“Words you say never seem to live up to the ones inside your head. The lives we make never seem to ever get us anywhere but dead.” -Chris Cornell, “The Day I Tried to Live”
I don’t know that I have a favorite Soundgarden song. “The Day I Tried” to live is among several of the band’s tracks – including “Fell on Black Days”, “Outshined”, “Burden in my Hand”, and “Blow Up the Outside World” – that I would use to keep myself awake while driving home after a long night/morning of being in my early twenties. The song came off Superunknown, the 1994 record that catapulted the band into mainstream consciousness. But I guess this is all beside the point. Chris Cornell, frontman of Soundgarden, was found dead this morning of an apparent suicide. He was 52.
Cornell joins Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland in the exclusive but seemingly ever-expanding club of frontmen who have died way too soon. This morning I wrote that Eddie Vedder is the only one left of this loosely affiliated group. It’s insane. Brian Johnson, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley have all outlived the generation of singers they sired. This isn’t how any of it is supposed to work and yet here we are.
As a teenager the lyrics at the top of this entry caught my attention mostly because by then I was already kind of socially awkward and the first line articulated a very specific problem I had. Everything sounded better in my head. For some reason the words just flopped like a limp fish the second my tongue gave them life. Nevermind the violent, erratic imagery of the rest of the song; it’s like Chris Cornell knew exactly how my disappointment felt, what it tasted like. Even the title – the word “tried” implies failure – reeks of deflation. The whole song is an anti-climax and it is highlighted by the ultimate and inevitable letdown brusquely mentioned in the second line. We’re all going to die no matter what we do while alive. In light of Cornell’s suicide…I don’t know. I don’t know what to think. Did he come to that conclusion in real life too? It’s pointless to wonder.
But Soundgarden – and in particular Cornell’s voice – is an indelible part of the soundtrack of my youth. I can’t tell you how many times I saw faces go droopy during the “Black Hole Sun” video as it looped on MTV. My group of friends who preferred rock music to rap (mid-late ’90s) listened to Soundgarden and Nirvana and Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam and Metallica and Megadeth as the ’90s faded into a bunch of bands with numbers in their names, rap-metal outfits, and 12-piece groups with horn sections. When I hear the bands named above, I think of my high school self but I also think of my friends whom I haven’t seen in quite some time. I miss them, like straightforward rock music.
Cornell somehow seemed like the most honest of his contemporaries Cobain, Staley, and Weiland had storied substance abuse problems and other issues which at times outstripped the content of their art. Cornell wailed about ending the world and black days with Soundgarden, but sang of ghosts and sunshowers and the Billie Jean everyone knows as a solo artist. His appearance in Pearl Jam 20 comes off as sincere and heartfelt. And none of this even accounts for his time with Audioslave. Rest in peace, Chris. Thank you for singing the hell out of my teenage years and for allowing me to harmonize with you as we passed Fort Shafter, Moanalua Gardens, and crept down Red Hill.