In the morning my alarm goes off, and because my smart phone is my alarm clock, the first thing I might see when I pick it up to hit the snooze button is whatever CNN alert came in overnight. Latent, waiting for acknowledgement.
This one started with the words “Chris Cornell” and I hit the snooze button and laid the phone down, face down, and went back to my pillow.
“That can’t be good,” I thought, and went back to the phone to read the rest of the message. It was not good.
A Thousand Years Wide
When Chris Cornell was interviewed by Marc Maron on Maron’s podcast “WTF” he described a phenomenon that most of us who have lived long enough to observe have probably observed: as you get older, age gaps that were very meaningful early in life start to matter less and less. I think this is especially true within generational bounds. Chris Cornell and I are of the same generation if not the same cohort; we were born 10-ish years apart.
The early Gen-Xers were doing stuff long before us later Xers started figuring our shit out. When Chris, Kim and Hiro started Soundgarden in the mid-80s I was 10 years old. I was barely starting to figure out what music I was going to like, and they were starting a band and writing songs. That’s being 10 vs being 20.
When “Black Hole Sun” was getting heavy rotation on MTV, the later Xers were just coming onto the stage, finding our legs and figuring out whose shoulders we ought to use those legs to stand on. Early Xers were looking at what their next act was going to be. That’s being 20 vs being 30.
When I woke up to see that Chris Cornell was dead, I felt sadness for him and his family. I felt a sense of unfairness that he wasn’t going to get to participate anymore and said out loud to an empty hotel room, “Fuck, that’s too bad, that’s too young,” because now we were practically the same age. That’s being 40 vs being 50. That age gap that could never have been bridged in 1985 or 1995, but now it was essentially gone. It could happen to me, my friends. In a lot of cases, it had; death wasn’t some exotic creature but an increasingly common actor.
Even though I’m mapping the experience of my teens and twenties onto him, there’s a feeling that someone I “grew up with” is gone, and that sucks.
Fell on Black Days
I remember shortly after Kurt Cobain took his own life, our national treasure Ted Nugent called him a coward for it. I can’t find a citation for that quote now, but there are plenty of recordings of Nugent calling Cobain a “weenie” and being “glad he’s dead,” so maybe I’ve conflated the outpourings of emotion from different assholes.
There is, in the wake of any high-profile suicide, someone ready and willing to play the “coward” card and make judgments about circumstances based on a combination of public perception and personal feelings. He was so rich, so famous, so funny, what a coward.
Most people I know thought it obscene that Robin Williams would take his own life, but I have always kept in mind an anecdote told to me by an acquaintance who had met Williams in a San Francisco bar back in the day: that he was quiet and introspective until an expectant fan came up to him, then he was manic-Mork-hoo-ha for a minute but back in his shell as soon as the attention was off, just a quiet sad dude with a beer.
So when we learned about Robin Williams I thought, well, that might make sense.
When Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was young enough to take it personally. I hated Ted Nugent for what he said, but I wasn’t ready to make Cobain a martyr. I didn’t agree with the “coward” label but didn’t know what to replace it with. The experience became an artifact that in my 18-year-old head fed my own suicidal ideation. My head was hungry for new information now.
In the 90s we didn’t have the Internet as we know it today. What we call a “social network” now was a lot less structured back then. There was a real-time chat system called IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and there was the Internet’s ur-forum Usenet, which was structured a lot like Reddit. If there was a topic you were interested in, you could find a Usenet group devoted to it. The topics were organized in buckets from the general to the specific, for example “alt.music.metal” for one purpose or “alt.music.metal.black.norwegian” for another. In this sense, a Usenet board was a lot like a subreddit, but with a much smaller audience and (this might just be nostalgia, but it seems right) a much higher level of discourse.
Frequently, a popular newsgroup would create a reference document for their topic, a FAQ, wherein some champions of the group would curate exceptional posts and produce a sort of canonical guide to the subject matter. These FAQs would serve as valuable introductions to and references for the newsgroup participants, particularly newbies.
One of those Usenet boards was “alt.suicide.methods,” whose FAQ is still around and only a Google search away. This FAQ is probably the best how-to guide for suicide ever assembled, and it’s not always written by the survivors.
I’ve perused that FAQ a few times over the years. I’ve gone through periods of both deep depression and morbid obsession. My writings have featured characters with both ideation and follow-through. I’ve considered the subject frequently and deeply, and while the actual impulse has never surfaced, there have been periods during which I’ve fantasized about taking my own life almost daily.
My journey has taught me one thing at least: that those who do it are not cowards.
The day I woke up to news of Chris Cornell’s death I went to work, where the water cooler talk was of course about Cornell and Soundgarden. What a shame, so young, etc. “He was just in Kansas City,” I told someone, which was true; his penultimate show was in my city just days before his death. “I should have gone,” I continued. That’s probably true, too, but it’s a meaningless assertion that misses the point of what happened. It’s not true to the feeling I had had earlier that morning as I lay thinking about Chris, and his family, and their shared missed opportunities. I wasn’t thinking in that moment about what I had missed out on, but how unfair an unexpected exit is for everyone.
Later in the day the news reports were asserting that Cornell’s death was a suicide. What followed was expected: he was so talented, so successful, probably very wealthy, how could he justify taking his own life? It was absurd.
But my feelings changed for a moment — I wasn’t sad for him any more, not in the way I had been that morning. Instead, I mourned his circumstance but felt awe at his empowerment. It was a fleeting thought — “I understand where that might come from.” It’s not a feeling I’m proud to have had, and I would be ashamed if his widow or children read this essay, but it came in the moment — a product of my own incomplete experiences.
Another point Cornell made in his interview with Marc Maron was — and I’m paraphrasing — was how no matter what else is the case, we live inside our own brains.
What follows from that is an unfortunate realization: we do not get to choose how we feel or what we think. Instead, we are slaves to the particular mixology of horomones and whatever other brain chemicals drive our consciousness.
We’ve normalized mental illness such that it is no longer a surprise to learn that someone is on a cocktail of anxiety or depression drugs. Mental health awareness, empathy, and compassion takes a back seat to dismissal and “they’ve got a pill for that.” For a long time now the advertisements of these drugs warn that they may express suicidal thoughts in teens and other young people. What we may dismiss as little more than the fast-talk disclaimer at the end of a “Fuckitol” commercial is actually an important warning: we live inside our brains, and we do the things our brains tell us to do.
Slaves & Bulldozers
The media reported, without skepticism, that Chris Cornell killed himself by hanging in a hotel room in Detroit immediately after a successful sold-out Soundgarden concert.
Chris Cornell’s final performance ended with the popular Soundgarden tune “Slaves & Bulldozers” with a refrain from Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time Of Dying,” a song that Soundgarden had covered in the past. Its inclusion in their final encore may acquire greater gravity in hindsight, but was it a signal?
Cornell’s widow put out a statement of grief but questioned her husband’s motives, referring to his use of Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug, and the likelihood that he had taken more than prescribed. Side effects of this drug include “slurred speech,” which she explains is a symptom Chris exhibited while on the phone with her and prompted her to contact security. Another side effect is “thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself.”
My feelings changed again. What if instead of a powerful yet tragic moment of self-empowerment that brings a morbidly-positive end to a secret prison of depression Chris Cornell actually experienced a sudden inexplicable bubble-burst of irrational distress that played out in the physical realm — quickly, irrevocably, uncontrollably?
I may never know. You may never know. A Soundgarden roadie who talked to Cornell a few times a year might think he knows. Vicky Cornell probably knows, and if she’s right, then Chris probably didn’t, and that might be the worst of any of the alternatives.
We live in our brains. We’re a slave to that particular bulldozer.