Nothing speaks to Grunge’s legacy of hopelessness more than the growing body count.
I heard the news today, oh boy: Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell is dead at 52. According to the BBC it’s being investigated as a suicide.
I won’t bother trying to explain his legacy beyond stating the obvious: Cornell was a brilliant talent whose creative vision was central to defining the sound of a generation.
What I will do, though, is offer a lament for the doomed soul of Grunge.
I admit, up front, that I was never a huge fan of the genre. I respected the hell out of its luminaries, of course. Kurt Cobain was the icon of the late Gen X music landscape and his brilliance was surpassing. I liked the first Pearl Jam album, but they then launched off in a direction that I just didn’t connect with. I did enjoy Stone Temple Pilots, the movement’s Power Pop wing, in moments, and I have suggested that the Alice in Chains Jar of Flies EP might have been Grunge’s finest effort next to Nevermind. Soundgarden was inventive and relentlessly powerful even in their quieter moments.
But for me it was hard music to wrap my arms around. It wasn’t that the music was uniformly dark – I love darkness – it was that this breed of darkness was often grotesque and utterly devoid of hope. Grunge was the soundtrack of a generation’s despair, and while I understand entirely why it spoke to so many, the fact that there was no light at the end of the tunnel wore on me. It cast a dark film over any room in which it played.
At the same time I was listening to a lot of Punk and a good bit of Industrial, to boot. You might say that these genres are pretty dark, too. There was, in my mind, a difference, though. Punk and Industrial raged non-stop, and as long as you’re raging you haven’t abandoned hope. You’re fighting, you’re struggling, and while you might be on the mat you’re still swinging as hard as you can.
Grunge, it seemed, was music for those who had surrendered.
I apologize if it seems like I’m disrespecting the memories of people who were certified geniuses or stomping the toes of those who loved them. I have friends who are devastated this morning, and to be clear, I bought a lot of Grunge CDs. I had everything from Nirvana and one or two from the rest of the bands mentioned here. I am not trying to undercut the artistic legacy of an important moment in our musical and cultural history. I’m just wrestling with my own ambivalence about a movement that struck me being at once stellar and spiritually desolate.
And I’m doing so for a reason. As odd as it seems, given that we often think of the early 1990s as an era defined by Grunge in perhaps the way that the early/mid-’60s were defined by the British Invasion, the truth is that Grunge as most know it was basically five bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, STP, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Add to these Green River and Mother Love Bone, the progenitors from which Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament emerged, plus maybe Mudhoney, and the grand total is eight. That’s a small gene pool. And this morning I’m reflecting on something that may have occurred to you, as well.
Andrew Wood: Mother Love Bone lead singer Wood may have been as compelling a talent as Cobain. After first listening to the MLB catalog I joked that if he had lived we might never have heard of Eddie Vedder. Except I’m not sure that’s really a joke, and he didn’t live. Wood ODed on heroin at 24.
Kurt Cobain: As I said three years ago when we installed Kurt as our masthead honoree, it’s a bit much to call anyone the voice of a generation, but he was damned sure a voice, and a major one. I don’t exaggerate in the slightest when I say that Cobain changed everything. He committed suicide at 27.
Layne Staley: Staley fronted Grunge’s Metal band, Alice in Chains. I have never been quite able to put it into words, but his work, especially Jar of Flies, resonated with me more than did the music of his contemporaries. He entered rehab for his addiction 13 times and died at 34, reportedly weighing only 86 pounds at the time.
Scott Weiland: Weiland fronted the most tuneful of the Grunge acts, Stone Temple Pilots, and “Lady Picture Show” remains one of my favorite tracks of the era. I recall a promotional documentary on his Velvet Revolver supergroup project with Slash in which one of his handlers was asked about working with the mercurial star. What followed was a remarkable string of euphemisms for “we work hard to keep him from overdosing” as you will ever hear. Weiland lasted longer than most – he didn’t OD until the age of 48.
And now, Chris Cornell: I don’t think Cornell ever struck me as being doomed in the way some of the others here seemed to be, but he’s gone at 52 – after years of struggle with substance abuse – and, as noted above, they’re thinking it was suicide. Details at 11.
If you’re thinking this is a pretty high percentage of frontmen/creative drivers dead by their own hands for one very small artistic population, I’m with you. And I’m sitting here this morning, thinking back on my early unease with their music. Despair, hopelessness, nihilism, a spiritual malaise that held no promise of dawn. I don’t have any useful conclusions, perhaps, other than to observe that these men, as brilliant a cohort as we have seen in a long time, were telling us the truth of their lives all along.
RIP, Chris. And will somebody go check on Eddie…