Like many of my fellow gen-x’ers, finding out that Chris Cornell died from a suicide punched me in the gut. It was like Kurt Cobain had died all over again. It’s now a few weeks after his untimely death, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Chris Cornell was indeed one of the great musical voices of the ’90’s grunge movement, an era of tonal and lyrical angst that was probably one of the last great periods of musical history. As the front-man for Soundgarden and later Audioslave, a band he formed with the musicians from a fractured Rage Against the Machine, he left behind a giant footprint in the sands of rock history.
I found out on the last day of school, and later my son approached me with tears in his eyes to tell me that Chris Cornell had passed on. My son, a musician and lover of good music, was heartbroken.
He recorded a solo album this year, “A Higher Truth”, a soulful, mostly acoustic album that really resonated with me. I loved its painful and joyful messages, and Cornell’s signature voice made the album seem personal and gave it a haunting beauty.
And then Chris died.
On a trip home from Kansas City where my son and I attended a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, we spent some of the long drive listening to “A Higher Truth”. As I listened closely to the lyrics I began to realize that many of the songs contained messages from a man who was thinking about suicide even then.
Millions of people suffer from depression worldwide. Call it a mental imbalance, a genetic disposition, or a spiritual trial, if we know someone who suffers from it we should surround them with love and support. We shouldn’t judge them, we should love them unconditionally.
Cornell’s wife Vicky was a stalwart rock for Chris, and he had a son and a daughter who adored him. As a father of four kids myself, I can’t imagine what they are going through right now. I am heartbroken for them, and that goes beyond my being a simple fan of his music. I can only pray for their loss, and that the love of Chris’s fans will resonate with Chris’s family and give them comfort in this difficult time.
I am a fan, but they are his family.
The album is probably one of my favorites and is filled with beautiful poetry. “Only These Words” is a wonderful song about the love a father has for his daughter. “Josephine” is a beautiful love song, probably one of the most heartfelt love songs I’ve ever heard. Sprinkled throughout the album, however, are lyrics that express a profound sense of pain that could have been warning signs that something was happening to him.
What follows are some examples from several songs that support this observation:
Standing on the corner now I’m past surprise
Yelling out a warning to some passerby
I stand just as God made me and I lie down in disguise
In this lyric, Chris is following the thread of a man standing on a corner of a busy street like some madman or homeless person shouting at cars full of people who won’t listen. This particular lyric is interesting in that he is “yelling out a warning” to “some passerby”, as if it is a random person who might listen. He “stand[s] as God made [him]” yet feels as if he is living a lie. Many sufferers of depression feel as if no one will listen to them or believe that they are suffering with this disease. Perhaps this is Chris’s message to whomever will listen.
Yeah if it all goes wrong
And I’m a heart without a home
Maybe you can talk me out
Of doing myself in
This track probably has the strongest evidence that Cornell was considering suicide. The narrator is one who is searching for answers, someone who is looking to the sky to find help. It is a song of despair, someone who looks for love in relationships. There is a sense in the song of finding happiness elsewhere, perhaps in an afterlife, but there is a refrain of “I don’t know” when this is mentioned. The line “maybe you can talk me out/ Of doing myself in” is striking. A careful lyricist like Cornell would agonize over lines. I can’t help but think that this line was intentional.
I saw you suffering
Through a foggy window in the rain
When you thought no one was watching, yeah
Going through your memories like so many prisons to escape
Become someone else
With another face
And another name
No more suffering
This song could be interpreted as Cornell speaking to himself, a song to a rock legend who is trapped in the prison of fame. It is difficult for some, as it was for Cobain, to live the life of touring, making that new album, all the while thinking about how simple things were before all the accolades and record deals. The lyrics to this song are a desire to have “another face” and “another name” so that the subject might have “no more suffering”. People suffering from depression who think of suicide sometimes feel that if they had a “do-over” they would have a better life, and the despair of not being able to make this happen drive them to a point where they feel the only out is harming themselves.
These few songs are small glimpses into the struggles that Cornell was facing. He was a great lyricist, an incredible poet, and an incredible voice. I wish that he had not been alone that night. I wish that he’d been able to fight the lies that told him it wasn’t worth it. He was an amazing and bright star who fell on some very black days.
If you have a friend of family member who suffers from depression, please keep a careful watch on their life. The “Suicide Prevention Lifeline” is a national organization to help people who are considering suicide. Also, there are several ways for victims of depression can get help. Seek out your local church as well.
If you loved Chris Cornell as much as I did, please purchase the album “Higher Truth”. It is a beautiful body of work that I feel is a magnum opus from a wonderful artist.
You will be missed, sir.