Before We Disappear

CC image courtesy Andreas Eldh on Flickr

Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast
Taking everything that you ever had
And giving nothing in return
But a cold bed in a quiet earth

– Chris Cornell, “Before We Disappear”

In my opinion (which, let’s face it, is the only one that really matters to me) there are three essential 90s grunge albums: Nevermind, Ten, and Superunknown. Nirvana changed everything with Nevermind. Pearl Jam showed that pop sensibility and virtuosic guitar playing could be a feature, rather than a bug, in the grunge revolution with Ten. And Soundgarden’s Superunknown was just perfect. It didn’t have a moment that changed the dominant paradigm in pop music like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and it didn’t get airplay for virtually every song like Ten did (“Alive”, “Even Flow”, “Jeremy”, “Black”, “Oceans”, “Once”), but Superunknown did essentially perfect the genre.

I know people that swear up, down, and sideways that Badmotorfinger was Soundgarden’s best album—my partner is one of them. In high school, after Superunknown came out, I knew a number of people who bought t-shirts with the Badmotorfinger cover art on them to make a statement. Hipsters didn’t start this whole “I loved them before they were cool” thing. Hipsters aren’t the only “real” (read: insufferable) fans in music history. My generation did that shit, too.

Back then I also heard an awful lot about how “Black Hole Sun” was a terrible song that ruined Soundgarden by becoming so popular. And it was popular, enormously so, especially with that disturbing as hell video that seemed to play every 15 minutes on MTV. (Remember when MTV played music videos?)

Those people were all full of shit.

There are other great bands and albums from that time. If you were making a list of great grunge music you obviously couldn’t leave off Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, or Smashing Pumpkins. You’d probably want to include bands like Mudhoney, The Melvins, and Screaming Trees. You could also get wistful and include Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog, and Mad Season. But none of these bands, with the possible exception of Temple of the Dog, which wasn’t a “real” band, anyway, produced an album as great, or as important, as Nevermind, Ten, or Superunknown.

For me, just like how the Apostle Paul said that three things remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love; for 90s grunge albums the Apostle Tom says that three things remain: Nevermind, Ten, and Superunknown, and the greatest of these is Superunknown.

Everyone I know would argue that I’m wrong. They’re probably even right about it. “Greatness” is an amorphous concept, and however you measure “great” Nevermind should probably be at the top. It’s just that I wasn’t allowed to like Nevermind growing up. I’m a twin and, while a lot of twins embrace their twinhood and roll with having someone who’s pretty much just like them in the world, my brother and I did the opposite. He plays mandolin now because I picked up a guitar first. But he picked Nirvana first, and so I was forced to argue that Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden were all better.

But I also have a special relationship with Superunknown. I was 15 when it came out. I had some money and no bills to pay (being a teenager is great, even if no teenager knows it at the time). I also had a Sony Discman and a plethora of record stores (which only sold CDs and tapes at the time, as the hipster and audiophile led vinyl revolution came over a decade later) in town that would gladly take my money. Not only that, but not yet having a license and a car meant that I had long bus rides in the mornings and afternoons. Superunknown accompanied me on these bus rides, and the heavy, Led Zeppelin-esque riffing, odd-metered induced tension, and Chris Cornell’s searing, soaring vocals, taught me what rock music could be—what rock music should be.

As a musician I always tried to sing like Chris Cornell. And like all of the rest of us mere mortals I never came close. His was the voice of our generation. His was arguably the best rock voice of any generation, although I’ll hear arguments for a young Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey. I’ll refute them, but I’ll hear them.

Like everyone I was devastated to hear the news of Chris Cornell’s death. As someone with a history of suicidality I was especially struck. Cornell’s life story, especially of late, was of someone who had overcome his demons. He outlived contemporaries like Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland. He had what seemed like a great family, a great career (his last solo album, Higher Truth, was arguably his best album), and a great life. And yet he died by suicide.

I may seem like a broken record on the subject of stigmatizing language, but this is hella important: Chris Cornell didn’t “commit” suicide—he died by suicide. “Commit” may be the dominant paradigm in terms of how people, especially the press, refer to suicide, but it is a horrible term. To say that someone “committed” suicide is to use antiquated legal language that dates back to when suicide was considered to be a crime. Suicide is not a crime. A person who dies by suicide is not a criminal. Suicide is a symptom of a disease, a deadly disease. And a person who dies by suicide is a victim, not the perpetrator of a crime.

There have been a few times when I have seen, up close, the stigma that surrounds suicide. When Kurt Cobain died the youth group at my church used that tragedy as a way to teach that wealth and fame mean nothing without Jesus. Some even asserted that suicide meant that you couldn’t go to heaven. Suicide, they argued, is sinful; it is tantamount to murder. The person who “committed” (their language) suicide committed a sin that, as it resulted in their death, they could never repent of.

This is, of course, horrific theology.

When a person my family knew died by suicide it became an opportunity for my dad, who has a complicated relationship with mental illness (that is not my story to tell), to rant to us about how selfish suicide is. He pointed to the loved ones left behind, and their anger and hurt that would likely never be healed. He’s not wrong about the pain, but he fundamentally misunderstands the disordered logic in suicide.

Chris Cornell’s widow, in response to this prevalent view of suicide, asserted emphatically that he would never intentionally harm his family like this. She blamed his death on prescription pills. Her grief is her own, and undoubtedly she knew her husband far better than I did—I never even met him. I can’t speak to his experience and thoughts at the time of his death and I don’t intend to, nor can I comprehend her grief. I do not mean to diminish it in any way.

What I can say is this: suicide is not “selfish”. If anything it is the opposite of selfish. In the disordered thinking of a person who is suicidal, it is a very selfless act. In my own experience I felt like, in dying, I was removing the major obstacle between my loved ones and their happiness. I was a burden, and I knew it. I would be doing them a favor by getting out of their way. Sure, it might hurt them initially, but eventually they would come to realize how much better off they were without me.

Suicide is considered, in this way, to be irrational. But there is an internal rationality, an internal logic to it. It is disordered, sure, but it is from its own perspective, reasoned. Understanding this is incredibly important. In my experience suicidal thoughts are pervasive, but being actively suicidal is rare and temporary. It doesn’t feel temporary at the time, but it is. Getting through those rare moments is essential, obviously. After that therapy helps to objectively understand what is going on and that it is temporary.

I’ve got no insight other than that. There isn’t much I can do to help anyone. All I can say is that if you or a loved one is actively suicidal please know that this will pass, and please ignore the stigma and talk to someone about it. You are not weak and you are not alone.

You can contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.