Breaking A Rusty Cage

I won tickets to see Soundgarden live last week. I felt abysmal the day of the concert (the result of catastrophic allergies), so I was trying to decide if I wanted to attend the show or stay at home and drown in phlegm. The tickets were free, so I wouldn’t be losing anything, right? But I eventually convinced myself to attend the concert. As justification, I explained to my wife, “If we don’t go, I will regret it.”

I mention this not to illustrate my innate ability as a soothsayer. I mention this to show I suspected the cost of missing an opportunity to see Chris Cornell in a live setting. And I was right (or would have been if I’d foolishly missed it). Soundgarden played nearly 90 minutes of material from the entirety of their catalogue, and Cornell gave an earth-shattering, sky-splitting performance. He hit every note with vitality and passion. He toed the line between tender and furious. It was transcendent.


I woke up this morning to heart-rending news.


I discovered Soundgarden as a teenager. Mostly by accident. I was a big Nirvana fan at the time, and I was doing some research in the catacombs of the early 2000s internet on the record label SubPop (which released Nirvana’s debut album Bleach). I first checked out Soundgarden, another SubPop band, purely because I liked the name of their EP Screaming Life. Something about the title fascinated me.   The production wasn’t great, but the opening song “Hunted Down” piqued my interest.

From there, I graduated to their debut full length album Ultramega OK (another title I loved as a teenager). Here was something special. A cover of “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf.  Like the rock acts of the 70s, Soundgarden was mining inspiration from blues music. With Screaming Life, they had my interest. Now they had my attention.

It was these early forays into Soundgarden that made me buy the album Superunknown on a whim when I found it at a local Goodwill. And then we were, as the saying goes, cooking with gas. THIS was something different. Something new. I’d heard a handful of Soundgarden songs before. I liked them. It was like someone threw Thin Lizzy in a blender with Black Sabbath. But Superunknown? It’s impossible for me to describe the feelings I experienced listening to it for the first time.

At this point, I was enamored with Soundgarden. I got a copy of Badmotorfinger. It blew my mind too. Then came Down on the Upside. Which I listened to so often in my shitty, cheap portable CD player I eventually had to retire the CD because the disc had been scratched to the point of no return. When I listen to Badmotorfinger now, I can hear the band transitioning from Ultramega OK and Louder than Love to Superunknown and Down on the Upside. Metal songs like “Slaves & Bulldozers” and “Rusty Cage” are situated alongside more accessible tracks like “Outshined” and “Mind Riot.” The band was evolving on Badmotorfinger without ever sounding like anyone other than Soundgarden.

I’m rambling, but I’m trying to demonstrate how important Soundgarden was to me as a teenager. And the frontman of the band was a huge part of that. So, I happily followed Chris Cornell when he fronted Audioslave. I even listened to his solo albums.

When I try to consider what kept me listening to Chris Cornell whether he was fronting Soundgarden, fronting Audioslave, performing solo, or even recording a Bond theme, I keep coming back to a single reason. And that’s range. And, no, I don’t mean Chris Cornell’s ludicrous vocal range as a performer (though anyone who doesn’t respect the four octave range of Cornell’s voice is a possible alien). I mean his emotional range. Chris Cornell was a wildly versatile singer, able to communicate a vast array of emotions across the body of his work. Compare the tender, forlorn sadness of his cover of the Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean” to the Audioslave song “Cochise” for instance. Even within the Soundgarden songbook, we can compare the Badmotorfinger song “Face Pollution” to the Down on the Upside song “Burden In My Hand.” And how could we forget the immeasurable swagger of his Bond theme “You Know My Name” (in my opinion the best Bond theme)? Or the playfulness of “She’ll Never Be Your Man’?

The soaring heights. The echoing lows. The anger. The compassion. The voice of Chris Cornell. It was a rare source of stability for me during my teen years. While I struggled, Chris Cornell’s music was there for me. In my headphones. What the music of Chris Cornell could not be, we learned today, was there for him. And this is the horror of depression. Even a man as successful and beloved as Chris Cornell, who had dealt with depression and drug addiction for much of his adult life, was swallowed up by it. There seems to be this assumption depression is a thing for the youthful alone, but Chris Cornell was 52 years old. These struggles are no less real at age 75 than they are at age 14. And he, like many people, was put in the position of being unable to trust his own feelings. He had a family, he had a successful career. But his mind twisted the good in his life and drowned it in blackness. Some would call what he achieved the American dream. But depression doesn’t answer to such a concept. And last night it drove him to take his own life.

So, let’s aspire to unwrap the misconceptions of mental illness. Let’s be supportive and understanding when the people we care about disclose their struggles with mental illness. So many people jump to conclusions and make assumptions about the experience of being depressed. Let’s be there for those people who are unable to be there for themselves. Success doesn’t defeat depression. Time doesn’t defeat depression. Winning one battle doesn’t mean you’ll win the next. But you don’t have to fight alone. If you or someone you know struggles with depression, please reach out for help.  We are here. We are listening.


We’re going to miss you, Chris.


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