“I cannot see the light
At the end of the tunnel tonight
My eyes are weary”
– “The Keeper” by Chris Cornell
I went to a strength training class today at my local climbing gym. At my age these are usually just grueling sessions of self-denial where I’m simultaneously reminded I’m no longer in my late teens/early 20s prime, but deluding myself that the grandeur of six-pack abs is just two burpees away. The feeling that the workout might kill me at any moment can be controlled and whisked away easier than it was in my teens, which is the unique tradeoff of getting older. Physical things are harder to do, but the mental ones get somewhat more manageable. Realizations about my own mentality and mortality aside, it’s not often, or really ever, that these sessions become moving connections to my everyday life…especially through music. Instructors tend to favor songs that are high energy, light-on-the-lyrics, and heavy on the beat…and sometimes just the beat.
However, today was different. At the end of class, as we were finishing our final post-workout stretches, Lisa, our instructor, put on a song from a very different playlist. An acoustic guitar playing something like a bittersweet, forlorn tune that I couldn’t identify started filling the room from the speaker. Then, a voice followed shortly after, a voice I could most certainly identify, and one that took me right back to my teenage years, when hope and wonder seemed to come from exploring the darker parts of my thoughts for some inexplicable reason. My early teenage years were a time of earnest singers, with contemplative lyrics, and bruising sonic soundscapes that seemed to cut right through teenage angst down into the core of something sincere and maybe, just maybe, a little bit hopeful. That was a time when my disparate thoughts were more difficult to control than my body.
The song I was hearing was “The Keeper,” and it was by Chris Cornell, the former frontman of Soundgarden, Audioslave, and one of my personal favorite “side-projects,” Temple of the Dog. Cornell had been found dead of an apparent suicide, two days before on May 17th. Lisa felt the need to talk about it. I was a bit too exhausted to fully comprehend, or simply hear beyond the pounding of blood in my ears, but the basic gist of what she was saying seemed to be that we all need to recognize when things are tough, and to be truly resilient, one has to ask for help when help is needed.
I turned on my phone after class and came face-to-face with an endless sea of reminders on Facebook that Cornell’s suicide is stinging so many around me in my generation.
A friend of mine wrote, “This makes it all worse,” in response to an article simply titled “Chris Cornell’s death ruled suicide by hanging.”
Another friend who for years told me Chris Cornell was his favorite singer simply re-posted an article titled “Chris Cornell’s final show: a fan’s perspective.”
Photo Credit – Michael Lavine
Dozens and dozens of other posts included songs from his Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple of the Dog, and solo portions of his career.
Even younger people I know who don’t remember when Cornell, and the rest of the “grunge” generation, came of age were posting these kinds of things. I wondered why he had moved them. This generation that didn’t grow up with Reaganomics, the stalemate that then wasn’t in the Cold War, and the early, terrible sounding synthesizers, why were they posting about this man? Every last retrospective that could have been written on the early 90s music scene has been written, but I will repeat a well-worn, and well true trope of the time. Hearing a voice like Cornell’s come out of the radio, and cut through the miasma of empty-headed late 80s, early 90s pop tripe was a revelation.
I guess now, even through a pair of Beats headphones, or earbuds on an iPhone, or Android, the sincere and personal deep well of his voice still is. Thinking about how he still reaches people is an inspiration. And it all certainly reminds me of the hope of my teenage years.
That being said, I saw another article that took me back to another less hopeful point of my teens.
An old colleague posted “So much talent wasted. Drugs will destroy you.” If that’s not a generic, or tired enough statement for you that dredges up images of terrible drug PSAs from the 80s, then perhaps the opinion piece from the momentarily benighted Washington Post that accompanied it will be enough to make you squirm in your seat like I did.
Democracy dies in darkness…as does decency after a suicide, I guess. And yes. That’s its actual title. Really. Don’t believe me? Click on the link. I still love reading The Washington Post, but that title is over the top.
It’s sobering to realize that so many of a generation’s artists were taken by drugs and depression, which is what makes it doubly annoying to still, after all these years, see these articles that read like backhanded compliments at the likes of Vedder, and using another suicide (Kurt Cobain’s in the 90s, and Chris Cornell’s now) as a pretext for another smear makes it even worse. The general message seems to be, “Yeah, let’s celebrate Vedder for being resilient…but only for that…because that kind of works against his supposed legacy.” The tacit message underlying all of this is worse when you consider it says that Chris Cornell was great, but only because he was too weak to control himself.
My teenage years were a series of encounters with posturing, posing, supposedly “real fans” who knew the great stuff from the bad, and would begrudgingly acknowledge the validity of people like Vedder, if only for the fact that he brought attention to that style of music. Other than instant six-pack abs, my other delusions of adulthood were that people my age would just grow up and leave these kinds of arguments behind, or In the words of a self-righteous, fictional record shop owner, Rob Gordon from the film version of High Fidelity:
“It would be nice to think
that since I was 14, times have changed.”
That movie did a deft job of lightly spoofing those “real fans.” Everyone got their comeuppance around their shallow, elitist belief systems, but in the end found new hope in more mature, more adult ways of doing things. The real world would have none of that.
Those “real fans”, or their ways of discussing things, are still around as is seen in The Washington Post. In that world the extra publicity is bad because only the true blue, pure believers only should have had access to the music and its message. In some circles even acknowledging “grunge” as a thing that existed is tantamount to a mortal sin, and points to being branded with that most dreaded of labels; “a sell-out.” This generation is not unique in this respect.
Hell, even the Dada-ist movement did this in the 1920s. If you said Dada existed then it didn’t exist, and you weren’t a true believer in it anyway. The Existentialists also said this, but now that I have acknowledged that, they no longer exist, and now I’m a blasphemer in that particular church too…if I was ever even a member.
In the 90s saying you “liked grunge” was like saying you “really admired the early works of Barry Manilow” (and I do). Oh, and don’t admit you came to know any of this music through a Greatest Hits collection, or The Essential [Whoever] type of compilation. Then you were a total loser.
The Kids in The Hall did a sketch about this kind of thing that kept me sane by exhibiting the insanity of this kind of behavior.
“Greatest Hits albums are for housewives and little girls!”
It’s funny to hear something like that when it’s mocking a smug, self-serving, self-professed “expert” on the purity of rock, but to take it seriously in the wake of someone’s suicide…? Some people actually expect that?
Still, these articles keep getting written, and like a community in search of its last king, or an ultimate scapegoat (maybe both?), Travis M. Andrews at The Washington Post decided to put the crown of longevity and ill will on the head of someone like Eddie Vedder…for the simple fact that he’s still alive and making music. It’s already a tough enough world for artists, and people in general. Must we really find new (or, in this case, recycled) ways of dividing ourselves sonically?
It can’t just be the sell-outs vs the suffering artists on a never-ending battlefield. I don’t care if Eddie Vedder or Dave Grohl wear a temporary crown that never existed. Chris Cornell’s death is a tragedy that should tell us that suffering in silence in front of millions is not a badge of honor that should lead to a begrudging coronation. It should simply be a time for grieving, for contemplation for appreciation of his artistry, and the artistry in all our days that makes us feel joy, or pain, or even something. Duke Ellington, a non-grunge artist if there ever was one, even once said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”
I’m not a true believer in one genre of music over another, but I am a true believer in the music and the art that makes me feel alive.
Vedder and Cornell both still do that for me, as do others of that generation…true believers and supposed sell-outs alike.
Rest In Peace, Chris Cornell. Because of you there is good music being played somewhere, echoing out on this base called planet Earth tonight.
“And before I let one more tear hit the ground
I will be the one standing between you and the sound
Of the rounds echoing out
Out of the dark”
– “The Keeper” by Chris Cornell