Remembering Chris Cornell (1964–2017)
Bringing the 1990s one step closer to being over…
Sometimes, the death of one man is actually the death of so much more…
Chris Cornell, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Soundgarden, was found dead this morning in Detroit. Cornell hung himself and that was that.
I lack the words, and don’t quite understand why I am upset about that fact. I mean — I know why I am upset. I loved Soundgarden, and for a lot of people, Cornell was associated with that band. But I don’t quite yet understand why it is so upsetting to me that he is dead.
Not everything Cornell put out all that good. I definitely did not like the reunited Soundgarden’s 2012 release of King Animal (which I am re-listening to as I write this post, and am in a more charitable mood toward the record tonight.) There were, as I put it then, echos of grunge in an otherwise hard rock album. It had some gritty guitars and technically awesome percussion, but really didn’t recapture the thing I liked about Soundgarden. The production was maybe too slick, Cornell’s lyrics sounded a bit too forced. The musicianship was excellent, but it didn’t gel for me. For this matter, I also never got into Audioslave… I never understood what was going on there, and did not like that Audioslave found a nice comfortable home on Modern Rock Radio next to the likes of Creed and Nickleback, though with its pedigree, it could have aimed so much higher. But, it is what it is, and I can’t begrudge the man his living. He made a lot of money with Audioslave.
So, Chris Cornell, the man who was found dead in his hotel room of suicide, known for his primadonna attitude and his substance abuse, had been off my radar for a long time. And yet, I am still deeply saddened by the news of his death.
I was in the barracks on Camp Fuji Japan in April of 1997. While in the Marine Corps, I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone Magazine, (the print edition of course.) I would scour it for info about bands, and look at new music charts to get ideas of music to check out. I was fully into punk and metal at this time, about to expand my tastes to Hard Core and ska and then into reggae and on into the future. But I hadn’t made that transition yet — I was still listening to Rancid, the Sex Pistols, Pantera, and of course Soundgarden back then. I was also beginning a long time love affair with The Cardigans at about that time. 311’s Transistor, the best album ever produced (in my opinion) wouldn’t be released for another 4 months or so, and recording on that album was just finishing up at this time.
As I opened my April edition of Rolling Stone, I discovered that Soundgarden had broken up. I was floored. They had released Down on the Upside the previous year, and I probably listened to that record a hundred times in 1996. It was such an awesome record, and gave me the idea that grunge could last forever. The record got tepid reviews- It was Soundgarden, a reviewer said, but it reflects a more mature version of that band than we were used to. It was sort of like the swansong of the grunge era which had begun for most us with “Smells like Teen Spirit” six years before.
In retrospect, the article seems like it said something like “Where does Soundgarden go from here?” as if it was some sort of problem for the band to grow up with its fans. In 1997, I was 21 years old, and had been listening to Soundgarden fairly seriously for years. Soundgarden helped my 17year old self weather the death of Cobain — “At least we still have Soundgarden…” My conversion to grunge and the music of Gen X came through Nirvana, of course, but I instantly gravitated to the harder, darker sounds of Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilot’s first album Plush. It had therefore been a wild 6 years, full of Rusty Cages, Spoonmen, Superunknowns, Black Hole Suns, and Zero Chances. I blasted Soundgarden on regular rotation and didn’t know it had ended until April 10, 1997. While the lukewarm review of Down on the Upside suggested that the era was over, I naturally didn’t see it like that, until I read this article.
I found out, however, that grunge was dead in a Rolling Stone article. How pathetic! That’s typical. The loud, gritty Seattle sound exemplified by Soundgarden was, for the most part, replaced by the crap that was on Rock Radio from then on. What was left of Grunge merged with alternative rock and became “Adult Contemporary”, which was the same category that people used to place The Carpenters and Christopher Cross into. Punk morphed into SoCal Ska of a million flavors, all pretty conservative, all pretty safe (including some weird and generally incomprehensible Big Band revival), and MTV quickly descended from the 120 Minutes/Beavis and Butthead Era through Total Request Live Era, complete with their Back Street Boys and NSync and the battle of the dueling Brittney’s, and then on to the materialist wasteland it was by 2000.
It was an absolute collapse of the scene, and it posed an existential nightmare scenario to those of us still hanging on to the cultural greatness of the early 90s. Very quickly, it seemed, everyone’s music tastes were obliterated by aimless eclecticism, promoted first by Napster (which allowed us to share individual songs so we didn’t have to wait for them on the radio or on TV anymore), then LimeWire and Demonoid (which allowed us to first download whole albums and then whole discographies) and then YouTube, (which eventually made any song available at any time, anywhere, and gave rise to the infinite shuffle after listening to the first 20 seconds of a song) and then Spotify, (which allowed random playlists to be generated with a click of a button that could theoretically present a next-to-infinite number of different artists and genres to a user to listen to without any thought whatsoever being put into the selection.)
It seems like it all happened so fast. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer people listened to albums as they were supposed to be listened to, front to back, in the order that the artist had chosen. The Album culture, and the identity which went with your choice in bands and association with a genre was gone.
It seems like this all started on that day — the complete obliteration of the identity associated with choice of music. When I ran to tell my friends that Soundgarden had broken up, I was experiencing an existential crisis — the era was too short and now it was over. My friends greeted me with an ultramodern response, “So what?” They were ahead of their time — I am greeted with the same sort of apathy to music in general by most of the people I associate with daily now.
That event is now more than 20 years in the past. Music has changed. Now, if you even tie your identity to the music you listen to, you get more cred if you have a wide and diverse taste in music than if you know deep cuts. But most people don’t even get there — Many of today’s music consumers listen to whatever Spotify or Pandora puts in front of them, and if they don’t like the song, they don’t bother to wait for it to get good or listen to the next song on the record which they may like. Instead they just hit “Next” and jump to a different artist.
I shouldn’t lament this fact. I have, after all, discovered a lot of my musical choices via a random search on something like Spotify or Pandora. But I have never abandoned the album as the standard format for listening to music: If I find a song that jumps out at me, I listen to the whole album. And then I listen to other albums by the same artist or band, if they exist. This is how I found spacey electronic bands like Phantogram (and then Big Grams, and then Run The Jewels), the awesome guitar virtuosos St. Vincent and Bahamas, and the mellow sunshine pop of Knox Hamilton. All these bands I stumbled across, rather than went searching for them, and I am happy I did.
But I have never stopped listening to Soundgarden’s grunge contributions. As a matter of fact, I was just listening to “Black Hole Sun” and the rest of Superunknown on Tuesday, not out of nostalgia, but because I have never stopped listening to them. A Band can’t be nostalgia if it is still in regular rotation. At the risk of repeating platitudes from my mother, music really did seem better back in the day. She talks about the 60s, I talk about the 90s, we use the same terms. A part of me has never left the 1990s — I still listen to old albums, I still identify with music and genres, and I still judge people, to some degree, based on what music they listen to and talk to me about. I still look for the post-materialism in music which is sadly lacking in much of today’s offerings, when the darkness in men’s souls was this existential sort of darkness that hinted at possible worship of the Devil, rather than something tied to a whine about anomie of suburbia and a very personal and detached sort of “pain”.
And as long as I live, I will still play Soundgarden records, not only because I still enjoy them, but because it differentiates me from the new crop of snobs who like “a little bit of everything,” and therefore don’t know much of anything, and try to one-up each other by finding some new fusion that others have never heard of, themselves only actually hearing the song long enough to determine whether it is sufficiently obscure to help them win a pissing contest with their hipster friends, before they are on to something else. I have a very deep contempt for the obliteration of scenes and the move toward individualized personal preferences. But the old days are gone, and I am the relic.
Maybe this is why Cornell’s death affects me. It really makes me want to cry.
I didn’t feel this way when Kurt Cobain killed himself 23 years ago. I think it was because I didn’t feel that anything had really ended then. Grunge hung on for another 3 years after Cobain killed himself. “Black Hole Sun” was released after Cobain’s death, as was STP’s sophomore album Purple, Alice in Chain’s “Don’t Follow” from 1994’s Jar of Flies and several other major grunge releases, and we just went on as if nothing was over.
But the death of Chris Cornell is a blow. As I said, I hadn’t really enjoyed anything he had done for a long time. My friends and I occasionally drop his name in conversation — it would invariably be followed up with a link to a Soundgarden song or a whole album: at least we can still listen to Soundgarden or Temple of the Dog, no matter whatever else is going on in music.
The death of Chris Cornell earlier this morning, like the first split of Soundgarden back in 97, seems to me to be the definitive end of something which was, for lack of a better word, awesome. The Soundgarden split was the death of a genre, which was replaced by something that was worse than it, and then a LOT which was MUCH worse. The Soundgarden split was a symptom of the decay of our culture, the beginning of the end of scenes and genres which I had tied my identity to. Cornell’s death today seems to also be larger than just him dying in a pathetic and sad sort of way. It is the definitive punctuation mark for era which actually ended a long time ago. It is a reminder that the 90s are never coming back, and that the world we now find ourselves in, whether it be music or politics or culture or sports or whatever, is more than anything else, like the scab-covered, ghoulish corpse of the cultural explosion from the early-1990s, which has, for some reason been kept alive long after it should have been put down.
Cornell’s death forces me to come to terms with that. The 2000s were a bad hangover, and the 2010s are more like a nightmare that we can’t wake up from; a constant reminder that everything enjoyable about culture has either been monetized or so polluted with cynicism and snark, across the entire political and social landscape, that there is little worth celebrating anymore. Our atomized and bitterly divided society finds a nice analog in the obliteration of music genres, where the individual is always more important than a sense of belonging to a group. Today, we are encouraged to celebrate all our bizarre little peculiarities, where we get to claim our own individual identities which we implicitly suggest belongs to just us and only us, and therefore entitles us all to some sort of special consideration. We define ourselves on how much cultural territory we individually take up, rather than our expertise on or appreciation for one or a couple things which a lot of other people are into as well.
And this is just frustrating to me, who came to consciousness in the late 80s and early 90s. I am left with good memories, which starkly contrast with reality I can’t escape. It is really just terrible to be reminded in such an unforgiving way that things are so f — ked and that I have been a ghost in this world for two decades, while my mind remains in the past.
That’s bleak. I am forced to ask, because of Cornell’s death, how we got here? And more importantly, why did we let ourselves come here?
God! How I hate the 21st Century.
Rest in peace, Chris Cornell.
And now, acknowledging the irony of my next action, but making no apologies, here is a record that you may not have heard before, but which is exceptional. Please listen to it, as it was recorded, from beginning to end. This is Temple of the Dog’s S/T from 1990.