When a notable musician dies under such circumstances as Chris Cornell did back in 2017, their lives are often reduced to simple tales of inevitable tragedy. Consider how many documentaries have been made about The 27 Club, all of which seem to imply that the deaths of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, or Jimi Hendrix were somehow set in stone from the moment they were born. The whole idea of fate has the power to be both reassuring and deeply misleading. It tells us that our lives will not be viewed as a summation of our experiences – whether they be sad or joyful – but through the lens of the way that we kick the bucket.
This has undoubtedly been the case for many of rock music’s most tragic figures. It sometimes seems that, as soon as a notable musician dies, the process of simplification gets underway, a process that strips away all the complexity from their lives and leaves the public with a neat, perfectly packaged life story. Pearl Jam may have understood this when they shared their fondest memory of Soundgarden’s talented frontman Chris Cornell – an individual who did indeed struggle with mental health but who also had an astounding capacity for joy.
Back in 2020, Pearl Jam took to part in a Reddit AMA, in which they recalled their favourite memories of Cornell, a long time long-term friend and occasional collaborator of the band. Pearl Jam’s guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard recalled the period when Pearl Jam had just finished recording their 1996 album No Code at Cornell’s Studio Litho, and had left a human dummy nicknamed ‘Safety Man’ behind.
Shortly afterwards, Soundgarden arrived at the studio to record Down On The Upside: “People had been using Safety Men to cheat in the SUV lanes by having in the passenger seat,” Gossard began, “Long story short, safety man had been on the couch the whole time SG record and one day [engineer] Matt Bayles arrived and was getting ready to record and as he turned around Safety man stood up and scared the shit of him… Chris has snuck in and put on all of safety man’s clothes and sat there for 20 mins waiting… so funny.”
Amongst his friends, Cornell was known for his “gallows humour”. When he died, many of those closest to him noted how he relied on this humour as a way of overcoming the pressures of fame and life on the road. Heart’s Anne Wilson, for example, gave an interview during the aftermath of Cornell’s death in which she described how he’d never been entirely at home in the limelight.
“It was really uncomfortable, and he wasn’t just bragging about being uncomfortable, he was. It was too much,” the vocalist said, adding: “He had one foot in wanting to be famous, and one foot in just being so uncomfortable there, that he was caught somewhere in the middle. He was so beautiful, and handsome, but tender. He was a really, really good person.”
It’s important to remember that, like anyone else, Cornell experienced more than just crushing sadness. He was loved by his friends, and always attempted to make those long hours in the studio as enjoyable as possible. He was more than his suffering. I think that’s worth remembering.