I awoke to a text from a friend on Thursday morning.
"I'm devastated. The last genius is dead."
I felt my heart drop into my stomach, or something like it. And then I just felt weary, and unbearably sad.
I'm tired of being devastated. Tired of looking for reason in a world of randomness. Tired of sitting idly by while the universe plucks our most beautiful flowers and tosses them in the dustbin. Tired of watching as the voices with the most to give, the most inspiring stories to tell, the most soulful salves to offer, are silenced. Tired of saying goodbye.
Chris Cornell played a concert with Soundgarden in Detroit on Wednesday evening. A few hours later, he was dead. His death has now been ruled a suicide by the medical examiner, according to the Associated Press. That a voice so full of life – so brimming with it that it often sounded like the primordial wail of the life force itself – could be taken from us so soon is impossible to get my head around. It just doesn’t make sense.
Cornell was only 52. He was still in full possession of his remarkable gift. He had been clean and sober, by all available accounts, since 2000. He was married, reportedly happily, with three children. He had outlived the majority of his peers from what I'll regrettably capitulate to calling "the grunge era."
His music – as a member of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and as a solo artist – remained immensely popular with a loyal fan base that seemed to "get it." From the outside, Cornell had everything to live for.
And yet, it seems, the black dog of depression he'd been outrunning for decades finally caught him.
The first time I heard Cornell, he scared me half to death. I'd gone to the QE2 in Albany on a summer night in 1989 to see Living Colour, whose debut effort "Vivid" had just come out, and whose guitarist, Vernon Reid, was pretty much blowing my mind at the time. Soundgarden, unknown to me, was the opening act.
Three songs in, Cornell was shirtless, wearing only cut-off jean shorts and army boots, standing atop the QE2 bar, his ridiculously awesome mane of hair flowing across his shoulders as he soulfully screamed like a man with a whole family of feral hounds living in his belly.
What fresh hell was this?
By the end of the show, I was smitten. I still have a photo a friend took of me immediately post-gig, on the sidewalk in front of the club. I'm bug-eyed, a Soundgarden bumper sticker stuck across my mouth. Evidence of a transformation of sorts is visible in my eyes. I've been a huge fan ever since.
Nearly 30 years later, I saw Cornell for what will now, horrifyingly, be the final time. He was playing acoustic guitar and singing, alone, before a packed UB Center for the Arts, and he was simultaneously breaking my heart in half and making me feel strangely elevated. Goosebumps, in abundance, as he sang "Say Hello 2 Heaven," the tune he had written for his dear friend, Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood, after Wood had died of a heroin overdose.
Cornell had a gift. It is not unreasonable to suggest that he was the most technically agile, soulful and bravely boisterous singer in the history of rock music. His friend Jeff Buckley, who died in 1997, came close. But no one else did. Not by a mile.
[From the archives: Anthony Violanti reviews "Superunknown," in 1994]
The evidence is almost embarrassingly plentiful. Listen to Soundgarden's "Hunted Down," "Beyond the Wheel," "Jesus Christ Pose," "Slaves & Bulldozers," "Outshined," "Mailman," "Superunknown," "The Day I Tried To Live," "Pretty Noose" – the songwriting is fresh, startling, a brilliant blend of punk and hard rock and psychedelia, but it's the singing that grabs your heart and squeezes it, as Cornell moves effortlessly across a 4-octave span, from sultry whisper to blistering scream.
There was a sort of macho toughness, a gladiator spirit, in Cornell's singing, but it was balanced by an aching melancholy, a sensitivity we relate to as feminine, in all of his best performances. Hear it in his solo works "Steel Rain," "When I'm Down," "Wave Goodbye." Feel it smack you in the head when he leads Audioslave through the still-terrifying "Show Me How to Live."
[Related: Jason Silverstein pens a farewell to Audioslave, from 2007]
Go to YouTube and hunt down gorgeous recent solo renditions of Led Zeppelin's "Thank You" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." What an incredible body of work it is.
This just feels wrong. I can’t put a smiley face on it. I can't use some philosophical platitude as a balm. We've been robbed of something beautiful. We'll just have to own it.
Let the last words be Cornell's. I've got nothing left.
"I never wanted to write these words down for you/With the pages of phrases
of things we'll never do/So I blow out the candle, and I put you to bed/Since you can´t say to me
now, how the dogs broke your bones/There´s just one thing left to be said/
Say hello to heaven."