Saturday, May 20, 2017

Chris Cornell: The Muses Choose Broken Vessels


Jesus Christ Pose

The Alternative Rock explosion of the early 90s was fueled by a wave of great singers. After a lost decade of metallic shriekers and New Wave gurglers-- which some call the 80s-- there was suddenly an embarrassment of strong voices revitalizing rock music, especially hard rock music. 



Most of these had cut their teeth on punk and hardcore and subsequently learned to trim back the fat and excess that torpedoed their 70s forebears. They also learned to step around the wretched excesses that ran the 80s metal explosion into the ground; cookie-cutter sameness, image over substance, half-written songs, cliche piled on cliche.

Alternative rock would itself get watered down and xeroxed into oblivion, especially as careerists figured out a way to counterfeit the formula (I'm looking at you, Candlebox and Seven Mary Three) and record companies signed up every pseudo-grunge band they could find (and strong-armed other acts to hop on the bandwagon). 

By the end of the 90s it all devolved into an obnoxious fratboy rock (I'm looking at you, Limp Bizkit and Creed) that reached its inevitable apotheosis at the disastrous Woodstock '99 (held on a decommissioned military base). 

But before that all went down some of the most vital and exciting rock music of all time was produced.

Alternative Rock, or more accurately GenX Rock, has taken its place in the classic rock canon. Tracks by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are snuggled in tightly between all the Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Pink Floyd cuts overplayed on FM radio. But five of the most remarkable vocalists of that era- Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Jeff Buckley, Scott Weiland and now Chris Cornell--- are lost to us.

And the 9-ton Tyrannosaurus lurking in the back of the concert hall is that modern plague, clinical depression. It's a subject I'm all too familiar with. It's the witches' curse on Generation X.

Chris Cornell was an enigmatic figure among the Grunge pantheon. If Kurt Cobain was the snotty punk, Eddie Vedder the self-serious poet, Layne Staley the tortured howler and Scott Weiland the Joker in the pack, Cornell was an entirely unique presence, as was Soundgarden. Tall, lean but ripped, possessing an odd, androgynous beauty and an enviable black mane, he came across as aloof, Olympian. His piercing, multi-octave voice felt like a weapon,  more like an incarnation of Apollo the Destroyer than Ozzy Osbourne.

Similarly, Soundgarden was perhaps the most effective translator of the power of early Black Sabbath yet, but were brainy, difficult, challenging. 

They were unmistakably Heavy Metal-- in the original, Blue Cheer definition of the term --but didn't shriek the usual ditties about dick size and date rape. It was pretty clear they had no time for that kind of nonsense (See "Big Dumb Sex"). It was clear they took as much inspiration from King Crimson and Black Flag as from Zeppelin and Sabbath. 

Their first major single was an epic environmentalist jeremiad that goofed on Metal's "kill-your-mother-music" reputation by screaming "you're going to kill your mother" in the refrain. The mother here being Mother Earth, of course.

Predictably, Chris Cornell's corpse was literally not cold yet before the modern ambulance chasers of the Internet were declaring it was obviously an Illuminati sacrifice. One hilarious YouTard video went on about how there was no other explanation for Cornell's death, that he'd have no reason to kill himself. 

Obviously someone who never actually listened to a single stitch of Soundgarden.

Like Ian Curtis-- who hung himself 37 years almost to the day before-- many of Cornell's lyrics read like suicide notes. After all, this is a man who kicked off one of his biggest hits with the couplet "Nothing seems to kill me/ No matter how hard I try." Two of his other big hits "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Days" are practically master classes in the art of expressing the utter hopelessness ("'Neath the black the sky looks dead") that can overtake you when a depressive episode strikes. 

The same goes for Soundgarden's breakout hit, "Outshined," practically a hymn about searching for a crack of sunlight while waiting a dire episode out. "The Day I Tried to Live" is even more astonishing, a documentary retelling of those mornings when depression- aggression turned inwards- becomes aggression turned on the world outside.

Cornell was very candid about his struggles with depression. In an interview with Rolling Stone he discussed the inspiration for "Fell on Black Days":
This reissue includes several versions of "Fell on Black Days," which is pretty dark. What inspired it? 

Well, I had this idea, and I had it for a long time. I'd noticed already in my life where there would be periods where I would feel suddenly, "Things aren't going so well, and I don't feel that great about my life." Not based on any particular thing. I'd sort of noticed that people have this tendency to look up one day and realize that things have changed. There wasn't a catastrophe. There wasn't a relationship split up. Nobody got in a car wreck. Nobody's parents died or anything. The outlook had changed, while everything appears circumstantially the same. That was the song I wanted to write about. 
No matter how happy you are, you can wake up one day without any specific thing occurring to bring you into a darker place, and you'll just be in a darker place anyway. To me, that was always a terrifying thought, because that's something that – as far as I know – we don't necessarily have control over. So that was the song I wanted to write. 
It wasn't just for the gloom-metal gimmick of Soundgarden that Cornell laid bare his struggles. They crept into tracks he recorded with Audioslave- the supergroup made up of Cornell and the musicians of Rage Against the Machine, including their biggest hit "Like a Stone."

Cornell was also candid about his history with clinical depression, which he traced back to a somewhat hardscrabble upbringing. 
Cornell abstained from drug use for a time following an adverse reaction to the hallucinogenic PCP, but the frightening, dissociative experience, coupled with the trauma of his parent’s divorce, plunged him into a severe depression. “I went from being a daily drug user at 13 to having bad drug experiences and quitting drugs by the time I was 14 and then not having any friends until the time I was 16. There was about two years where I was more or less agoraphobic and didn’t deal with anybody, didn’t talk to anybody, didn’t have any friends at all.”
And clearly showing that he also struggled with suicidal ideation, Cornell foreshadowed his own end in an interview with Guitar.com, saying, “You’ll think somebody has run-of-the-mill depression, and then the next thing you know, they’re hanging from a rope." 

Writer Kate Paulk wrote about the black dog of depression recently and offered up an apt metaphor lifted from pop culture:
Let’s start by clearing up one thing. Sadness, grieving in response to a loss… that is not depression. It’s sadness. Grief. It passes with time, and even at its worst there are moments of joy and hope. Depression is not like that. Everything is poisoned. 
J. K. Rowling is describing depression when she describes the Dementors and their impact. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. 
This is precisely what depression does. There is an absence of hope, an inability to believe that there can ever be anything positive in your life again. That isn’t sadness or grief, and it isn’t necessarily expressed by tears.
Cornell was also a substance abuser and dove headlong into an opioid addiction after Soundgarden split in 1997. It may well have come from a chronic pain issue, closely related to chronic depression: 
People with depression show abnormalities in the body’s release of its own, endogenous, opioid chemicals. Depression tends to exacerbate pain—it makes chronic pain last longer and hurts the recovery process after surgery. 
“Depressed people are in a state of alarm,” said Mark Sullivan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington. “They’re fearful, or frozen in place. There’s a heightened sense of threat.” That increased threat sensitivity might also be what heightens sensations of pain. 
Opioids certainly aren't very effective painkillers in the long term but they are very effective anesthetics when you're struggling with chronic depression. 
Opioids treat pain, but depression and pain are often comorbid, and some antidepressants relieve neuropathic pain even in the absence of depression. Depression involves dysfunction in monoamine systems, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and hippocampal neurogenesis, but could it also be rooted in a deficit of endorphins, or even an endopharmacological withdrawal state? 
Before the modern antidepressant era, depression was often treated with opiates—with a sometimes heavy price of addiction.  
The real hell of opioids is that they rewire your brain, causing the natural processes that regulate depression and euphoria to atrophy. Depression can skyrocket when you stop taking them, since your brain basically forgot how to produce sufficient amounts of the neurotransmitters that manage your moods.
u-agonists relieve depression-like behavior acutely, but tolerance develops, and depression is worse on withdrawal from long-term administration. Delta-agonists appear to improve mood, while kappa-agonists worsen it. There is evidence that opioid dysfunction accounts for lack of pleasure in depression, while problems with dopamine impair motivation. Opioid systems, then, participate in many mood-related functions. They are examples of evolutionary repurposing of neurotransmitters that originally evolved for one purpose to meet a variety of other needs.


Cornell's family is understandably shocked by his death. His widow blames an elevated dose of the tranquilizer Ativan for the somewhat disturbing performance he put on in Detroit and his resulting suicide. 
Cornell died on the evening May 17th, 2017, shortly after performing a concert with Soundgarden in Detroit, MI. His death was met with shock by many; his representative described it as "sudden and unexpected," adding that the singer's family will be "working closely with the medical examiner to determine the cause." 
Hours after his death was reported, the Wayne County Medical Examiner's office ruled Chris' death a suicide by hanging. According to Us Weekly, a family friend had found Cornell on the bathroom floor of his MGM Grand hotel room. ABC News also reported that two Detroit papers claimed that Cornell was found with "a band around his neck," though Detroit Police spokesman Michael Woody could not confirm that information. 
Cornell's wife, Vicky, released a statement on his death on Friday, May 19th, 2017, in which she cast doubts that his suicide was intentional. In fact, on the day of his death, Vicky claimed they had "discussed plans for a vacation over Memorial Day and other things we wanted to do." "When we spoke after the show, I noticed he was slurring his words; he was different. When he told me he may have taken an extra Ativan or two, I contacted security and asked that they check on him," she said. 
"What happened is inexplicable and I am hopeful that further medical reports will provide additional details," she continued. "I know that he loved our children and he would not hurt them by intentionally taking his own life."
I think the fact that Cornell ad-libbed verses from "In My Time of Dying" over a rendition of "Slaves and Bulldozers" during the closing encore in Detroit  gives a fairly compelling signal that he had resolved himself to a course of action that night. Despite an incredibly shaky performance he seemed in good spirits to some, all too common with depressives resolved to suicide. But others noticed he seemed irritable and unfocused, forgetting the lyrics. He complimented the Detroit audience and then said, "I feel sorry for the next city."

An extra Ativan or two is unlikely to induce suicide. But long-term use of it (it's recommended that lorezepam-- a member of the highly-problematic benzodiazepene family-- be used only a short term basis) might. And it's very possible he took an extra dose of the drug to gird his loins for a decision he had already made:
Suicidality: Benzodiazepines may sometimes unmask suicidal ideation in depressed patients, possibly through disinhibition or fear reduction. The concern is that benzodiazepines may inadvertently become facilitators of suicidal behavior. Therefore, lorazepam should not be prescribed in high doses or as the sole treatment in depression, but only with an appropriate antidepressant.
Depression and suicidal ideation go hand in glove. And there are all kinds of psychiatric drugs that tell you upfront that suicidal ideation is a major side effect. How that doesn't keep them off the market is a mystery to me. 

The other problem is that people who obsess on suicide usually don't talk about it with people close to them since they realize that confessing to it will very likely act to derail what they have been planning. And again, professionals will tell you that very often when a depressive has resolved themselves to suicide they can often seem very cheerful and upbeat, since they believe that their suffering will soon end. 

So the question becomes if a rich, celebrated and handsome rock star can't find a reason to stay alive, what hope is there for the rest of us? Well, it's a lot more complicated than that. Aside from his struggles with clinical depression, Cornell was also beset by tragedy, losing people closest to him to early death. 

The first of these was his roommate Andrew Wood, the flamboyant singer for legendary Seattle band Mother Love Bone who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Cornell was so shaken by Wood's death that he formed a defacto supergroup with members of MLB and recorded the now-legendary Temple of the Dog album as a tribute, which produced the grunge anthem "Hunger Strike" (featuring a duet between Cornell and future Pearl Jam star Eddie Vedder).

Temple of the Dog in fact led to the formation of Pearl Jam, facilitated by the introduction of Vedder to the Seattle scenesters by drummer Jack Irons, a member of the original Red Hot Chili Peppers who also played with Pearl Jam and Joe Strummer, among an army of others. Strangely enough, Irons has his own struggles with depression. As did Joe Strummer, for that matter. 

The Muses choose broken vessels. It's a Secret Sun truism. 

Cornell was so shaken by Wood's death that it would haunt Soundgarden songs as well.
The song you workshopped the most was "Like Suicide." In the liner notes, you say it kind of became a metaphor for how you were feeling at the time about late Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood. 
Yeah, the lyrics were actually this simple moment that happened to me. I don't know that I ever directly related it to Andy, though there are a lot of songs that people probably don't know where there were references to him or how I was feeling about what happened with him. I just think that that was something that happened to me that was a traumatic thing and that I had a difficult time resolving it. I still never really have. I still live with it, and that's one of the moments where maybe in some ways it could have shown up, but I'm not really sure specifically where.
Another body blow was the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain, another friend who died in time to cast a pall of existential darkness over Soundgarden's epochal Superunknown album, released a month before Cobain's death. So even as Soundgarden were enjoying their moment, death and tragedy revisited Cornell. (Cobain had his own issues, exacerbated by years of opioid abuse, but there are those of us who don't buy the suicide angle in this particular case).

It had to hurt, especially since Cobain had told Cornell that Soundgarden has inspired him to form Nirvana in the first place. 

Superunknown was an instant classic, easily one of the top 10 Hard Rock albums ever recorded, hammering you with one killer track after another. Along with Stone Temple Pilots' Purple album, Pearl Jam's Vitalogy and several others it established 1994 as the watershed for Alernative Rock, despite Cobain's death and Nirvana's dissolution. 

Soundgarden's 1996 follow-up Down on the Upside, failed to capitalize on its predecessor's momentum, and seem to showcase a band uncertain of direction and sense of purpose. No one was really surprised when Soundgarden broke up the following year. Oddly enough the breakup seemed to go down almost exactly three years after Kurt Cobain's death. 



But Tragedy wasn't finished with Cornell yet. Shortly after Soundgarden broke up Cornell would lose another soulmate.
He lost two friends within the space of a few years. Cobain died in 1994 and, three years later, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, practically a brother to Cornell, drowned while swimming in a tributary of the Mississippi in Tennessee.

"Kurt was fairly quiet and introverted most of the time. Jeff was the opposite. He was very much full of life and had a lot to say. He was somebody in love with experiencing everything. Within a very short time, he had all these famous old rock stars coming to his shows. Which put a a lot of pressure on him. People talked about his concerts the way they used to talk about Hendrix: they'd sit there, wide-eyed, telling you stories about him. He definitely had an aura. It's impossible to say what it is exactly a guy like that has, that is so attractive to other people. But he had more of it than anyone I had ever met."
Of course, this brings all this squarely into the Secret Sun wheelhouse. Cornell would be haunted by Buckley's death, writing the aching "Wave Goodbye" (in which he seems to channel Buckley's ghost) for his first solo album and acting as a de facto executor-slash-curator for Buckley's posthumous releases.



This tells us a lot, since the 20th anniversary of Jeff Buckley's death is coming up fast and furious. Cornell showed he was clearly still haunted by Buckley's passing when he brought the late singer's old landline phone onstage with him during his 2011 acoustic solo tour.
KALAMAZOO — I've had several people ask about the red phone that was on stage during Chris Cornell's 130-minute set at the Kalamazoo State Theatre last week. Cornell never addressed it during the show and it never rang, so I didn't think much of it. After another reader asked Monday, I looked into it. 
According to a representative with the New York-based Press Here Publicity, which handled promotion for Cornell's solo tour, the phone belonged to singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley.
As Secret Sun readers will remember, the last song Jeff Buckley sang before his death was "Whole Lotta Love", a blues standard that Led Zeppelin turned into what one critic called "a themonuclear rape."

And it would be "In My Time of Dying," another old blues standard that Led Zeppelin turned into a jackhammering stomper that acted as Cornell's own self-elegy. This, along with the timing of Ian Curtis's own death by hanging in 1980 seems a bit too synchronized for Cornell's death to be some kind of mad whim because he took too much Ativan.  As painful as it might be to admit, it seems as if this was probably a very long time coming. After all, this is the man who wrote "Pretty Noose."

So it seems apparent that it wasn't the Illuminati but in fact the demon possession of depression that took Chris Cornell away from his family. With many of his closest friends gone and the glory days of the 90s more and more a fading memory in a world itself gripped by chronic depression, I can't say I'm surprised by the suicide ruling.  

The life of the rock star in 2017 is a galaxy away from the golden age of the rock star in 1977. It's become a grueling job in the age of streaming and piracy, since you need to make all your money on the road now. Spending your life traveling from one brutalist concrete box to another when you're fifty-two is surely a lot less appealing than when you're twenty-two.

If there's any good to come of this tragedy it's to understand that depression isn't some kind of scarlet letter, it's an inevitable result of what one scientist called "the greatest blind experiment in history," the bombardment of our brains and bodies with every manner of stimulus and stress imaginable, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and then some.

Having spend my teenage years in the white-hot cauldron of hardcore punk I can tell you that that kind of hyperstimulation had -- how do I put this? --less than a salutary effect on a lot of people I knew. Seeing that same formula translated into the mainstream culture goes a long way in explaining why depression has become the great mass epidemic of our time. Now it's claimed another trophy and we're all the poorer for it.

But as the Greeks and Romans once said, vita brevis ars longa

French philosophers once said that the invention of motion pictures had conquered death, that people would now live on forever once they were recorded. I guess the same goes for recorded music as well. So I think it's safe to say that after three decades of music, Chris Cornell has earned his place among the immortals. Let's hope someone learns something from his story.

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