In Memory of Chris Cornell

When I heard the news of Chris Cornell's suicide, I flashed back to a moment twenty years ago. I was leading a workshop on popular music at a youth conference in Illinois, and wanted to push back at this idea that Christians, especially Christian youth, should only listen to so-called “Christian” music. Instead, I wanted them to listen to music critically, regardless of genre. One of the songs I used to illustrate this point was Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days”.

We listened to the song, reading along with the lyrics: “Whatsoever I feared has come to life…Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now…I’m only faking when I get it right…Don’t you lock up something that you wanted to see fly. Hands are for shaking, not tying.” After the song finished, I asked the simple question, “What does this sound like?” One kid offered up, “It sounds like Jesus speaking from the cross.”

That moment was a turning point for me. Even though it has taken me almost twenty years to articulate it, that kid helped me see that the separation between secular music and sacred music is a fraudulent one. And Chris Cornell was one of those gifted artists who helped me hear that there is holiness at work in unexpected places.

Cornell’s songs often plunged the depths of foreboding themes. He was frank about his mental health and addiction struggles, and I’m confident that the topics of his songs were intimately tied to what we might call the “demons” he faced. It’s tempting to see these as chilling prophecies of his eventual suicide; but I think it’s a temptation worth resisting.

Frank Guan, writing for last week, said it very well:

Cornell was too honest to be merely sullen, and the voice with which he delivered his impressions, and the guitars and drums behind them, were too beautiful to simply amount to a document of doom. Heavy as death but dynamic as life, Soundgarden struck a balance between the two, and it was this realness that made their songs a resource for countless desperate individuals too smart to cheer up yet too strong to give in.

As for me, I think Cornell had this gift of looking into the ugliness of life and creating some beauty from it. Doing so surely took its spiritual and emotional toll, and that beautiful agony that his vocals somehow never lost was symbolic of it.

I have come to recognize how vulnerable it can be to live as an artist. I also think the same is true of being a faithful follower of Jesus. It is impossible to face the injustice in the world without it affecting you deeply. Empathy is hard. Art is hard. And they are both critical.

So to all of you out there, please be sure to take good care of yourself; or get yourself to those who can take good care of you. You create beauty in a world that so desperately needs it – and you. Remember that. And recognize that it reflects your own inner beauty.