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Chris Cornell's Suicide Is Sadly Familiar To Gen-Xers

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CHRIS CORNELL 1991
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The first time I saw Soundgarden perform was Lollapalooza '92 at Vancouver's outdoor Thunderbird Stadium -- and in a moment that meant everything to grade-11 me but sounds painfully peak-90s 25 years later, Chris Cornell crowdsurfed over me while I was in the throes of my first real thousands-strong moshpit.

Early-90s moshing was not the aggro-bro fest that break-stuff bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn would turn it into by the time Woodstock '99 burned to the ground.

Back then, it was an ecstatic shared experience where everyone, alt-boys and alt-girls, outsiders in our schools and homes in the age before social media could connect like minds, leapt together as one flannel-adorned, Manic Panic'd mass.

But as life-affirming as moshing was back then, the music we were jumping up and down to was, to borrow a Soundgarden song title, the equivalent of a black-hole sun because that was the world we were living in, and why we needed the communal catharsis.

chris cornell 1990

Soundgarden formed in Seattle back in 1984, the year that Ronald Reagan was re-elected president and we were all resigned to dying at some point soon in a nuclear holocaust. But the band didn't find mainstream success until they left the seaside city's famed Sub Pop label and inadvertently kicked off the "Seattle Scene" feeding frenzy with the 1989 major label-release of "Louder Than Love" and its 1991 follow-up "Badmotorfinger," which arrived within weeks of Nirvana's "Nevermind."

"Badmotorfinger," inspired by metal as much as punk, was as hard as the nails Cornell used as lyrical metaphors in songs like "Jesus Christ Pose" and "Rusty Cage" pairing the group's hammering guitar riffs and Cornell's soaring vocals with death-soaked subtext.

The previous year, Cornell had conceived and recorded an album that eschewed such subtext. Called Temple of the Dog, it paired the singer with the band that would soon become Pearl Jam but was, at that moment, the surviving fragments of Mother Love Bone, a glam-rock band whose lead singer Andrew Wood, Cornell's roommate, had died of a heroin overdose in March 1990.

After both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam hit it big -- the latter with teen-suicide tale "Jeremy" and the seemingly uplifting song "Alive" in which Eddie Vedder asks "do I deserve to be?" --"Temple of the Dog" was re-released in 1992.

Soon Cornell's voice could be heard signing "Hunger Strike," "Reach Down" and "Say Hello 2 Heaven" on the radio, songs he wrote in tribute to his late friend and that many of us wanted to one day be our funeral songs.

Death was an omnipresent part of the alt-era, something we just took for granted at the time and used concerts as coping mechanisms.

Though the Soviet Union had collapsed at this point, pushing the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock away from midnight, a brutal recession had been spiked with a heroin epidemic that ravaged young people across the land but hit especially hard in the port cities of Seattle and nearby Vancouver.

Death was an omnipresent part of the alt-era, something we just took for granted at the time.

Success does not make someone safe.

But death was everywhere abroad, too, as Dubya's daddy celebrated the end of the cold war by kicking off the Gulf War and we all watched bombs over Baghdad falling live on CNN.

Then in late 1993, River Phoenix, a young actor deeply connected to the alternative youth-culture revolution that grunge and Lollapalooza had pushed from the underground into the mainstream, died of an overdose on the sidewalk outside Johnny Depp's Viper Room rock club.

For those of us in high school, too young to know people personally affected by heroin but who had followed his career from "Stand By Me" to the incredible Gus Van Sant film "My Own Private Idaho," River's death was devastating.

This was someone close to our age, making art that spoke directly to us, who died by accident doing a more extreme version of what we did every weekend. And we could even hear his brother Joaquin Phoenix's panicked 911 call.

But then it got even worse.

The following spring Nirvana's Kurt Cobain fell into an heroin-induced coma in Rome in March 1994 and then few weeks later took his own life with a shotgun in early April 1994.

I was in university residence that year, in between final exams, and spent the day in the common room glued to CNN as more and more classmates joined me in stunned silence while the initial reports bore out.

Suicide.

The funeral that followed became a touchstone for a generation, this shared grief for a haunted man we never knew but who had given us so much.

Just weeks earlier Soundgarden's "Superunknown" had arrived, containing all-too-timely songs like "The Day I Tried to Live" and "Fell on Black Days" as well as Grammy-winner "Black Hole Sun," which somehow made "Hang my head, drown my fear / Till you all just disappear" into a pop hit.

And there were more deaths, too.

7 Year Bitch's Stefanie Sargent of a heroin overdose in June of 1992. The Gits' Mia Zapata murdered in July of 1993. Gin Blossoms' Doug Hopkins of suicide in December 1993. Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff of a heroin overdose in June 1994, just two months after their album "Live Through This" came out. Lush's Chris Acland of suicide in October 1996.

It was something to live through at the time, but which we never questioned. It just was. And yet in hindsight so many deaths of so many young people seems unfathomable.

And they didn't stop.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley, who found fame by singing about his addictions, died of a prescription drug overdose in 2002 and his bandmate Mike Starr died of a heroin overdose in 2011. Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland in 2015 succumbed to an overdose of cocaine, ethanol and MDA, a culmination of the addiction struggles he had been fighting in public since the '90s.

And now Chris Cornell of suicide by hanging.

It is an unimaginable tragedy for those who loved him personally -- his wife and his three children most of all -- and for all of those who loved the music he gave to the world and the operatic multi-octave howl he sang it to us with.

But for those of who came of age amidst the carnage of the 1990s counterculture -- who are now faced with its daily echoes in the opioid and suicide crises affecting regular folks across the land -- it's also a painful reminder from our youth that we need to do more to fight these scourges.

That success does not make someone safe.

And that we all need to watch out for each other, because anyone of us can fall on black days.

Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact your local crisis centre. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, visit suicideprevention.ca to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you're worried about.

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