Sunday, May 21, 2017

Chris Cornell Meant Much More Than Most Other Mainstream Musicians

Okay, so no, I am not quite done grieving the loss of Chris Cornell just yet.

Why not?

Because this world really is just fucked up. Sorry to be candid, or to use unusually strong language, but it's the truth.

Cornell's music is something that I have been listening to now for almost a quarter of a century or so, and which has moved me many times. Plus, he was a genuinely decent guy.

One thing that needs to be understood about the "Seattle grunge" thing is this" they were musicians with something more to say, and more of a conscience, then mindless party rock bands of every genre that had existed to that point. 

And Chris Cornell was one of those guys with something to say, and with real decency.

So, why rush to return to the "real world" where Donald fucking Trump is President of the United States? Why hurry back to a world that had global warming, yet sees the world growing colder in a very real sense, often by people who deny the existence of global warming? Frankly, why return to a world where the major artists of mainstream music seem to be all about mindlessly showing off their wealth and flaunting their sexiness and their party lifestyle once again, as if that was so great, that it needed to come around full circle? 

It bothers me, this death, perhaps more than Kurt Cobain's equally shocking death by suicide in 1994. I remember finding out when my mom told me, and how surreal it all felt at the time. Cornell seemed a bit more stable and mild-mannered by way of comparison, and not as apparently driven towards suicide as the inevitable end of it all, like Cobain. After all, Cobain mentioned it and wrote about it, and his lyrics reflected this obsession.

Cornell, on the other hand, seemed quite a bit more mild-mannered. 

Yes, I know what some would respond to this argument, Cornell's lyrical subject matter, especially with Soundgarden, was often dark and dreary, too. Death and suicide are not exactly completely taken out of the equation.

Still, Cornell was able to create something unique and special with his music and, ultimately, quite a it more positive than Cobain. Not that Nirvana's music was not great. But hearing it today, you cannot help but be reminded - every time you hear it - that the end result was Cobain's suicide.

As Chris Nickson, author of Soundgarden: New Metal Crown" (yes, I started rereading this book on the day that Cornell died) suggests, the music of Soundgarden, and the other Seattle bands that broke onto the national scene in the early nineties, offered something new. They offered punk intensity rebelliousness, but with heavy metal roots still clearly bleeding through, all with a peculiar Pacific Northwest desire to be good citizens. In the case of Soundgarden, they leaned quite a bit more heavily towards heavy metal, although as Nickson also rightly points out, they did so without being weighted down by the tired cliched attitudes and redneck mentality of some bands, or the cartoonish quality of others. They offered something real, something far more substantive.

Indeed, all of the major Seattle bands to emerge during that "grunge" era seemed to have a little bit more of a conscience than the bands that came before them. The playful danger of Kiss, or the mindless party attitude of Van Halen, or the megalomania of Axl Rose (sometimes, it is enough to make you wonder if he is a Trump supporter these days) yielded, at least for a while, to bands that used their voice to sing about something, and to protest. Maybe to many, it would be laughable. And yes, admittedly, many young people, particularly young white males, did not bother exploring the issues that these bands addressed with their music and art, but rather just listened to it because it was intense, and it was the "cool" in thing at the time.

Of course, that was not really the fault of the Seattle bands. They at least tried to get their audience to think about things. Cobain spoke out, as did Cornell and Vedder. Unfortunately,it fell on deaf ears. Or rather, ears that were tuned in only to the music, and eyes only for those aspects of the band that were trendy at the time. I even remember that kind of thing, where guys were joking about how wasted these band members would get, how drunk or high. Vedder in particular was known as adventurous, having famously climbed the stages of his shows and done some acrobatics, before dropping down to his audience, which fortunately for him, always caught him. But there was so much more that these bands had to offer, and it really is a shame that only their most loyal fans ever seemed to pay attention to that side of things. Hell, I remember a lot of people complaining about Vedder's political commentary on stage, and expressing their wish that he just shut up and play music. One of the most bittersweet moments of being a fan of these Seattle bands came at Uniondale, when Pearl Jam were essentially booed off the stage shortly after performing the very clearly political "Bushleaguer" back in the spring of 2003. Personally, I felt proud of the band, and ashamed of the majority of the audience, who seemed to be booing.

One author reporting on Cornell's suicide suggested that this death by suicide bookends the whole Seattle music explosion, with Cobain's suicide on one end, followed by Cornell's suicide on the other.

Yes, I can see that. Certainly, it is undeniable that there were dark overtones to the Seattle music scene, although I would also suggest that not all of this darkness was necessarily exclusively negative. Cornell tried to express himself through his songs, and tried to connect with listeners. As mentioned earlier, some did not get it at all, and only liked the intensity and energy of the music, and the popularity that it gained.

But if you look at his whole body of work, including not just Soundgarden, but his work with Temple of the Dog, with Audioslave, and with his own solo career, you definitely get the impression that he was a very intelligent guy, with a strong sense of wanting to do and be something good. He always seemed quite down to earth, and was clearly turned off by rock stars who acted bigger than everyone else. One of the most glaring examples that I remember was when he mentioned, almost in passing and without overindulgence on the subject, about Axl Rose, and mentioning how he always seemed to act like he had two fistfuls of hundred dollar bills in each fist. Knowing Axl Rose's clear tendency towards excess and self-indulgence, that description seemed to fit the bill.

It would probably be unwise to go too far with this, but what turned me onto the so-called "Seattle scene" was not just the music, but also the intent behind the music of these bands, particularly their frontmen - Cobain, Vedder, and Cornell. They spoke out against things that most young white men, like me, seemed to have no problem with, such as sexism, such as dreaming about making it big and trying to become larger than life. Sometimes, some band members even seemed to flirt with racism. These guys rejected all of that, and they seemed suspicious of the success that they gained.

True, it fell mostly on deaf ears, and predictably, the Seattle scene yielded to the next big thing. Eventually, that came back around to these larger than life pop stars who seemed almost to brag about their lavish lifestyles. Maybe the music and image of Beyonce and Jay-Z do it for you. Maybe Rihanna is your favorite, or Justin Timberlake, or Justin Bieber, or Kanye West.

But they do not do much for me. Hell, I even like some of the artists, like Adele. She does not seem quite as into herself and her own status as some of those other megastars, as far as I can tell. Yet, sometimes, you also want to hear something a little more intense, and a little less well-crafted. Sometimes you want to hear music that was not written by a team of writers. Sometimes, you want to hear something a little more raw and unrefined and, frankly, real.

Cornell still offered that. That is why I got so excited with the prospect of a new Soundgarden album a few years ago, and why my son and I listened to both Soundgarden and Cornell's newest releases so frequently. Musically, it is great, yet it offers something more, as well. It offers insight from personal experience. It offers what Cornell gave us, his fans: transforming all of his experiences and thoughts, and creating something beautiful with his art. In so doing, he reached out to people who perhaps could identify with the things that he addressed. He touched the lives of many, and his voice expressed that in every way.

As mentioned in previous posts, my son and I listened to Cornell's solo works (particularly "Higher Truth") and several Soundgarden albums while we were on vacation out west the prior two years. There were some real moments of gratitude and pure enjoyment while we were out there, just happy to see some of these legendary places that you usually only hear about or read about, like Yosemite, the Redwoods, the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Bay area, the Rockies, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, and the Saguaro cactus trees of the southwestern desert, mostly in Arizona. And while we were driving around in each of those places, Cornell's voice serenaded us inside of the rental car. Whenever I listen to those albums, especially "Higher Truth" and "King Animal," some of those memories are conjured up. His music was playing often, and there are specific memories of those songs playing while we were driving to or through these locations, and so that now gives those albums extra added meaning for the both of us! It might sound corny or cliche (probably does, in fact), but his music felt almost like another friend was in the car with us, and when we pop some of those cd's in the player in my car now ("Live on I-5," "Telephantasm," "King Animal," or Cornell's solo release "Higher Truth," not to mention the other albums that we did not bring along, such as "Euphoria Morning," which we have been listening to recently here in New Jersey), it feels like a familiar friend is in the car with us once again. It reminds both of us of the western trips, which we also both feel were very good times - probably some of the very best moments that we shared together as father and son.

That is why I do not feel quite ready yet to simply shrug and say, "Well that sucks!" and move on with my life, going on to the next big thing myself. In an age where everything feels increasingly fake and manufactured, he was the real deal. Maybe we do not all have his voice, or his refined musical skills, but his art reminded us that we could create something out of our experiences, as well. This, in turn, was a reminder that our experiences are perhaps not so lacking in value as we are sometimes led to believe. Cornell's music, and the personal issues (such as depression) that he battled with, and which influenced that music, were real. He probably felt alone when depressed, yet transcended his own depression in creating such brilliant music and, in the process, probably made many thousands, if not millions, of his fans feel a little less alone in this regard, as well.

Cornell will be missed. 

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