Chris Cornell: story of a generational hero

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“If his music saved me, why couldn’t the author of that music save himself?”

A fan of Chris Cornell

It has been two years since Chris Cornell’s death, but recalling that day of May is still so painful. I have hardly seen rock fans being so deeply moved as they were by Cornell’s passing, especially those who are now in their forties and fifties, those who experienced the Grunge era and suffered its long sequence of deaths – a war cemetery without white crosses and green grass.

I have hardly seen friends cry over the loss of an idol of their youth. Surely, we were upset by the death of Kurt Cobain, but this time, the sorrow was deeper, although we have now grown older and, in some ways, been hardened by the woes of life.

Suffering this distress when you are adult makes you feel more deeply involved and uncomfortable. If a 52-year-old man decides to commit suicide – without any apparent reason – it means that his pain, whatever its nature may be, has become so unbearable that this adult person in his full strength and maturity, but perhaps not in his full mental faculties, is forced to commit such an act. Other rockstars have tragically died but they were mostly young and inexperienced, overwhelmed by sudden success.

The suicide of an adult person is a tragedy within a tragedy. It is difficult to understand and leaves no certainty. Such an act brutally conveys that cancer of the spirit exists – a black clot of inquietude digging from the inside, little by little.

The passing away of Chris Cornell made us more vulnerable – frightened about learning that death was entering our existential perimeter. We felt its icy touch, being aware that even a mature person, a family man and successful artist cannot escape soul sickness.

The parable of a hero, the one of a generation

We fully understood the role Cornell had in our lives only when he was gone. The distress caused by his death made us acknowledge him as an outstanding reference point for our generation – an elder brother bound by elective affinity.

Chris Cornell and Soundgarden were like elder brothers to us. Through their dark and powerful music running through our veins and their lyrics exploring the dark side of existence, they led us to catharsis. Their art can be explained by the aesthetic category of sublime – a heritage that was mostly derived from Romanticism and that today can be also applied to some masterpieces of rock music.

We were addicted to their music – so Wagnerian and Sturm und Drang. The sensations caused by it were too physical – despair, loneliness, inner struggle – and the drama invoked by it was too intense, the sense of annihilation experienced by those condemned to suffer. Yet, we liked to inhabit those songs, experience the sensation of falling into sorrow and then rising again, being no longer alone.

We hung onto the angry and gloomy singing of Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, as we were pleased to feel like victims of the world and of life, to be together with people of the same age who shared the same discontent and to be part of something beautiful and great. It was only in this sense that Grunge was a real movement – a primordial energy soup, which mirrored us and made us feel connected.

Gradually, we grew up with Chris Cornell, leaving our adolescence behind as Grunge began to decline and the unique adventure of Soundgarden started coming to an end.

As we began to cross over to adulthood, we almost gave up on listening to rock music, being occupied with work and everyday life. Hence, we lost sight of our elder brother and forgot the past, developing too much interest in hedonistic pursuits to climb over the Millennium, untroubled.

As Chris progressed in his life, he also improved musically, thanks to his prestigious friends (Jeff Buckley) and the release of solo albums (Euphoria Morning). For us, however, Grunge and its adolescent sorrows had become just a memento by then, gathering dust in the attic.

During the ’00s, our interest shifted from music to new technologies. Our past had been now slightly removed, but we casually touched on it on occasions – on a Sunday afternoon, in the dark of a movie theatre, when his voice came out from the Los Angeles night to guide the steps of a coyote crossing the road – Collateral, Shadow on the Sun – giving us a start. Thus, we knew that he had made it big. Chris Cornell had been admitted into the best circles of Hollywood.

And so it was – Cornell had achieved success again with Audioslave, his glamorous marriage to Vicky Karayiannis and the birth of two sons, his influential friends in the film industry, performing the theme song for James Bond’s Casino Royale. Chris was a grown-up man now and was enjoying a desirable life, but maybe not in the Grunge style. But even his fans were now in their thirties and had replaced their flannel plaid shirts with Lacoste polos. We were proud of him. He was one of us who had fully expressed himself and fulfilled his aims, experiencing in some ways, a sort of happiness.

Unexpectedly, we found him again in our country in 2010 – guest of a TV Show, in a vibrant performance with Gabin, an Italian band. In the same year, Soundgarden had a reunion, but we almost dismissed that because some experiences are unique. Sequels should be left to speculators.

Chris Cornell was a mirror through which we scrutinised ourselves and the way in which we changed and measured our expectations and disappointments. This was the bond that linked us to him – we were twins. The existential parable we shared began with the testimony of sorrow and ended with defeat.

In the middle, the illusion of being winners rather than losers, but that did not last long.

All heroes are young and handsome

Cornell’s death was a shock for us. Talking about those days exposes our frailties and makes us wallow in self-pity, suffering from Peter Pan syndrome and dealing with an unfocused identity. We grieved for him like we had lost someone in our family. We suddenly felt alone and lost. We cried without ceasing, always thinking of him and listening to his songs in a loop, compelled by a physical need to hear his voice.

With him, we lost an important part of our youth. To retain it, we tried to recall our twenty-year-old selves, embracing and comforting it to fill a gap that can’t be filled. And then we asked ourselves: Who are we now? Are we better than we were thirty years ago? Are we happy and satisfied with our life?

These were questions that Chris Cornell knew he had to ask himself sooner or later, being aware that the end of youth represents the casting out of Eden and that the betrayal of innocence is an unavoidable duty.

“Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life / And whatsoever I’ve fought off became my life / Now I’m doing time / ‘Cause I fell on black days”

There is one element in the iconography of Grunge that is truly striking – those young people were radiant with beauty. Although they were labelled as dirty and shabby, their faces did not hide their true “physiognomic”, that of nice guys. They were good fellows who grew up on TV and behaved as cursed poets – the angelic Kurt and the messiah-like Chris, perfect images for a Renaissance painting.

Looking at himself in the mirror and rediscovering the light of the boy he was, Chris Cornell probably thought that surviving his own youth was too heavy a burden. He was marked by the stigmata of the hero: passing away in due time is the true privilege that only a lucky few get.

“I’m tired. I’m only tired.”

These were the last words Cornell said to his wife Vicky over the phone before killing himself in a room of the MGM Grand Casino Hotel at Detroit.

What has been reported of that night by the media remains a cruel image – he was found hanging from the bathroom door with an elastic string around his neck.

What remains now is pity for a man who tried to deceive death all his life – death that took away his best friends one by one like a killer with a clear scheme. “You are next” a voice must have said in his head, and his boyish heart must have probably paid heed to it, tired of being a soldier favoured by destiny.

What remains is sorrow for so many talented musicians who have died – incandescent flames turned into ashes and lasting memories.

What remains is his voice that keeps on fighting and comforting us – the howl of a warrior and the cry of the damned. We can still hear it inside ourselves, because you were one of us, Christopher Cornell.

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