Sunday, May 28, 2017

Chris Cornell - 1964-2017

Back in 2010 I profiled the life and death of gothic-metal singer Peter Steele. The article was of purely personal interest to me, as I used to listen to Steele's band Type-O-Negative back in my past life. I was surprised how much traction the article got; in fact, it became one of my highest read articles of all time and continues to attract a fair amount of traffic to this day.

Today I am again profiling the death of a musician that meant a lot to me when I was younger, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who passed away in Detroit earlier this month in what is apparently being ruled a suicide, although his wife and others who knew him are contesting this.

Musicians come and go, of course, but Chris Cornell's death struck me in a very personal way. Perhaps it's essentially nostalgia; I can vividly remember two decades ago, rumbling down country roads in my buddy's old pickup truck in the summers with windows down, sun baking our arms, blaring Soundgarden while we enjoyed our youth. Some of the earliest songs I learned on guitar were Soundgarden riffs, although I must admit they were a bit too complex for me to master at the time.

Even Cornell's death had a personal element to it. He died in Detroit, right in my backyard, after a final performance at the Fox Theater. I know the Fox Theater well. My mother was an usher there when I was a boy. She used to be able to get us seats for free and I remember heading down there with my brother to see David Copperfield or other acts.

At any rate, I don't mean to go too much into my own background, except as a way to say that this musician was tied up with some very nostalgic memories for me.

As far as I know, Chris Cornell was the only major Grunge-era icon who had a Catholic upbringing. He attended a Catholic school in Seattle, although he finished out his education in a public high school. I've read stories that he was almost kicked out of his Catholic school for "asking too many questions", but this seems apocryphal. I mean, he went to Catholic school in the 1970's; you can't convince me that people were legit reprimanded for challenging Catholic doctrine in American Catholic schools in the 1970's. If anything, such doctrinal non-conformists were probably praised.

At any rate, Cornell seems to have rejected his Catholic upbringing while simultaneously being enamored of the powerful symbols of the faith. This was a similar phenomenon I noted in my article about Peter Steele and Gothic metal; while rejecting the substance of the faith, they retain evocative Catholic imagery in their songs. In the case of Peter Steele, as well as other fans of the Gothic genre, admiration for the symbols and images of Catholicism ended up becoming a back door back to the actual practice of the faith.

Cornell's songs were the same. While he clearly had a skeptical attitude towards the tenets of Christianity, he could not get away from Christian images in his music. As a man who always struggled with addiction and depression, it even seems that sometimes he returns to a kind of consoling Catholic piety when his lyrics are plunging the depths of depression. Even to this day, I am moved by Cornell's opening lines to his 1991 "Say Hello to Heaven":

Please, mother of mercy
Take me from this place
and the long winded curses
I keep here in my head

It's a very Catholic sentiment. When the darkness closes in and all seems hopeless, call out to the Blessed Mother.

I was always particularly partial to his 1999 solo track "Sunshower", which like many of his songs deals with the struggle to find happiness in the midst of pain - to discover redemptive value in suffering. The chorus balances suffering and redemption, promising that all the adversity that pours down like rain will cause grace to blossom and flower:


When you're caught in pain
And you feel the rain come down
It's all right
When you find you way
Then you see it disappear
It's all right
Though your garden's gray
I know all your graces
Someday will flower
In a sweet sunshower

After Soundgarden broke up, Cornell's lyrics became more explicitly religious with his second band, Audioslave. For example, this lyric from "Show Me How to Live":

Nail in my hand from my creator
You gave me life, now show me how to live.

Or this lyric from "Light My Way":

In my hour of need, on a sea of gray
On my knees I pray to you
Help me find the dawn of the dying day
Won't you light my way?

Cornell said the increasingly religious lyrics of Audioslave were evoked by the responsibilities of fatherhood, and the realization that one must live for something beyond oneself.

I'm not suggesting Cornell's music is "Christian" or that the few head nods to a Creator compensate for the religious skepticism evident in much of his music; rather, I am noting how Catholic imagery becomes a pivot around which his creative vision turns, even when he is more or less turning away from it.

In a 2008 interview Cornell identified himself as a "freethinker" who did not prefer to consider life in terms of right and wrong and said he preferred to stay away from specific denominations or religious schools of thought. Jesus's message perverted..."be really nice to each other."

However, around the same time he formally entered the Greek Orthodox communion as a result of his second wife, Vicky Karayiannis. How sincere his conversion was, I could not say. In an interview with The Inquirer, he was asked why he converted to Greek Orthodoxy. He responded:

I wanted to be married in the Greek Church. I was baptized Catholic and went to a Catholic school. There was something about the Greek Orthodox Church that resonated with my childhood—there was something fresh and exciting about it.


Again, it's as if there is a kind fascination with the nostalgia and symbolism of the historic Christian faith that continues exert its influence, even if the substance of faith itself is lacking or imperfect.

At least externally, Cornell appears to have been a practicing Orthodox in his latter days. There are lovely pictures of his child's baptism - with Chris and his wife singing the traditional Greek chants that accompany the rite:





One final thought: I think one thing that was so disturbing about Chris Cornell's death for me personally was that I thought he was "safe." He had outlived many of his musical peers and made it to age 52, not the age we typically associate with rock star suicide. Whether Cornell killed himself intentionally or not - the Ativans he took for anxiety had a side effect of making one suicidal - it is a reminder that one does not outgrow depression. It is something that one must be constantly vigilant against. I was a child of the early 90's, and the one great gift the 90's bequeathed to the world was depression - with all the attendant pharmaceutical treatments and their equally horrific side effects. For me personally, Cornell's death was a stark reminder of these realities.

I don't know to what degree Cornell eventually found faith or what his faith was in; he seems like a man who at one time vehemently rejected the Christian faith but also viewed his personal struggles in a fundamentally religious-existentialist terms, with a vocabulary bequeathed to him by his Catholic upbringing. It seems he started to meander back to faith in the years before his death.

Whatever Chris Cornell's mistakes or weaknesses, the man was a baptized Catholic and it's questionable whether he was in his right mind when he took his life or not. So I'm going to say a little prayer for his soul today. Won't you do the same?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had no idea he was raised Catholic, nor that he converted to Orthodoxy. When Lane Staley died it wasn't much of a surprise because of his addiction, but this simply came out of nowhere. Soundgarden was a staple for many of us in the 90s, and I was saddened to hear the news. Such events should remind us that evil most definitely exists and that we cannot allow ourselves to give in. I'll definitely say some prayers for Chris in hope that there's a chance for his soul. Thanks for posting an article about this.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe he killed himself.
Detroit has a statue of Baphomet in public and Chris Cornell was,at bare minimum,a professing Eastern Orthodox believer.
I was raised Novus Ordo like Chris and left that organization and converted to Catholicism.
The powers at be do not want a famous personality endorsing apostolic Christianity.(Catholic & Eastern Orthodox are apostolic Christianity)
Even his Wife is publicly saying he would not have done this to his children.
Something isn't right and yes I will pray for him.

JD said...

A great piece about a guy I too remember fondly. Interestingly I too grew up in southeast Michigan in the 80s and 90's. I hope it wasn't a suicide.