Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dark as Roses, Fine as Sand: The Legacy of Chris Cornell

My Thursday morning commute to work is usually a quiet one.  It's the one day a week that I am not driving my kids to school. Typically, my mornings are filled with teenage chatter and comedians on Apple Music.  This Thursday morning drive was being sound-tracked with today's current adult alternative music.  Basically, it is background noise I can tune out while I think.  I'm a thinker.  OK, I'm an over thinker.  I repeat the day before in my head and then plan the day ahead of me.  It's an indulgence that I don't always give into, otherwise it will control me.  I'm not one to give stock in the news.  Actually, I avoid it at all costs. Years of my dad watching the nightly news and reading the paper cured me of that.  While my friends were watching whatever they wanted to watch on their TV's, we watched the news.  On the rare occasion that I did read the paper, my father would feed me the sports scores before I had the opportunity to read the details.  No, on this day it was music.  On this day, Thursday, May 18th, I was mindlessly lost in melody following the highway on autopilot. And then the text came in.

"Did Chris Cornell die?"

The text was from fellow My Music, My Concerts, My Life staffer Tom Zonkowski.  I pulled my car into nearby parking lot and did a quick Google search.  I fully expected it to be a hoax.  Why else would he ask if it was true?  But there it was.  In black and white.  Snopes does not lie. It was so true I was waiting for my father to come back from the dead and tell me before I had the chance to read it. We had lost rock icon Chris Cornell.  Year in and year out, there seems to be no shortage of musical greats that leave this world in a sad or tragic way.  As I get older, these passings hit closer to home - reminding me of my own mortality.  Although I was truly heartbroken at the deaths of Prince and David Bowie, they didn't cut as deep.  Prince was great memories of sexual awareness.  Bowie was the remembrance of music discovery.  The loss of Chris Cornell was different.  His music followed me through my adult life.  The news of his death hit me like a sledgehammer in the gut.  All I could think was, "Please don't let this be drug related."

At work, I was playing all Cornell all day.  My co-workers had not heard the news yet, but they could tell I was distraught.  I shared stories from my concert experiences and played all of my favorite Chris Cornell songs. As the day progressed, friends started texting me left and right.  Over my lifetime, there have been numerous legends we have lost.  We lost them at a time in our lives when we needed them.  Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Andrew Wood.  All of them are dear to my heart although I never truly "got" them.  I didn't suffer from drug addiction.  I didn't have the conflict of becoming cliche or selling out. Although I felt their isolation, I didn't live their lives.  A good friend of mine had said Layne Staley never truly "let her in."  Chris Cornell invited her in and held the door open.  To me, that is the difference.

I was fortunate to see Soundgarden perform live on two occasions.  The first time was during Lollapalooza '92 during the rise of their career.   From the moment they played a cover of "Cop Killer" on stage, I was a fan.  There was something gritty about Soundgarden.  In an era where Poison and Warrant were wearing makeup, Chris Cornell was shirtless and screaming.  The sheer intensity of their performance was staggering.  I was 21 at the time.  The concert was at Montage Mountain in the Poconos and we took a camper to the show.  The highway was steep and winding.  We peered over the side of the mountain clinging to our "Oh Shit!" handles for dear life.  I was just learning to drink and take drugs responsibly.  Clearly, I had not mastered either as I found myself passed out by the time the headliners - The Red Hot Chili Peppers - took the stage.  I had a full-time job and was a year away from getting engaged.  I was learning to find life on my own terms.  Shortly after that, Superunknown would be released.  Even though I was embarking on new territory in my life, I was scared.  I moved away from home.  I got married.  I got a promotion.  Yet, "Fell on Black Days" spoke to me more than any other song at the time.

My mother suffers from depression.  When I was a kid, at least once a month, she would clean the house and then leave.  She would tell me she was never coming back.  My father would come home from work and I would tell him what happened and he would drive around until he found her.  It was traumatizing.  I can't believe I am admitting this, but at times I suffer from this same condition.  I always remind myself of the good things in my life for which I am grateful. My children. My friends.  Music. Music has always been there for me.  It helped me through these times.  Chris Cornell was a voice of reason when I was lost. For much of my married life, I was lost.  I became a father of two boys.  I changed jobs.  I tried to discover my own identity. Was I a husband? A father? An employee?  To be honest, I did not know.

The second time I saw Chris Cornell perform was just a few years back - during Soundgarden's long-awaited reunion tour - as the opener for Nine Inch Nails.  It was so good to see a band from my past reunite and make great new music.  I was recently divorced and for the first time living a life that I knew was mine.  I was starting to truly appreciate being a father.  I found purpose in this blog.  I felt like I finally had come to terms with who I was.  I felt that Chris Cornell had finally come to terms with Soundgarden. I had read how he wished that his solo career had exploded in the same way Soundgarden or Audioslave had.  Although he gave us gems like "Can't Change Me," he always excelled more as part of a band.  He taught the members of Rage Against the Machine that great music was more than a catchy guitar riff.  As Audioslave, their music had melody.  "I Am the Highway" means more to me than any other song of my generation.  I remember traveling on long road trips for work listening to this song on repeat.  Trying my hardest to hit the high notes. This song tells my story in words that I could never express. When I heard it I knew that someone else understood me.  I still get chills to this day every time I hear the song.

As details emerged about his death, I was shocked to learn it was suicide.  I know I had wished for the cause of death not to be drug related, but the news of suicide seemed even worse. He lived through a music scene that many of his contemporaries had not.  He suffered from depression.  He lost his friend and roommate, Andrew Wood, to drugs.  Yet, he carried on.  He formed Temple of the Dog as a tribute to Wood.  He became a spokesman.  An elder statesman.  He traveled from town to town like a Wordsworth troubadour sharing his stories of loss and depression.  While Cobain, Staley and Wood were the blowing wind Cornell remained the lightning.  Chris's voice was a gift from the gods.  On many occasions, I had been asked if I could have any singer's voice whose it would be. Chris Cornell was my answer every time.  His voice was soulful and strong. Powerful yet elegant.  It added another layer of meaning to every song.  It took his lyrics from paper and made them a multi-dimensional storybook.  That type of talent only comes along once in a generation.

Despite the demons inside of him, he was funny.  He was poetic.  He was human.  What hurts me more than anything was that I thought he had won.  I thought he had been through the battle and lived to tell about it. I wish he knew how much his music had meant to me and so many others.  The sheer number of times the song "Sunshower" had helped me in dark moments - helped me to carry on.  His songs saved me, but in the end his songs could not save him.

Thank you, Chris Cornell.  You spoke to me.  You kept me sane.  You sound-tracked my life.  You connected with me.  You saved me.  For me, you will always be the highway.

See you when the needle drops.


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