Chris Cornell: The Honest Rock Star

If there’s any major complaint I can level at most classic rock, it’s the machoism. Mötley Crüe were the biggest band in the world at one time after all, and though the rather insidious streak of “rock is for boys (and only certain boys)” still stains the genre, the era preluding the 90s was especially harsh. Zeppelin, despite their folky detours, were never ones to dive into emotions outside of lust, Iron Maiden’s most emotional song was about a criminal being hung (that or their retelling of Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner) and Megadeth delivered deadpan wartales. There were notable shifts: Metallica’s devastating portraits of suicide, Suicidal Tendencies bleak stories of worrisome mental health, but these were exceptions to the rule. Until the early 90s, the giants of rock weren’t just content to keep rock straight, white and male, but unfeeling outside of lust or rage. It wasn’t an honest world that rock created, filled instead with facades of men, worn out ideals about cowboys and straight shooters who should have gone extinct long ago.

Though I was born after the movement boomed and busted, my first real connection to this sort of rock was Grunge, because it held a different emotional scale. This isn’t to say that Grunge broke down the door on its own, but it certainly marked a significant shift in honesty and lyrical content. Looking back at the big four of the movement, it’s surprising just how depressing the whole lot was and how unconcerned they were with tradition. Nirvana was Kurt Cobain’s personal diary splattered over the sweet-sour dynamics of the Pixies with a John Lennon twist. Alice in Chains was an over the top glam band before they started making some of the most devastating music on the planet. Pearl Jam might have been the most traditional sounding (at least for the first two albums) but Eddie Vedder’s lyrics dealt directly with bullying, suicide and parental abuse.

But Soundgarden, at least from the surface, seemed the most normal band. They did want to be Zeppelin after all, and any number of their songs now prominently display themselves on sports video game soundtracks, all pumping muscle, fast cars and guitar solos. Superunknown was the Seattle scene’s Zep IV, but that swirling vortex of rock’n’roll only slightly obscured the fact that the Washington quartet were injecting some the starkest and frankest takes on mental illness, depression and existential crisis into rock music. They could shred, but they were in touch with their emotions. And at the center of it was Chris Cornell’s lyrical and vocal work.

That was clear even from the beginning of Soundgarden, with Cornell channeling his battles with depression into his music. But once the band really blew up, it was easier for any rock radio listener to at least partially ignore the furious emotional struggles going on. But you can bet for a generation of music fans (myself included) it helped them realize that the days of the cowboy were over. You could be a rock god with a human soul. “Rusty Cage” is still one of the most darkly uplifting rock songs ever made and pretty much every other song on Badmotorfinger dealt directly with Cornell’s own demons, all while still blasting a hole in your ear.

For me, Superunknown was the best pure rock album of its time and, occasionally, my favorite rock album of the entire decade. And a huge part of that came from its emotional honesty and vulnerability. “Drown Me” is one of the best examples of the full body exhaustion that comes with depression that sinks every nerve into failure. “Fell On Black Days” is one of the most accepting songs about long form mood swings that can blacken entire periods of life. “Just when ever day seemed to greet me with a smile…” Cornell sang. It was such a relief for me to hear this rock star sing about the same things I experienced. A good life, good friends, maybe even luck on your side, but it didn’t matter in the face of “Black Days.”

Soundgarden would later expand on these ideas with the excellent “Pretty Noose,” and Cornell would later create the brilliant “Like a Stone” with Audioslave, but I’ll be damned if “The Day I Tired to Live” isn’t the perfect sonic form of anxiety completely taking over the mind. This is one of the most ass kicking songs of its time, surprisingly complex, filled with tempo changes and some of Cornell’s best wails. And it’s still about facing your own demons and admitting you won’t always win. That sort of honesty isn’t just rare in rock, but rare in art generally.

Cornell was my rock star, above anyone else. He was the best singer of his generation. He was able to pull off the golden gold look and sound. He made some of the most brutally genuine albums in all of rock. He taught me the astonishing power of honesty in music. No masks, no layers of irony or pastiche, just the terrifying, gratifying reality of baring your soul through music. And that might be the most important lesson I’ve ever taken from rock. Thank you Chris.

The national suicide prevention hotline is: 1–800–273–8255

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