American Culture

A musician’s passing, and the passing of time …

by Amber Healy

Even the music that has comforted me, inspired me, brought sanity to a broken world time after time, kept me company, kicked my ass into gear, healed other wounds … even that is of little help now.

Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell

May 15, 2002, the day after graduating from college, the Dave Matthews Band cover of “In My Life” made me cry so hard I had to pull over on the side of the highway because I couldn’t see the rainy road through the sobs.

May 18, 2017, driving into work on an overcast Thursday morning, the tears came again, probably the second wave of the 90 minutes I’d been awake. One of the guiding voices of my life was gone, unexpectedly and without any kind of reason that made sense, and there was nothing to do but go to work and try to stay distracted for nine hours.

In the intervening 15 years, there were cross-country moves, more than a dozen jobs, two seriously broken hearts, the deaths of my beloved mentor and grandparents, the births of my seven (soon to be eight) nieces and nephews. Through it all, the music was there to keep me tethered.

2017 is becoming a complicated, delicate year.

I turned 37 and while most birthdays are fun, happy excuses to go out and see a concert with some friends, this is the first year I felt the marker as a step away from a life envisioned when leaving St. Bonaventure University all those years ago. The younger siblings and best friends have beautiful, happy, healthy children who are the lights of my life. Moving home has allowed me to see them grow up. My career has left the traditional newsroom and now dances in the marketing realm. But in my spare time there’s a handful of opportunities to write about the music industry and the politics therein that I’d never dreamed possible.

When Chris Cornell died on May 18, I felt the gut punch. Obviously we’d never met. When Soundgarden reunited in 2012 I went to see the band perform in Fairfax, Va., the first time I’d ever gone to a concert by myself but it was too joyful an opportunity to miss.

I’m a child of the ‘90s. My best friend has been an insatiable music fan since we were kids and introduced me to many of the bands I love, though my collection long ago surpassed his in the amount of physical space it takes up. (Sorry, dude, but it’s true.) The quarter note tattooed on the inside of my right wrist is literally the surface indication of a deep-rooted, all-consuming obsession. I am a music person.

Just before my 14th birthday, Kurt Cobain died. Just past the beginning of my senior year of high school, Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon was gone, a drug overdose taking his life the way it had Bradley Nowell of Sublime a few months earlier. Shortly before I graduated from college, Layne Staley was found dead in his apartment. The day I gave my notice at my last writing job in the D.C. area, Scott Weiland died from a heroin overdose. On the eve, literally, of starting my first job back home in western New York in more than a decade, David Bowie left this mortal coil after a secret fight with cancer. Three months later, Prince was gone.

With the exception of Bowie, these men had histories with substance abuse, public struggles with all-too-personal demons that wouldn’t give up. Bowie, of course, was no saint but had seemingly stopped his partying ways decades before. Cornell was, by all accounts, sober for more than a decade. When the initial report suggested he died by his own hand, something about hanging and being found with a band around his neck in a hotel bathroom in Detroit just hours after a Soundgarden concert, it didn’t make sense.

The next day, when his widow released a statement saying she’d been concerned about him, that his voice had been slurred and his thoughts scattered, that somehow made sense. If it’d been an accidental death, that was somehow easier to stomach. It’s no less awful, no less painful, no less traumatic, I’m sure, for his wife and their children. But it wasn’t a pointed effort, it wasn’t premeditated. The last songs he performed held no secret farewell. There’s nothing to be read from the finale of “Slaves & Bulldozers” intermixed with the refrain of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying.” It’s just really bad timing.

Cornell had been taking Ativan for anxiety, a prescription medication often given to people with a history of drug abuse. The symptoms his wife heard over the phone are in step with known side effects of the drug. They were enough to make her worried for his safety, so much so she called a friend to check on him. Sadly, her trepidation was spot on.

Time is mean and evil. We all know this. There’s no turning back the clock. There’s no bringing back the dead. I’m looking at my 15-year college reunion soon, and the world is a much different place now. Many former classmates are married (or divorced, or remarried) with kids. We’ll all look a little different, I’m sure. We’ve left home and gone out into the world. We’ve lost touch, with few exceptions. But we can’t go back and change anything. We can’t retake paths we passed over. We’ve all made choices and carried those decisions forward to their eventual, if not logical, end.

I don’t know if the sadness tugging at me is nostalgia for the reflections to come and paths not taken. I don’t know if it’s simply life marching on and that inescapable drumbeat of time moving forward. I don’t know if the grief over Cornell’s death – the latest in a long, sad line of beloved musicians leaving behind their legacies far too soon—is the sum total of my younger days being over in addition to the loss of a talented, kind-hearted, and irreplaceable artist. But I can’t shake it.

Even the music that has comforted me, inspired me, brought sanity to a broken world time after time, kept me company, kicked my ass into gear, healed other wounds … even that is of little help now. But some days it’s still the best life raft within reach, so continue to reach for it I will.

Amber Healy, who has written for news outlets as well as NASA and the federal government, says she writes about music policy and lawsuits because they’re endlessly fascinating.

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