Chris Cornell taught me how to scream.
I am a child of divorced parents who was raised for years by a single mother. Musically, I was stuck between my mom’s penchant for Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond and my father’s love for Chicago and Elton John. In my teenage years, I plastered my bedroom walls with posters of hair bands like Poison, Whitesnake, and Guns N’ Roses, while secretly listening to Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman when no one else was around. But as I entered high school in the early 1990s, a new sound was emerging from the distant land of Seattle, Wash. Some people called it “grunge.” Many of us called it our salvation.
When I heard the news today that grunge icon Chris Cornell had died of an apparent suicide, I shared the sentiment of musician Jason Isbell, who tweeted, “Me and teenage me are both heartbroken.” Music always plays a role in individual coming-of-age stories, but it’s rare for a musical style to become the voice for an entire generation. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Cornell’s Soundgarden comprised the holy trinity of grunge music for many of us, creating introspective, angst-filled compositions born from a combination of punk, heavy metal, and indie rock. With these honest and unfiltered songs, my generation finally found its voice.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain were perhaps the bigger stars, but Cornell was unique in the way his four-octave vocals let audiences travel with him melodically as well as poetically. As a songwriter, he wrote from a place of both addiction and loss. When Soundgarden’s Superunknown was released in 1994, I was in my final year of high school and still nursing the wounds left by the death of my alcoholic stepfather only a few years earlier. I was emerging into a world where I expected to grow up and live into my potential as a young adult. But I was a broken addict myself who didn’t get into college. I felt insecure and anxious about an unknown future. Alone in my car I would listen to Cornell, on “Black Hole Sun,” give voice to my inner turmoil:
In my eyes, indisposed
In disguises no one knows
Hides the face, lies the snake…
Black hole sun
Won't you come
And wash away the rain
I knew many of my peers were receiving the same catharsis from Cornell. As Generation X, we were raised during the highest rate of divorce in American history. The scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart equated religion with hypocrisy. Vietnam was long over, but the Gulf War—the first in most of our lifetimes—was underway. Our foundational institutions of family, church, and government were in disarray and the new bands from Seattle appeared to be the only ones sounding the alarm.
Despite the biblical declaration that this world is being redeemed, our stories can still leave a nasty scar.
In Real Life: A Christianity Worth Living Out, author James Choung suggests that the spiritual question for Generation X is this: “What is real?” Experiencing the stark discrepancy between what we were being told about the world we lived in and what we experienced, Gen X found itself searching for authenticity amidst a culture of crumbling trust. In such a setting, Cornell’s voice rang true to our cynical ears. While our parents decried grunge for being “depressing” and “angry,” we experienced the liberation of finally being understood. As America became an increasingly prosperous nation, my generation sang a collective amen when Vedder and Cornell joined forces in the band Temple of the Dog to give us a new activist anthem: “Hunger Strike”:
I don't mind stealing bread
From the mouth of decadence
In an interview with Vulture, Chris Cornell once confessed, “There's something about losing friends, particularly young people, where it's not something that you get over. I don't believe there's a healing process.” Even today I resonate with Cornell’s honesty and candor about the painful reality of life. Despite the biblical declaration that this world is being redeemed, our stories can still leave a nasty scar. The gospel also recognizes our identity as humans who are both deeply loved and incredibly flawed. Cornell sang about the latter, including as the frontman for Audioslave:
And if you don't believe
The sun will rise
Stand alone and greet
The coming night
In the last remaining light.
While I am grateful to Cornell for the years of companionship he offered during some of the darkest days of my past, his greatest gift was the way his music encouraged me to look unflinchingly at the world and ask if there was anything more. That search eventually led me to Jesus and a long process of healing that continues to this day. Surely many in my generation are thankful for the years Cornell spent as our therapist, helping us weep with integrity and search for the truth.