What Chris Cornell Taught me About Grief, Love & Art.

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“I think you’re going to like this,” my brother said to me as he handed me the Temple of the Dog CD.

I felt a small sting of knowing that at 15, my little brother was cooler about music than I was. But I also knew that he understood my taste.

I grabbed the silver-bottomed disc by the edges and slid it into my 5-disc player. Then I leaned back on my bed, stretching out my legs.

My brother was right.

The mournful lyrics of some of the songs, the singer’s transcendent voice, the blur of the guitars—it all went straight to my core. This wasn’t the hard rock that had permeated the radio a few years earlier, the strutting, bravado-backed hair bands. No, this was something else. Something rain-soaked and resonant, sullen and sultry, poetic and poignant.

It was one of those rare albums where, instead of just finding one or two songs that I loved and flicking through the rest, I liked almost all of them. The music was layered, as if there was some magic ingredient that I couldn’t put my finger on.

When I pawed through the pages of a Rolling Stone and read the story behind the music, I started to understand. Temple of the Dog had been created as a tribute album to Andrew Wood, a Seattle singer whose band, Mother Love Bone, had been on the verge of stardom when he died after a heroin overdose.

Chris Cornell, another rising Seattle star who’d been a roommate of Andy’s, wrote the first songs, “Say Hello to Heaven” and “Reach Down,” after his death. Andy’s surviving bandmates joined him, as did another vocalist—a young musician named Eddie Vedder, who would go on to create Pearl Jam with two of the remaining members of Mother Love Bone.

The album had been recorded in just over two weeks. It was raw and robust. The secret ingredients I sensed were love and loss, vulnerability and yearning, as well as the mysterious grace of talented musicians coming together in the right space and time.

It was the first time it occurred to me that the deepest pain could be harnessed and re-shaped into something beautiful.

I woke up this morning to the news of Chris Cornell’s unexpected death.

I held back tears as I made my kids’ breakfast and packed their lunches. I thought about that first time I heard his voice, just after my brother handed me the CD. The truth is, I don’t know a lot about Chris Cornell’s life—but I know he had the voice of an angel. I know that he created something gorgeous out of the ashes of grief.

And I know that the music of the ’90s is lodged deep inside of me. It’s the soundtrack to the confusion and exquisite lust of young adulthood. It’s also tethered to my own grief for my little brother, who was studying the music business, and who died from heroin just as the decade closed out.

I know that Chris was one of the few Seattle frontmen, along with Eddie Vedder, who survived that era—Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Elliot Smith all died young and tragically. And now Chris Cornell is gone too.

And I’m all grown up now. Middle-aged. Much of my life has already been decided. I’ve chosen certain paths, avoided others. I’m far from that girl, clad in a flannel shirt and cut-off shorts over black tights, teetering on the precipice of adulthood; she was both terrified and thrilled.

But when I listen to Chris’ voice, I feel all that uncertainty and yearning again, thick in my throat and under the knots of my ribs. I feel flannel, and raindrops, and home.

This is both the gift and the bittersweetness of the soundtrack of our lives—how it gets lodged in our cells, and how it can rise back up again out of nowhere, potent as ever. His voice brings me right back to that tempestuous time when I learned that we can make sweet things out of our deepest sadness. That beauty can grow in the darkest, dampest places if we tend to them.

~

Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: Flickr/Gordon Correll
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

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Lynn Shattuck May 31, 2017 1:09pm

Me too, Elizabeth. <3

Elizabeth Henao May 25, 2017 2:52pm

Thank you. Heartbroken. So incredibly sad.

Elizabeth Henao May 25, 2017 2:47pm

Thank you. So incredibly sad.

Lynn Shattuck May 23, 2017 12:55pm

Deb, so great that you got to see him live. I'm still feeling really sad too. <3

Deb Jarrett May 22, 2017 3:22am

Lynn, thank you thank you. Days later still so sad...listening to all of his tunes. I was lucky enough to see him 5 times between 2011 and 2012 when I lived in San Francisco...acoustic, with Sound Garden, with Obama... each performance was amazing in a different way...all connected me with my youth and the present. So awesome to know there are others who feel the same.

Toni Zasa May 22, 2017 12:06am

Monica Tweedy I'm glad it helped you. <3

Monica Tweedy May 21, 2017 11:51pm

This is beautifully said, and helps me understand better the effect it's having on me. Thank you.

Toni Zasa May 21, 2017 10:06am

*Soundgarden

Toni Zasa May 21, 2017 10:05am

I was just a kid when Soundfarden were in their hayday, less than 10. But As I grew into adolescence, I discovered Chris Cornell and the magic of his music. His voice, his lyrics, his presence all seemed to tell me that he got me and understood my pain; the pain of being different and feeling unaccepted. I remember buying my first car, on my own, in my early twenties. A brand new car that had a cd player. The first cd I bought was Audioslave. The feeling of freedom, listening to Gasoline on full blast with the windows down. That's a memory I don't think I will ever forget. The death of Chris feels like a dagger through the heart. Days later and I still wake up crushed by sadness. I never imagined I would ever experience such intense hurt for someone I didn't know. But I suppose that's not right, really. I did know him, in a way. We all did. He was a part of the tapestries of our lives, in one way or another. He shared some of his deepest emotions with us. He got us through some of our toughest moments. He was a part of some of our fondest memories. He lives on in the very fabric of who we are. Rest in peace, Chris. Thank you for the memories.

Erica Hayes May 21, 2017 2:20am

This is perfect

Clementina Labinjo May 20, 2017 3:49pm

Lynn Shattuck Thank you

Lynn Shattuck May 20, 2017 3:06pm

Clementina, so sorry for the loss of your brother. Thank you for your comment. <3

Lynn Shattuck May 20, 2017 3:06pm

Thank you Cheryl. <3

Lynn Shattuck May 20, 2017 3:06pm

Yes, well said, Jennifer.

Clementina Labinjo May 20, 2017 10:14am

I want to thank you Lynn for such a beautiful heart wrenching poignant piece of work. I sobbed uncontrollably and I needed to, I am so sorry for your loss, I too lost my beloved brother. Thank you for helping me to heal a little today. His voice was amazing and I felt the sadness in every word R.I.P Mr Cornell love to you and your crew.

Cher Devitt May 20, 2017 4:25am

Thanks for saying what I haven't been able to. Thanks for doing so in such a heartfelt way. Thanks for including Elliott- I loved him so much and would never have found him were it not for the exposure to Nirvana, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, et. al. as a teen in the early 90s. Thanks for making me feel less alone in my grief or less crazy for grieving a stranger. Condolances for the loss of your brother.

Jennifer Ramirez May 19, 2017 9:46pm

Thank you for this. When our artists start to go, we are faced with our own mortality. They are the words and thoughts we couldn't express. Not still having them with us feels like our own voice or light is just a little dimmer.

Christa Annes May 19, 2017 5:45pm

Thank you thank you thank you ���

Lynn Shattuck May 19, 2017 5:30pm

Michelle, well stated. <3

Michele Butler May 19, 2017 5:00pm

Very powerful. Thanks for sharing. I was wisked right back along with you reading this. Such a sad loss of an amazing and also tortured talent.

Lynn Shattuck May 19, 2017 4:09pm

Thank you for your comments, Laurie. I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend. Like you, I was surprised to be hit so hard by Chris' death yesterday. Grief can be so easily triggered. <3 to you.

Lynn Shattuck May 19, 2017 4:08pm

Thanks, Betty!

Lynn Shattuck May 19, 2017 4:08pm

Aw, thank you Kimberly. I'm so sorry for the loss of your dad. It is breathtaking how easily those wounds come open again. <3 Take good care.

Lynn Shattuck May 19, 2017 4:07pm

Rich, I totally agree.

Lynn Shattuck May 19, 2017 4:06pm

Thanks, Donna!

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Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. She blogs about parenting, imperfection, spirit, and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.