On Chris Cornell, Why We Grieve Like Mad, and My X-Generation
My looming mid-life crisis inspires an odd sense of nostalgia-that-isn’t; it might just be that I see so much hate directed at millennials and I just have to laugh. We weren’t that much different, although like everyone my age I think I see more differences as I get older.
My generation — the super-edgy “X” kids — were the first generation after the boomers to be asked — and to resent — that status-quo question “But what do you want to DO with your life?” We were the Kurt Loder, MTV generation, we were there when video killed the radio star and when Dire Straits got their money for nothing and their chicks for free. We were Clerks and Mallrats and the employees of Empire Records. We were the flannel shirts and ripped jeans “You look like a goddamn hobo!” generation. The kids who were already shopping at thrift stores because they were cheaper and we were poor, before $300 “artfully torn” jeans became a thing.
We learned that Reality Bites, and that sometimes the truth was out there and you had to follow your Great Expectations. We were Kurt Cobain and Thurston Moore and Chris Cornell and Scott Weiland, Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix and Brandon Lee.
Our music broke all the molds at a time when we HAD to, literally had to, to survive. We were grunge-rock tribes tired of the School-Marry-Work-Die life plan, and screaming out the disillusionment loud enough to baptize ourselves in it. And we found our life-changing moments not in pre-arranged landmarks but in a breath of air taken from a truck stop somewhere; in a 3AM coffee at a diner in the middle of nowhere; in a song.
Always the music, always a running soundtrack to our lives. Not post-punk but pain-punk. Our musical idols weren’t ABOVE us; they WERE us. And we loved them for it. They were Saint Sebastian, full of the same arrows that were killing us, often silently — fear, ostracism, divorce, abuse, drugs, uncertainty, anger, self-doubt — and they gave us an emotional wavelength we could tune into to survive.
We all hung onto those waves in different ways — some of us were inspired to add our voices to the dirge that ran YOU ARE NOT ALONE, some were inspired to great things by the resonance — and now, when these people are taken from us, you ask us why we grieve? As those of us who still speak that language, either openly or only in our secret hearts, lose the ones who taught us to speak it?
I remember precisely the morning when I found out Kurt Cobain had died. I had spent the night at a co-ed party at a friend’s house, and when we eventually all straggled downstairs to discover that the story was the only thing MTV was running, over and over, we sat: shell-shocked and silent and stunned.
By some unspoken understanding, the World As We Knew It had been broken: if Kurt couldn’t make it, how could any of us? How could we, the flanneled and patchouli’d misfits in our Chuck Taylor sneakers and our Doc Martens, the poets and artists and the weirdos who really had no place except with each other, how could WE make it through?
We found out in the hours after our discovery; weeping, we created a call to action. Signs were made; phone calls were placed; we did the best we could because all we knew was that somehow, we had lost a part of Us. And that night we all huddled in the rain with candles and signs, we marched for Kurt, we marched for ourselves and what we’d lost, and then later we sang; we sang for Kurt and what we’d found.
What we’d found was Us: an understanding that there wasn’t just one kid sitting in his room somewhere with “Nevermind” on loop, alone and wondering what would ever become of his life; there were dozens, hundreds, millions of Us. Millions of young people who hurt, who were confused, who didn’t quite fit, who might just get lost through the cracks without that unifying shout of “I AM HERE!” It stopped being just a personal hurt and became something much more real.
And I myself went away that night feeling like I’d touched the core of that universal thing, something that I may have never fully understood but knew that it was vital to try. And what I took away led me to places I’d never otherwise have gone; it led me to Seattle, invited to play in Kurt’s honor; that led to me recording an EP and thus meeting someone who took me to Europe, to write music; it led me back to my hometown, to places where my own truth was buried; and, eventually, to my wife. And during any number of these things, these places and lessons and times, it was the music that kept me going.
Times I literally, in the throes of tragedy, misfortune, and the hateful voice of bipolar, was prepared to take my own life but didn’t; didn’t because a voice once made me believe that my own voice mattered enough to keep going. And that’s not hyperbole; my family wasn’t enough(not their fault; depression is a monster), my friends weren’t enough. Only the thought of failing in what I set out to do made me realize that I had to keep going. And I did it to the sounds of Stevie Nicks and Soundgarden, of Kurt and Courtney and so many others.
We recognized their pain in ourselves; we took their own pain inside, changed it, made it our own. We were as real as we knew how to be. So our grief is as real as anyone’s grief can be: these people changed us, saved us, shaped us from I into We and then into Us.
And somehow, I don’t think this next generation is too much different from us. Not in heart, anyway. I think the difference is is that where we saw our own pain, and learned that we were Us, millennials are more aware than ever that the whole world is in pain. They grieve because they feel it too. And they’re trying to figure it out, just like we were. Not to coin a phrase or anything, but everybody hurts.
I think if we understood that a little better, we’d see how insignificant the differences really are.
Or maybe I’m just an old guy that deep down inside, is still screaming at the black hole sun.