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What We Can (and Can't) Learn From Chris Cornell's Death and Seattle's Music Legacy

Questions linger as despair, drugs and suicide continue to haunt one of rock's most storied music scenes.

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What We Can (and Can't) Learn From Chris Cornell's Death and Seattle's Music Legacy

Oh my god, another one…

That’s how filmmaker Doug Pray felt on May 18 when he heard the news that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell had become the latest grunge-era musician to die, just hours after the iconic Seattle quartet had played a show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. Presumably, millions around the world reacted the same way as reports of a possible suicide began to surface, along with the inevitable stream of images of Cornell from the band’s 1990s heyday. For Pray, the executive producer of the recent HBO documentary series The Defiant Ones, the news stirred memories of making his first film, 1996’s Hype! As fate would have it, he had already begun the passage down memory lane.

Hype!, which is set for a rerelease on Blu Ray in September via Shout! Factory, examines the early-’90s explosion of the Seattle music scene that made cultural institutions out of the Sub Pop label and bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, The Melvins, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees and Tad—all of which, for better or worse, are forever tethered to the word “grunge.” It’s a term that Seattle musicians had grown so weary of by the height of its grip on the masses that, as Screaming Trees bassist Van Conner told VH-1 in a 2001 grunge retrospective, hearing it made some of them “wanna take a swing.”

“Sure, they all wanted to be rock stars—we’re all brought up to want fame, maybe—but this was a group of people who didn’t expect it,” says Pray of grunge scene. “That’s the difference between a bunch of bands who move to L.A. or New York City.”

Shot in 1993 and 1994, with the Seattle phenomenon still going full-bore even in the aftermath of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s death, Hype! wasn’t released until two years later. As a result, the film reads as an unintentional postmortem on a pop-culture trend that was already nearing its saturation point when Pray arrived in Seattle to commence filming. By the time Hype! saw the light of day, the culture had moved on. Grunge, to borrow one of Cornell’s typically wry lyrical references to dying, had begun to draw flies. Looking back, Pray said, Cobain’s death “symbolized the intense pressures on these people who had suddenly become rock stars… Because this was a group of people who were more unwitting about fame. Sure, they all wanted to be rock stars—we’re all brought up to want fame, maybe—but this was a group of people who didn’t expect it. That’s the difference between a bunch of bands who move to L.A. or New York City. That’s why I use the word ‘authentic’ when I talk about Seattle. Fame came to them.”

Fame came to them and left a trail of disillusionment and death in its wake. Though their music continues to strike chords with audiences more than 25 years after its peak, the musicians from that community speak of their sudden place in the spotlight as more of a curse than a blessing. Now Cornell is the latest in a tragic line of prominent Seattle musicians to die by self-inflicted means, joining Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood (1990), 7 Year Bitch’s Stefanie Sargent (1992), Cobain (1994), and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley (2002) and Mike Starr (2011). While it’s too reductive to assert that fame killed these artists—Wood and Sargent weren’t quite famous when they died, and Pray stressed that he refused to draw that conclusion in his film—it is worth noting that even the most career-driven Seattle bands displayed symptoms of a conflicted, even tortured relationship with fame once they achieved it. Few of them ever really got over it.

Over the years, many who lived through the experience have spoken of it as a kind of collective trauma. Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil sums it up during the band’s appearance near the end of Hype!, when he laments the added pressures that come with success. “You kinda figured that you’d play guitar, drums or whatever, make a record, play a show, and people like your record and they like your show,” he says. “But you couldn’t really anticipate it becoming interviews and videos and photo sessions. Somewhere in the forefront of our mind, we knew that these were things that went along with the job, but you can never really anticipate it ‘til you’re there.”

Thayil’s Hype! interview was filmed before a homecoming show Soundgarden played on Aug. 11, 1994, just as their blockbuster album Superunknown was conquering the charts and MTV. In spite of the intensity of the performance that made the final cut of the film, the underlying sense of diminished morale is striking. If you look back further, concert footage circa 1992’s opening slot with Guns ‘N Roses captures a still-hungry band climbing its way up the ladder. At the height of their success one album cycle later, Soundgarden often appeared spiritually defeated onstage, and one gets a palpable feeling of a band that felt the world was closing in on them.

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Fans mourn after funeral services for Chris Cornell in Los Angeles on May 26.

“I think those bands enjoyed the money,” said David de Sola, author of 2015’s Alice In Chains: The Untold Story, “but I don’t think they enjoyed the celebrity that came with it. Or they weren’t prepared for it. I think it would be safe to say that for all those bands. For all of them, I think it was a classic example of the dog that caught the car: ‘Okay, now what happens?’ And people coped in their own ways.”

Speaking to VH-1 in the aforementioned grunge special, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron (who had then recently joined Pearl Jam) dismissed the notion that these Seattle bands actively shunned fame. “I guess that was the impression in the press, that none of these groups wanted to be famous, but I don’t really buy it,” he said. “For [Soundgarden], the bottom line was that we’d worked a long time to get success.”

Cornell was certainly worse for the wear once he got there. Still, he appeared to have found a balance as he advanced into the 21st century. De Sola, a journalist who has spent most of his career focusing on politics and history, was “totally shocked” when he learned of Cornell’s death. While researching his Alice In Chains biography, he said, he formed an impression of Cornell as “the most grounded of all of those guys.”

For all of Soundgarden’s apparent displeasure with touring, and to whatever degree Cornell harbored personal issues, they never appeared to prevent him or the band from functioning. By Cornell’s own account, he was no stranger to indulgence (his well-documented addictions reached a critical point shortly after he joined Audioslave in 2001). Still, at various points over the years, he stressed that he’d always been regarded by his hard-partying Seattle peers as one of the most stable and responsible of the bunch. Not to mention that at the time of his passing, his motivation appeared to be surging after 15 years in recovery. Over the last six months or so of his life, Cornell was juggling work with Soundgarden, a reunited Temple of the Dog, and his own solo material. Had he shown a tendency toward melting down and professionally derailing in the past, there would at least be some precedent. From the outside looking in, Cornell’s death appeared to come out of left field.

Read Paste’s list of Chris Cornell’s 15 best songs.

Of course, when an artist who, like Cornell, makes repeated references to suicide and hanging in his music ends up dying from self-asphyxiation, it’s only natural to start searching between the lines for the suffering at the heart of songs like “Black Hole Sun,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” and “Blow Up the Outside World.” Perhaps those songs will resonate more deeply now that we’re left to wonder whether the person who wrote them was struggling more than we initially understood.

Cornell is the only musician among the aforementioned group whose death didn’t involve heroin, which makes it difficult to resist zooming in on other factors that have been out in the open: his history of depression and extreme, near-agoraphobic reclusiveness (for one two-year stretch as an adolescent, Cornell barely left the house, steeping himself in Beatles records); his recurring flashbacks after a bad experience with PCP at the age of 14; the pattern of tense silence punctuated by volatile outbursts that loomed over his household growing up; his repeated hints of deteriorating mental health at the start of his solo career; his troubled history with prescription medication, and his erratic behavior on the night of May 18.

None of these details cohere into a complete picture. Those of us who knew Cornell only through his music may never understand what led to his death. Perhaps the people who knew him won’t either. If anyone close to him had any inkling of suicidal behavior, no one to date has come forward to share them. As of this writing, his former peers have mostly kept silent; Paste’s requests for comment were declined by representatives for Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, The Melvins, Sub Pop, and others.

“Unless you’re actually walking in those people’s shoes, I don’t think you can really grasp what it’s like to be depressed,” said author Greg Prato, whose oral history, Grunge Is Dead, was published in 2009. “And when you add prescription meds on top of it—or heroin, in Kurt and Layne’s case—that’s also got to be very difficult. But I guess we’ll never get to the bottom of it.”

Prato also discourages people from reading too much into this particular group of musicians, pointing out that other musical scenes have seen their share of casualties as well. That may be so, but the trail of clues in this case still tantalizes, particularly when you consider that there may be some lessons to be gleaned from the fact that Cornell, Cobain and Staley were all introverts whose hunger for creative expression led them to a level of celebrity they seemed ill-equipped to handle. As vocalists who, to put it mildly, didn’t fit the stereotype of the hammy, attention-craving lead-singer, the anguished isolation that drove their music, ironically enough, spoke to people so deeply that it thrust them into a spotlight that was far too bright. Onstage, as charismatic as all three may have been to watch, their body language often appeared insulated and closed. And the sense of withdrawal in Cornell’s onstage demeanor from 1994 until Soundgarden’s 1997 breakup is especially noteworthy.

Cornell, Cobain and Staley were introverts whose hunger for creative expression led them to a level of celebrity they seemed ill-equipped to handle.

To whatever degree you can or can’t draw connections to the life choices of a group of deceased musicians (Cornell scoffed at the notion of trying to parse meaning from Cobain’s death), it’s clear that Seattle’s grunge gods found their sudden position at the crosshairs of mass awareness disorienting and destabilizing. So maybe it’s time we stop regarding success and fame as interchangeable, but rather as overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. Success is often just the realization of personal goals. Fame is a different animal. Case in point: When Cornell appeared on Howard Stern’s show in 2007, Stern was incredulous as Cornell revealed that he had received messages for years from an unidentified stalker who would describe various mutilation scenarios involving his children.

Cornell, however, never ushered his audience into the space of sheer despair you’ll find on, say, Alice In Chains’ Dirt or Nirvana’s In Utero. His output generally had too many layers for a simple reading, even now. In the wake of his death, the best way to honor his legacy is to go back and listen to his work free of the baggage of its place, time and narrative context. It would be unfair, for example, to remember him as the shirtless beefcake from the “Outshined” video. Soundgarden were hamstrung by image issues—being pigeonholed as a grunge act may have contributed to the precipitous dropoff in sales from Superunknown to 1996’s Down on the Upside, the band’s final album before breaking up. But like so many of their peers, at times they seemed all too willing to play along.

In Mark Yarm’s 2011 book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, Cornell looked back and compared the career choices that Pearl Jam and Nirvana made: “I think Pearl Jam was the band that set the perfect example,” he said. “Their big video, ‘Jeremy,’ propelled them into becoming big TV stars and one of the biggest bands on the planet, so they stopped making videos, which was proof positive that that wasn’t where they wanted to be. And that made a lot of sense to me. Nirvana doing an Unplugged at the time they did it and making a video for “Heart-Shaped Box” didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because it seemed clear that Kurt was pretty disillusioned by the situation that he was being put in. It felt like, ‘If he’s so unhappy, he shouldn’t be doing this kind of stuff.’”

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Cornell’s perspective says a lot about the Seattle scene’s collective ambivalence when it came to self-presentation. Though he assesses each band’s course differently, he positions fame as something to be resisted—an attitude that underscored Soundgarden’s history even as they went for broke and made similarly questionable decisions. In one of Everybody Loves Our Town’s many laugh-out-loud anecdotes, Cornell (pictured left with Kim Thayil in 2012) recalls an exchange that took place backstage on one of Soundgarden’s 1992 dates opening for Guns ‘N Roses, who at the time would routinely keep their fans waiting upward of two hours before taking the stage. Then at their commercial apex, GNR had extended the invitation, and Soundgarden had accepted—a move that, according to first-hand accounts in Yarm’s book, chagrined some in their community back home.

Sure enough, the band found itself out of place in the oversized universe of arena-rock megastardom. Hardly the kind of backstage-excess tale we’ve grown accustomed to hearing, Cornell’s priceless tidbit barely registers as an incidental footnote in rock history. But it tells us all we need to know about the sneering attitude toward rock stardom that, for better or worse, characterized the group of bands Soundgarden came up with. It also reminds us that Cornell possessed a cutting sense of humor—something we may forget all too easily in his absence.

“[Axl] was always hidden somewhere having a personal —always,” Cornell recalled. “One time I was in the room when he was talking to his manager, Doug Goldstein, about wanting the Goodyear blimp for the show. I said this as a joke, even though it was true, that the Fuji blimp was the largest blimp in the world. Axl was like, ‘That’s it! It’s gonna be the Fuji blimp!’”

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