Grammy-winning musician Chris Cornell — lead singer of bands such as Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple Of The Dog — took his own life in a Detroit hotel room hours after performing a concert in the Motor City. Many were shocked and surprised, but perhaps it wasn’t so surprising after hearing what he told us through his songs over the years.
When Chris Cornell wrapped an exercise band around his neck and ended his life in the bathroom of a Detroit hotel room, he left behind a distraught family and a confused fan base.
What goes into the decision to kill yourself in such a grisly fashion? According to Cornell’s wife Vickie, she believes that he was under the influence of prescription anxiety medication and was unaware of what was happening. The real story? We will never know.
What’s ironic about Cornell’s death — or possibly a sad cry for help — was how often he referenced suicidal thoughts and tendencies in his song lyrics. Most notably, they were used as a metaphor for failing relationships and heavy drug use. The “pretty noose” he’s hanging from in a 1996 song of the same name is a toxic relationship. On the other hand, his most famous track with Audioslave, “Like A Stone,” is about imagining your life after you die; whether that’s by your own means or not, it’s still a morbid fascination with death.
Let’s take a look at Cornell’s grimmest looks at death and depression, and see if they say anything about his life. We’ll look at his four Soundgarden albums — Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, Fell On Black Days; and the three he made with Audioslave — Audioslave, Out Of Exile and Revelations.
Louder Than Love (1989)
The debut Soundgarden album featured a song called “Gun,” which includes the threatening line in the chorus “I got something we can do with a gun.”
“Outshined” has spawned one of Cornell’s most famous lines — “Looking California, feeling Minnesota.” This is wordplay on being depressed. On the outside you’re smiles and sunshine and good looks, but on the inside it’s bad weather, sadness and frowns.
While “Homicidal Suicidal” is a cover song, the 1971 Welsh rocker Budgie track has some disturbing lyrics, including police brutality.
“The Day I Tried To Live” has been called a positive song in previous interviews with Cornell. One could possibly find a glimmer of hope in a song about how horrible it was to get out of bed and try to live your day — at least he tried, and he leaves open the possibility of trying again.
Another love metaphor, “Like Suicide” talks about how their love killed them before killing itself. “She lived like a murder … But she died just like suicide.”
In “Fell On Black Days,” everything that Cornell loved has been ruined — “Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now … How would I know that this could be my fate?”
Down On The Upside (1996)
“Diamond rope, silver chain, pretty noose is a pretty pain … And I don’t like what you’ve got me hanging from,” Cornell says of the relationship that’s slowly killing him in “Pretty Noose.” Any reference to hanging himself, even metaphorically, has now taken on a more disturbing meaning.
Perhaps the most outward display of suicidal thoughts are on display in “Blow Up The Outside World.” Cornell reflects on his state of mind — “Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try … Nothing is closing my eyes.” In separate interviews, Cornell has said he was “A little fucked up” when writing that song and also that he wants to blow up the outside world “All the time…”
Cornell was struggling with addiction issues throughout his life, and infamously did an interview with Spin Magazine in 2003 where he admitted that he was talking to them from a rehab facility. As such, a lot of the music on this album is coming from a dark place. “What You Are” uses metaphorical suicides to describe the feeling in a bad relationship — slitting his wrists to make her happy, as well as setting himself on fire because she asked for it.
The biggest radio hit of Audioslave’s career is about death. “Like A Stone” imagines the world without him — “I was lost in the pages of a book full of death,” he croons.
“I can tell you why people die alone…” is the message from “Shadow On The Sun,” and that wound up being what happened to him.
“Exploder” tells a story of abuse, homicide and ultimately suicide through its three verses. The song culminates with Cornell staring down the man in the mirror that he constantly fights with. The final battle has a chilling ending — “And when he turned away, I shot him in the head. Then I came to realize, I had killed myself…”
In “The Last Remaining Light,” Cornell sings from the viewpoint of somebody who knows he won’t survive long — “And if you don’t believe the sun will rise, stand alone and greet the coming night, in the last remaining light.”
Out Of Exile (2005)
“Your Time Has Come” is pretty direct — it’s about suicide; people who killed themselves before their time had come. In this song, Cornell is the observer, wondering why these people were doing that to themselves.
“Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye” is actually a song of happiness and love, but it starts with Cornell at rock bottom. Comparing himself to a stray dog being rescued, Cornell promises to never run away. He describes where he was before that rescue in harsh detail — “I killed myself, threw away my mental health, but nobody was blinking an eye … Nothing left to say but goodbye.”
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What can 25 years of lyrics tell us about the psyche of Chris Cornell? Why would a 52-year-old man who had both commercial success and artistic respect choose to end his life in such a violent manner? He wrote songs about killing himself so often that the thought had to have been in his head before. Cornell had struggled with drug addiction for a good portion of his early adult life. He had openly talked about battling depression. And, his wife acknowledged that he had been taking anti-anxiety medication.
Is there anything that can be gleaned from his words? Was Cornell the stereotypical “tortured soul” who bares his emotions onstage for the world to see? From all accounts, it looks like that was the case.
What can we learn from his actions? Suicide has long been referred to as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Of the main faces of the Grunge revolution of the early and mid 90s, only Eddie Vedder remains. We have lost two of them from drug overdoses — Layne Staley in 2002 and Scott Weiland in 2015, and two from suicides — Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Chris Cornell on Wednesday, May 17, 2017.