“If you don’t want to be seen
you don’t have to hide
If you don’t want to believe
you don’t have to try
to feel alive”
“I woke the same as any other day
except a voice was in my head
it said ‘seize the day, pull the trigger
drop the blade
and watch the rolling heads’”
“…Words you say never seem
to live up the ones
inside your head
the lives we make
never seem to get us anywhere
-The Day I Tried to Live
“Safe outside my gilded cage
With an ounce of pain
I wield a ton of rage
Just Like Suicide”
1995 – one year after Superunknown’s release
My father, a Presbyterian pastor/motivational speaker, was disturbed to know his 12-year-old was receiving these messages through an intricate, melodic, alternative/prog/metal band from the Pacific Northwest. Soundgarden, whose vocalist, Chris Cornell, outshined the rest, were on the rise and entering homes all over the world, namely through teens and young adults. Why? They rocked! And Cornell could sing! He was a singer, not a screamer. At times he rivaled Robert Plant.
But what was his fascination with death? Superunknown reeked of depression from beginning (“Let Me Drown”) to end (“Like Suicide”).
I’ll never forget that night in the living room of our home in the suburbs of Indianapolis when my dad sat me down with the Superunknown CD jacket in his hand, going through song to song, amazed by the melancholy and despair.
“What do you see in this? Why do you like it?”
“I just like the music,” I said.
And that was true. I wasn’t depressed. Yeah, there was things I didn’t like about school. There were people I didn’t like. There were things that brought me down, but I was still a pretty happy and pretty typical suburbanite Hoosier adolescent. Some of my early songs had lyrics, and, perhaps some of it was a coping mechanism, but nothing was a cry for help or cause for concern.
As far as I was concerned, the lyrics of Soundgarden songs were secondary. I didn’t really pay much attention to the words, and, from interviews, it sounded like Cornell felt the same.
“I don’t know if I would say I was in a particularly dark or moody headspace more than other times. I feel the lyrics have to be born from the music,” Cornell said in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone. “ Or if I had a lyrical idea, separate from Soundgarden music, I knew if it would work with the band because it tended to reflect what the music was and what the feeling of the music was – which was usually somewhat dark and somber or moody, or over-the-top, visceral, aggressive angry.”
Cornell also admitted in the interview that he’s always struggled with “depression and isolation,” so perhaps, like many of us songwriters, some of the lyrics were used as a coping method.
Making his mark
How long was he struggling? How much of that quintessential “complaint rock” was in his soul and how much was just riding the wave of Sub Pop Records and the grunge scene? As the scene blew up, Cornell knew he had to step up, and he delivered. Soundgarden’s Superunknown was their most artistic and ambitious album, and it hit at the right time. In 1994, Nirvana’s Unplugged released to massive success, Pearl Jam released Vitalogy, Alice In Chains continued to explode with Jar of Flies. More and more bands influenced by the alternative rock wave started to surface. But, most significantly, on April 5 (not even a month after Superunknown released), Kurt Cobain killed himself.
Soundgarden was a powerhouse, and they kept climbing. In 1996, they released Down on the Upside, which, in my opinion, is right up there with Superunknown. Badmotorfinger, released in 1991, is also a staple of the era, and is the favorite album for many Soundgarden fans. It has more edge, reflecting their earlier years, rocking out heavily and being more of a testament to the shifting from 70s metal into what ultimately became the 90s grunge sound. Soundgarden were pioneers, dropping their guitars for a deeper, heavier sound before the others. They had a Black Sabbath and King’s X feel, but despite a familiarity, their sound was richly original, like Black Sabbath suddenly stepped into the 90s. There was something familiar yet uniquely original. That’s what made Cornell, lead guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd’s musical bond so special.
But Cornell accomplished a lot without Soundgarden: Temple of the Dog (“Say Hello to Heaven” and “Call Me a Dog” in particular), “Seasons” from the Singles soundtrack, “Sunshower” from Great Expectations, his 1999 solo album Euphoria Mourning and his super group Audioslave (“Like a Stone,” “Show Me How to Live”) are a few of his most notable works. He even did a song for the James Bond film, Casino Royale (an underrated Bond song. Check it out).
“Mourning” at the Murat
I had the opportunity to see Cornell on the Euphoria Mourning tour at the Murat Egyptian Room in Indianapolis on Nov. 21 of ’99. Toward the end of the show, an audience member kindly delivered a gift to Cornell, placing three joints under his mic stand. It was his reward for responding to crowd’s request for “Steel Rain,” an underrated dark ballad that closes Euphoria. Cornell liked to end albums with such a mood. “Like Suicide” had that feel, as did the closer on Upside, “Boot Camp,” a haunting song about escape.
“There must be something else
there must be something good
I’ll never forget that image of Cornell smiling wide with the three joints in his mouth after the show, taking in the applause. There were no signs of depression. He was laughing and waving to the crowd, grateful people were listening and not moshing. He was in his element. Whether it was a glimmer in his eyes or the sincerity in his tone, you could tell he was proud and you could tell he gave it his all. I feel fortunate more than ever to have witnessed that performance.
Reflecting on that night, I went back and checked out the Indianapolis Star article promoting the show. The headline struck me: “For Chris Cornell, the words matter now.” As a newspaper reporter and a songwriter, I’m curious what Cornell would have thought of that as the hook for readers. Would it be insulting? I would imagine the words always “mattered.” But, looking back on it, I hope it’s right. I hope the words from Superunknown weren’t an insight into his soul. I hope the last song he performed in his last concert May 17, 2017 at the Fox Theater in Detroit, “Slaves and Bulldozers,” wasn’t used as a cry for help or cryptic suicide note:
“Every word I said is what I mean
Everything I gave is what I need
…So bleed your heart out
There’s no more rides for free
Bleed your heart out
I said what’s in it for me?”
And I especially hope his transition into the old blues standard, “In My Time of Dying,” known best from Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, was not literal.
“In my time of dying
I ain’t gonna cry, I ain’t gonna moan…
All I need for you to do is drag my body home
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Jesus gonna make up my dying bed.”
Some truly believe “In My Time of Dying” was Cornell’s way of saying goodbye, but the band had covered it before and much of their material was dark, so it’s a safer bet to consider it coincidence.
The question remains, however: how much of a message did Cornell convey about himself in his lyrics? How much of the despair in his songs was sincere?
It’s hard to say, for sure, but it’s easy to argue Cornell used very powerful and often disturbing words and images, especially for a 12-year-old in Indy. I don’t blame my dad at all for asking me about the lyrics and asking me if I was depressed.
Did anyone do that for Cornell?
With Cobain, there were cries for help there, but it was too late before anyone realized. Cornell was 52. He was at a different stage in life and he’d lived plenty past 27, but there was something disturbing him. Was it a combination of drugs and Ativan? Or was there something troubling his soul? Or was it everything and more?
Let this be a lesson for all of us. If you have concerns about someone, don’t hesitate. If you are in a dark place yourself, get help, whether it be a counselor or – if it’s an emergency – call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
If you are looking for “something else, something good,” change your life. Don’t end it.