late 1980s until his death unquestionably ranked as one of the greatest in rock.
But for people born after about 1985, Cornell wasn’t necessarily a household name. Grunge wasn’t the last gasp of rock per se, but it may have been the last gasp of rock as the unifying musical idiom of the white middle class, which by the 1990s was itself in the process of splintering. By the turn of the century, rock had gone in two opposite directions: loud, willfully dumb commercial junk like Nickelback or Creed, which clearly descended from grunge, found a mass audience but no critical respect, while the intelligentsia gravitated toward wittier, more precious indie rock like the Strokes or Arcade Fire. Hip-hop and pop, meanwhile, came to dominate both the charts and the attention of critics. Much of rock is increasingly understood as white male dinosaur music, and while it hasn’t gone away, by 2017 it has perhaps irreversibly declined in relevance (go ahead, try and name a universally known and respected rock band that wasn’t already famous by 2010). For educated millennial indie fans, there’s a lineage of earlier artists who still enjoy respect — the Velvet Underground, the Talking Heads, the Pixies, and one Seattle band, Nirvana — but it doesn’t include bands like Soundgarden that were profoundly meaningful to millions of Gen Xers and the oldest cohort of millennials.
To revisit Cornell’s catalog — which in addition to Soundgarden includes Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, two stabs at a solo career, and the theme song for a Bond film — is to come away both impressed by the raw emotional fervor of his voice and perhaps a bit underwhelmed, even chagrined, by the clumsiness of his lyrics. There’s not much wit or political or social commentary, no tossed off allusions to Ivy League accessories or technology or gentrification. But Cornell wasn’t trying to be cited in twee away messages, he was trying to physically exorcise his demons in a way that’s no longer fashionable. His lyrics may not have been clever, but they were unflinchingly honest descriptions of what depression feels like. And while some of his contemporaries and successors directed their anger outward, and especially toward women, Cornell was only ever at war with himself.
On the blues-inflected “Fell On Black Days” (1994), he describes the onset of a sudden depressive episode with accuracy and candor:
Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life
Whatsoever I’ve fought off became my life
Just when every day seemed to greet me with a smile
Sunspots have faded and now I’m doing time
If that seems melodramatic and unspecific, well, so is depression. What’s wrong isn’t one thing, it’s everything, a consuming helplessness that is both the cause and the effect of a consuming self-hatred. “I’m only faking when I get it right,” he insisted, on a hit single from one of the biggest selling albums of the decade, a sentiment he must have still felt was true after selling out arenas across the country more than twenty years later.
Cornell’s despair was always hidden in plain sight. “I’m looking California, and feeling Minnesota,” he sang on 1991’s “Outshined,” and so he was, with his surfer’s physique and friendly demeanor concealing the dark, endless winter in his mind. “Close your eyes and bow your head, I need a little sympathy,” he pleaded on 1996’s “Burden In My Hand,” “Cause fear is strong and love’s for everyone who isn’t me.” By this point, two years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Cornell was one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but he still felt pathetic, alone and unlovable.
While Cornell’s wife has maintained he would not have deliberately taken his own life, his choice of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time Of Dying” as his final encore in Detroit telegraphed his intentions clearly enough. He had apparently been sober for more than a decade and had been prescribed the anti-anxiety drug Ativan, which, like other drugs used to combat mental illness, sometimes carries an increased risk of suicide as a side effect. The reasons for this are poorly understood, but one way to make sense of it is that drugs interrupt the feedback loop between the almost physically paralyzing conditions of depression and anxiety and the accompanying toxic mental narrative of self-hatred. In other words, for someone who has logically persuaded himself that he needs to die, the most immediate effect of the drugs is to counteract the depressed state that was preventing him from actually going through with it.
It is clear that Cornell was loved, not only by his fans but by his family and the many accomplished artists he counted as friends and collaborators. Watching and reading interviews with him, it’s obvious why. Beyond his undeniable talent, there was a sincerity to him that belied the stereotype of his generation as ironic or disaffected. Depression may have kept Cornell from seeing the world clearly, but his lyrics and his voice honestly conveyed what he did see.
“Every word I said is what I mean,” Cornell sang on 1991’s “Slaves and Bulldozers,” and it was true.