By Rich Hobson
It’s an almost indescribable feeling, coming to terms with the loss of a great artist whom you were so personally invested in. The sense of bereavement – and truthfully, that’s exactly what it is – seems almost dishonest, mourning for somebody that you never personally knew. And yet, the truth is the relationship we forge with art is as intimate as any friendship we make, music being such a mainstay of our lives that each of our favourite artists often becomes an unspoken member of the family even if you never so much as share the same room with them.
Sitting here, on May 18th 2017, it feels strange to be writing up a piece about the death of Chris Cornell, an artist whose music has been a companion throughout my own, and most of my age group’s, lives. From Soundgarden to Audioslave and an impressive solo career, Cornell’s discography has been a consistent mainstay of the music world since before I was even born. Yet, unlike artists like David Bowie or Lemmy, his music came into a world that we all knew from our youths, not from some alien landscape recognisable only from movies and TV – his career might have started in the 80s but it wasn’t truly born until the 1990s.
Unlike several of his contemporaries, Chris Cornell isn’t often referred to as “the voice of his generation” (despite having what is widely acknowledged as the best voice in the biz). For that, you’d find Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder a more suitable figure, be it through their steadfast personal politics or just a sense of social consciousness that created an instant gravitas. That wasn’t the kind of frontman Chris Cornell was – rooted in 70s rock gods, Cornell isn’t a “Kill yr Idols” type frontman, instead setting out from day one to be a modern-day rock star (something totally cemented when he fronted the seismic rock supergroup Audioslave). To paraphrase the quote often used about Soundgarden – he was a rock star without the parts that sucked.
Like every other rock star in history though, some level of bullshit had to prevail. Inevitably, that bullshit comes out the worst in some areas of the media. It didn’t take twelve hours of news breaking for the vultures to swarm in, as they always do, snapping for any piece of offal that could be served up as news. At the time of writing (and for some time yet, I suspect) Chris Cornell’s cause of death remains unknown. Irrespective of circumstance, it represents a tragedy in the rock world, the loss of a massive talent who seemed to be getting better with age. And that’s before you even consider the human implication.
Chris Cornell was an artist, but he was also a family man, with children who he often brought with him on tours. With that in mind, the ghoulish and immediate seizure of the information that part of Cornell’s death will be investigated as a suicide, shared gleefully by media outlets looking to earn a few more clicks (to them; if your site doesn’t have enough content to generate a buzz on its own, perhaps you should invest in better writers) is utterly despicable. If nothing else, the privacy of Cornell’s family should be respected enough to guarantee that none of his children will be faced with a litany of shitty, speculative articles.
This year marks twenty years since the death of Princess Diana – an event remembered by most my age as “the day you couldn’t watch cartoons”. There was no mistaking in that situation that the media held a huge portion of the blame, their dogged paparazzi tactics unmistakably inhuman. Flash forward a decade, Britney Spears suffered a very public breakdown as she too was relentlessly hounded by gutter press – the lessons still unlearned. And now, the circus comes to town again.
As a fan, I hope that nobody who truly loved Chris Cornell as an artist will support any website or publication that trades in gossip surrounding his death. As a writer, I hope every single website/mag/zine out there will exercise some level of restraint in the coming weeks, more directly, that they don’t fall into the trap of publishing an article with a stupendously stupidly simplified title like “the tragic legacy of grunge”. The rock press isn’t The Sun – we’re supposed to work to the same passions and show that this whole thing we love is built around community, not gossip-mag fodder. Instead, may I recommend an article on mental health and music, or wellbeing – I’ll write the fucking thing myself if I have to.
We don’t need to be told that musicians are only mortal. For that, the past decade has served as a particularly prickish game of “Guess Who”, watching as icons of every single decade suddenly disappear from the stage. So, instead of trying to scry every minute detail about this tragedy, instead take the time to sit back and listen to the music that made Cornell so popular in the first place, a celebration of the artist we all loved
When I woke up this morning the last thing I expected was a text that said, simply “Chris Cornell has died” sent by my dad, immediately I was hit by a wave of sadness – we have seen Cornell many times over the past decade (first show: Hyde Park, June 24th 2007, last show: Royal Albert Hall, May 3rd 2016). This sadness wasn’t just because Chris Cornell was a great artist (he is, and always will be), but because more than anything, he was a bastion of what rock stars should be.
Growing up, I got the impression that Cornell was one of the untouchable type rockstars, a figure completely alien to normal folk and etched into the world just to be a Rock Star (capitals very much necessary). The first time I saw him, in a rainy Hyde Park before Aerosmith (an excellent show and still one of my favourite memories of any show ever – it started raining during ‘Black Hole Sun’ and a rainbow formed. You seriously couldn’t make that shit up) he brought out one of his kids onstage, holding the squirming toddler on his lap while he sang ‘Arms Around Your Love’.
For a lesser artist, that’d be a moment of utter cheesiness, a photo-op where we could all gush about how great rock stars are. For Chris Cornell, it was just a chance to have a cuddle while singing a song off his latest album. Flash forward to June 12 2012 (how do I know the date? I have a spreadsheet, freetime and no shame) and Cornell was playing the Lowry. Witty and funny as you like, he notices a guy sitting in one of the front rows holding onto a sign – “Can I play a song with you Chris?”. He reads it out, deadpans “nope” then brings the guy up. They confer about what songs to play (“nah, not playing that one” he jokes – then does it anyway), play three songs together and he plugs the guy’s band at the end. Stand-up gent, through and through.
I share those stories because that’s the Chris Cornell I have in mind – a guy who was funny, talented and did some really, really nice shit. Chris Cornell wasn’t an aloof rock star, an unobtainable icon. He was a person, a good one at that (at least as far as the fans are concerned). Whether you love Temple of the Dog, Soundgarden, Audioslave or even the godawful album he did with Timbaland, the truth is his music is one of the greatest legacies he could leave us.
Finding the words to say how gutted I am that I’ll never see Temple of the Dog, or Audioslave, or hear ‘Flower’ (man, oh man did I want to hear that song) is almost impossible. Yet, even more bizarre is that the most fitting eulogy I’ve heard thus far, has come from the lyrical content of the man himself:
“I never wanted to write these words down for you/with the pages of phrases of all the things we’ll never do”. – Temple Of The Dog, ‘Heaven’
So, rest in peace Chris Cornell, a bona fide talent and a rock star to be proud of. No-one vocalist has, does, or ever will sing just like you.
And since I called out the shitty aspect of writing about an artist after their death, I want to include something positive too. So here’s an excellent piece by Stephen Hill.
ED: Given the nature of Cornell’s passing, we wanted to remind you that if you’re struggling and need someone to talk to, there are independent, publicly available resources out there. Please use them.
Samaritans: 116 123 (UK)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (US)