Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Voice

I woke up to terrible new today.  My sister and a friend of mine both texted me to tell me that Chris Cornell had died.  I couldn't believe it.  I have been following Chris Cornell to one degree or another for the past 23 years.  I couldn't believe he was dead.  One of the greatest rock and roll voices of my generation was gone.  And in the hours that followed, it was discovered that his death was a a result suicide by hanging.  What a tragedy.  I'm still having trouble accepting it as I write this.

It's interesting how things affect you.  I've never met Chris Cornell personally.  I've seen him in person at four concerts over the past 10 years, but that's it.  It's not like we were close, or that he even knew I existed.  But following him and listening to his music for the past 20+ years makes me feel like I know him.  And as recently as just a couple weeks ago, I was listening to his most recent album and thinking to myself about how much I was looking forward to whatever it would be that he released next.  The man truly had a musical uniqueness that would be difficult or even impossible to duplicate.

That being said, I've tried to duplicate it.  There are several musical artists that I've tried to copy in my own musical pursuits - people that I have tried to emulate in my own singing and guitar playing.  Chris Cornell was number 2 on that list.  The way he sang was perfect.  I tried to sound like him when I sang (although, of course, I paled in comparison).

Equally tragic was that he seemed to have his life together in a way that many of his peers from that same era of music didn't.  Curt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland all died, mostly due to drug and alcohol problems.  Chris Cornell also went through a time of substance abuse, but came out of it.  He seemed to be doing well in his personal life.  He was married and had two children.  Apparently there was more going on than anyone realized.

23 years ago my seventh grade year was coming to a close, which coincided with the grunge music explosion of the early 90's.  Grunge music was all the rage, and anyone who was anyone at my junior high school was growing their hair out and wearing flannel shirts, and I was one of them.  I scooped up the very little money I had made mowing the lawns of neighbors and went to the local music store, intending to purchase my very own piece of grunge culture.  I had heard Pearl Jam and Nirvana before, and was a fan, but thought that purchasing one of their albums would be too risky, as my parents still kept a somewhat short leash on the music I listened to (although, as the third child the restrictions placed upon me weren't as tight as those placed on my sisters), and I thought they wouldn't approve of me owning an album by either of those bands - they were common enough that I think my parents had heard of them by that time, and didn't approve.  I decided to buy an album by a lesser-known band, and I hoped the music would be innocuous enough so as to not draw the criticism of my parents.  The album I choose was "Superunknown" by Soundgarden, on cassette.  It was the first album I had ever purchased with my own money, of my own accord.

I brought the tape home and showed it to my sister Susan, who was also into grunge music, although she was in high school at the time.  Her initial reaction was one of displeasure, as she thought it would be laden with foul language and immoral themes.  Before showing her the tape I had gone through the lyrics to scout them out for any cuss words.  I assured here that I only found two: "D*mn" and "P*ss" (I suppose the latter isn't technically a cuss word, but it was considered to be vulgar back then).  Believe it or not, that seemed to assuage her concerns, and we both listened to it.  A lot.  I would watch MTV at friends' houses (we didn't have cable at my house), just waiting for the video for "Black Hole Sun" to come on, or "Fell on Black Days."  And thus, my journey into grunge and rock and roll music had begun.  (Although, to be honest, I've never considered Soundgarden to be "grunge" music.  It's always had more of an "alternative" or "modern rock" sound to me.  And yes, I am that kind of music snob.)  But it wasn't just the fact that this was the first album I had ever purchased that made "Superunknown" special - it was also a fantastic album.  And the singer was amazing.  There was no one else in the music world like him.  Soundgarden became a regular part of my listening experience.

That tape led to others, which led to even deeper forays into the world of music.  My tastes expanded and deepened over time, as is common for most people.  But that was the start, and that album in particular held a special place for me because of its significance in the development of my musical tastes and expressions.

Soundgarden's next album, "Down on the Upside," came out when I was in high school.  I remember being blown away by their live performances on Saturday Night Live, which happened to be hosted by Jim Carrey, which spawned the "Night at the Roxbury" comedy bits that became so popular.  I remember it in particular for the performance of "Burden in My Hand."  By that time in my life, I don't think I had ever heard a song like that.  "Pretty Noose" was the other song they performed, and was equally mesmerizing to me.  I didn't buy this album, but my sister did, and I copied it onto a tape and listened to it like crazy.  (As an aside, I remember finding the liner notes from her copy of the CD lying around once, and I looked through them at the lyrics of the songs.  Susan had crossed out all the swear words from the liner notes!)  I remember that the drumming on "Burden In My Hand" was a revelation to me.  I had never heard anyone play the drums like that.  And again, that voice was unmatchable.

Not long after "Down on the Upside" was released, Soundgarden broke up.  I was a bit bummed, but certainly not too dismayed, as there was plenty of other music out there to be listened to, and listen I did.  Time went on, and Soundgarden faded from my mind as other music likewise came and went.

Not long after Soundgarden broke up, Chris Cornell started his solo career.  I'll be honest: I wasn't impressed.  I heard a song or two, and that was enough for me.  It seemed like it was too "easy listening" - too much of a departure from the Soundgarden sound.  I knew he was out there, but I wasn't really interested.

But then, in the early 2000's, Chris got together with the band members from Rage Against the Machine to form the band Audioslave.  I was not excited about this at all.  Rage Against the Machine was a band - also from my youth - that was known for its extremely leftist political positions and protest songs against anything with even a veneer of conservativism.  While this didn't surprise me, it bummed me out.  Chris Cornell had always been what I would call an "honest" entertainer.  I once read an interview with him in which he said that during Soundgarden's heyday, MTV had asked him to be a spokesman for their "Rock the Vote" campaign.  Cornell declined, however, and he said it was because MTV seemed to be clearly trying to get young people to vote for Democratic candidates.  He felt that MTV's efforts to get people to vote was actually a front for helping to elect Democrats.  He didn't state his own political leanings in this interview, but I appreciated his honesty and integrity in the matter.  Additionally, Cornell has gone on record that he prefers not to mix political messages in with his music (which makes this song stick out like a sore thumb to me, as though he was forced to record it).  He feels the two are best left separate, and I wholly agree.

And then, here he is teaming up with the guys from Rage Against the Machine - the most militantly leftist band in history (they were banned from Saturday Night Live for attempting to burn an American flag during a live performance on the show).  Hmmm.  I didn't know what to expect.

Then the first single dropped: "Cochise."  I was blown away.  Incredible song.  It has what is probably the second best scream in any song I've ever heard (Cornell owns the top space in this category as well, with the scream in "Drown Me" from "Superunknown.")  You may not think screaming is something to be admired, but believe me, there's an art to it, and Chris Cornell mastered that art.  To my surprise, the first Audiosoave album was a masterpiece.  Every song was great.  Every song was innovative and new.  Every song featured his unmistakable voice.  And none of the songs contained any leftist political commentary, which was an added bonus!

Audioslave produced two more albums, both good, but they didn't match the quality of the first.

Cornell then went on to do more solo stuff, and finally reunited with Soundgarden in 2010, producing the album "King Animal," which was classic Soundgarden.

There are a million other things to describe about Cornell's voice, and I'm certainly no expert, nor his biographer.  Time would fail to talk about Temple of the Dog, his covers of "Billie Jean" or "Nothing Compares 2 U," or his most recent and most brilliant solo work, and the other stuff he has done (like when I accidentally and pleasantly discovered his work on the "Machinegun Preacher" soundtrack). For example, show me another song written in the past 40 years like this one (not only does it sound like it comes from the soundtrack of a 1960's "spaghetti western," but I'd love to know what kind of guitar that opening progression is played on).  Or listen to the soulful, bluesy genius of "Bend in the Road."  Masterpiece.  Find out what I mean about his ability to scream in a way that is musical and adds depth to a song like "Murderer of Blue Skies."

That was another thing about him that was extraordinary: his ability to cross genres.  In the beginning he was mostly the grunge or hard rock guy, but that quickly branched into other genres of music, proving that he was capable of mastering the vocal style of any kind of music he put himself to.

Cornell's voice has always been the signature of Soundgarden, or pretty much anything else he's done.  The guy could sing like no one else you've heard.  His Wikipedia page says that he had a four octave range, and I believe it.  He could sing exceptionally high, and the sound of his voice was so unique.  As time went on and he got older, his voice got better, taking on a more gravely tone and texture.  He lost a bit of his range, but the gravel added a ton of soul.  His voice simply can't be duplicated.  And now we'll never hear his voice again.

As I stated earlier, I was fortunate enough to see him in concert four times - thrice as a solo act, and once with Soundgarden.  I attended each of those concerts with my sister Susan.  See here for her account of the first time we saw him in concert.  We then saw him perform an acoustic set at St. Katherine's University, of all places.  Then we saw Soundgarden perform in support of the release of "King Animal."  The most recent time we saw him was in October of 2015.

The most tragic part of his death is, of course, the lack of any assurance that he knew God.  Most of his lyrics included a lot of deep spiritual finagling, but never anything consistently Christian (although he ironically and accurately and identified the hypocrisy of the so-called "prosperity gospel" in the song "Wooden Jesus").  But as with anyone who dies without any assurance of salvation, there is always hope that somehow, someway, God made himself known to Chris and he put his trust in him before his death.  That's what I hope anyway.

In conclusion, an associate of mine (and fellow Chris Cornell fan), Levi Secord, posted this very well-written and apt reflection on his Facebook page today, which accurately expresses my feelings as well:
I was saddened today when I woke up to the news one of my favorite artists had died, Chris Cornell, apparently from suicide. I enjoyed his hauntingly wonderful voice, but also his honesty in his lyrics. He openly struggled with the world as it was, a fallen and broken world. Much of his lyrics reflected a mourning of the brokenness of this life and the seemingly hopelessness of it all. This resonates with me, for I recognize the world is not as it should be.  
His band mates described his music as "poetic existentialism," and his struggle with finding meaning in the world ultimately lead to nothingness. Though Cornell often struggled with religious themes, especially Christianity in his lyrics, he still could not seem to find truth or hope in it. He was looking for meaning and purpose, but was unable to find it under the sun without God. This is why his lyrics often portrayed a dark outlook with little hope.  
This lack of hope, and his struggle with trying to find ultimate meaning are found in much of his work, especially his later work songs like Show Me How to Live, Like a Stone, Out of Exile, Doesn't Remind Me, Light My Way, No Such Thing as Nothing, Dead Wishes, Higher Truth, Circling, and so many more. Sometimes he even quoted from Scripture (I am the Highway). But in the end, everything remained meaningless and hopeless for him.  
Take these lines from "Before We Disappear" found in his latest album (video below):
"Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast
Taking everything that you ever had
And giving nothing in return
But a cold bed in a quiet earth" 
There is no hope in these lyrics and they reflect a man who looked at the world honestly through his worldview and thus stared into the abyss. You will get nothing out of life but a grave in the end. I just said the other week that this line sounds familiar to some in the book of Ecclesiastes. Chris was a tortured artist to the core. 
The loss of life in such a tragic way, especially leaving behind a wife and children, is terrible news. But let us reflect on this--there is no hope under the sun if there is no God. If Christianity is a myth, if there is no truth to God becoming man and dying to save man and redeem creation, then we are to be the most pitied people on earth. If Christianity is false, then the grave is all we get. Chris was more honest in his worldview than most are today, and this honesty in the face of hopelessness surely played a role in him taking his own life. So today I mourn his loss, I pray for his family, and I lament that the world is not as it should be. But I do not do so as one without hope, for God is there, he does exist, and he has revealed his love and mercy through Christ Jesus. In the end there is more than just a cold bed in the quiet earth--there is eternity.

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