Losing Chris Cornell is More than Just a Headline

Posted on: May 19th, 2017 at 10:32 am by

Soundgarden on Letterman, 2012

“Black Hole Sun” was the first song I ever heard that completely scared the shit out of me.

The way the music stretches like a creepy elastic band, the eerie ebb and flow of Chris Cornell’s crooning voice, and the ominous lyrical mantra beckoning an inescapable gravitational force with a giant ball of fire? Hell no!

Nonetheless, I, like so many others, followed Chris Cornell and his musical iterations through my teenage years and beyond. Audioslave included. He was a sorcerer. His rally-cry voice was ever conjuring earworms that kept choruses in our heads for days. He successfully pulled angst fueled deliveries out of thin air, over and over. He cast a spell on a generation that was desperate to be heard – a generation growing up in a post-Cobain world that needed their own icon to represent apathy and the desire to be free. And then, just like that, we wake up on a bright sunny Thursday in May, he’s gone, and we’re all left waiting for The Prestige that isn’t going to come.

Soundgarden at Jones Beach (2011), Photo: Dave Gustav

The grunge gods of our youth are disappearing.

Why does this matter? It matters because it unhinges the small but mighty foundational moments of our formative years. It matters because they were our pillars, and those pillars are now crumbling. And with every loss, our memories tied to them are tinged with a little more melancholy.

Soundgarden Lollapalooza (1996), Photo: Dave Gustav

Loss is shocking and awful and incredibly hard to swallow, no matter which way you look at it. But there’s something to be said for the unsettling feeling of emptiness that inhabits a music fan with the loss of a musician. While film and fiction and a slew of other media can undoubtedly make you “feel,” music is unique in that it’s so instantly emotionally engaging, you can’t help but make real-life associations with it on a regular basis. There’s an accessibility here, too. It’s a lot easier to put on a four-minute track to get you through a slump, than to reread a favorite book or watch a movie that blew you away, to achieve the same feeling. Country singer Eric Church pretty much nails it when he sings, “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory…” It’s the personal attachment that sets music apart.

This is why the death of a musician sucker punches us. We’ve grown so comfortable with an artist’s music by internalizing it. We make it our own, laying claim to lyrics and melodies so fiercely in our daily lives – it becomes a part of the fabric of ourselves. So when one of these influential figures dies, it’s impossible to put into words how we feel – and it always feels like we come up short when we try. “Yeah, it sucks, it’s so sad, I saw them play at…” An untimely end shakes us awake; it has us retracing our footsteps through fandom, wanting to share our precious moments tied to them, without sounding like a total twat jumping on some sort of morbid bandwagon. Their death makes us question our past. We put so much stock into their music, and when they cut out, we ask ourselves, “What was I missing there?”

Temple of the Dog at MSG, Nov. 2016

And on a subconscious level, there’s also remorse; here’s an artist who helped us through countless youthful rites of passage (boredom, breakups, road trips, bad parents/friends/jobs, dances, firsts, etc), with their music… and we couldn’t return the favor. They helped save us, but we couldn’t help save them. Maybe it’s self-indulgent, maybe not. Deep down, don’t we hope that bands just quietly fade off into the sunset, living on whatever spoils of success they could scrounge up during their heyday? We don’t want the end to come at their intentional (or semi-intentional) hands.

The beauty of music lies in its potential. Music fans have a steadfast belief in it, not to mention an abundance of loyalty when it comes to their favorites. It’s a powerful thing. Sure, bands put out albums that might not hit that sweet spot, or they take their sound in a completely different direction (looking at you, Radiohead). But better to hold onto hope in a band’s unheard musical future than to experience a slightly darker “Day the Music Died.”

So, yeah, it’s with heavy heart that we say rest in peace Chris Cornell. You were the voice of a generation.

Audioslave at Hammerstein Ballroom, April 2005

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