When Hero’s Fall
I hate to use the term hero to describe a guy like Chris Cornell because I think I know that he would disagree with that categorization. Like all of us, he was human, flawed and imperfect as we all are. Unlike most of us, he was human with an extraordinary gift, a singing voice that sounded like it came directly from the angels themselves.
As a kid growing up in a small town in Ohio, I was far from the “Seattle Scene.” I was 10/11 years old in 1991, still listening to Vanilla Ice, M.C. Hammer, and New Kids on the Block. In 1993, I was in my first year of marching band. This one time, at band camp, a kid put a quarter in the jukebox. A voice came through the speakers that I had never heard before and was simultaneously a voice I had never heard anything like before. It wasn’t Cornell, but his contemporary, friend, and my all-time favorite singer, Eddie Vedder, belting out the chorus “I’m still alive” and forever securing a preferred seat in my ear drums. That initial encounter turned me on to “grunge” music in a way that has manifested into a now 24 year love affair.
I delved into the catalog of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and to a lesser extent, Nirvana. For whatever reason, I just didn’t take to Nirvana the way I did the other three. Before I knew it, my CD collection was filled with Ten, Vs. Vitalogy, Core, Purple, Dirt, Badmotorfinger, and Superunknown.
I specifically recall the day that Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy came out. My parents bought it for me; I locked myself in my room, put it in my portable boom box and devoured the accompanying pamphlet that went with it. The packaging of that particular CD was unlike any other CD that had been produced up to that time, at least as far as I knew. I listened to the CD front to back several times, trying to decipher what Eddie was singing, looking up the songs in the pamphlet only to find most of the lyrics were incomplete, hand written, or illegible, in which case you had no choice but to listen over and over again.
That could have described any of the bands from that period. They were dark, they were mysterious, they were eccentric, they were soft-spoken, and they were articulate. Often time, they were just plain weird. Listening to their CD’s though, I often felt like they knew the things I was going through or understood how I felt.
In 1994, you couldn’t post what you thought online. You couldn’t trade stories and thoughts and feelings on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. You had to do it in person or in writing, which teenage boys at the time weren’t apt to get together to describe all the stupid thoughts they were thinking or why they felt so damn awkward around girls or thoughts on this crazy life that we all share, that kind of thing. That didn’t leave you with much solace other than to get lost in the music you heard.
That’s why a death like Cornell’s affects so many people. People often ask how you can be affected by the death of someone you never knew. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t know him. What matters is that he and Eddie and Weiland and Staley/Cantrell knew us, or at least they made us feel like they knew us. They made us feel that we weren’t the only ones feeling what they was feeling or thinking what they was thinking. It sometimes felt to me that Eddie or Chris were actually observing my life from a distance and writing about it.
As I write this, it is Friday, May 19th. In a few hours I am travelling from my small town in Ohio to Columbus for the 3 day Rock on the Range extravaganza. Soundgarden was scheduled to headline tonight; instead there will be a tribute to Chris after another 90’s band, Live finishes their set. It’s been reported today that Cornell may have taken more than the recommended dosage of Ativan, a prescription medication that can cause “paranoid or suicidal thoughts, slurred speech and impaired judgment.”  Cornell’s wife Vicky reported that when she last spoke with Chris, his speech was slurred and he mentioned that he may have taken more Ativan that he was supposed to. Hours later, he was dead.
Many people have different thoughts about suicide, drugs, addiction, and mental health issues. There is still a stigma that people who commit suicide or are addicts or have mental health issues and whom seek help are “weak.” If we injured an arm or a leg, we wouldn’t be ridiculed and criticized for seeking treatment for that injury. If we have noticeable symptoms of the flu, coughing, a fever, sweating, running nose, etc., we aren’t criticized for not being “tough enough” whenever we visit the doctor. Yet “weakness” is only ever associated with ailments related to the mind. Such a stigma has to end.
I’m not sure what it says about the “grunge” scene that literally every singer (and others) who have passed on from that era did so with some connection to drugs. Cobain had a massive amount of heroin in his blood stream when he pulled the trigger. Layne Staley, long a recluse due to years of drug abuse, was found about two weeks after he succumbed to a drug overdose in his apartment. Former band mate and bassist Mike Starr died of drug overdose in 2011, as did Scott Weiland in 2015. Although Eddie Vedder seemingly never had a serious drug problem, Pearl Jam would never have been a band had it not been for the drug overdose of Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood. And of course, Cornell battled drug and alcohol addiction since he was a teenager.
Far from seeing someone like Chris or Layne or Scott as weak, I see them as admirable. While I do not agree with their decision to do drugs, obviously, here we have a group of men who have achieved more than virtually any of us will ever achieve and they did it in spite of addiction, in spite of mental health issues, in spite of the personal hell they were going through.
When hero’s fall, we must remember not what brought them down but what made them heroes in the first place.