It’s the obvious question. Why did he do it? He’d been on stage in front of a huge and adoring crowd only hours before. He was back on the road with his world-famous band, playing the music he’d devoted his life to. He had a loving family, many friends who would have done anything for him. But shortly after he got back to his hotel room, he locked the door and took his own life.
That was Chris Cornell, the lead singer of the band Soundgarden. They were one of the big names of the grunge era, founded in 1984 by Cornell with the guitarist Kim Thayil and the bass-player Hiro Yamamoto. They didn’t find an established drummer fast and didn’t succeed fast either, but that made success all the better when it arrived. They had paid their dues and they reaped their reward. When it was released in 1991 the album Badmotorfinger was hailed as an instant classic. It earned them an opening slot with on tour with Guns’n’Roses, then the biggest band in the world.
They were the most controversial too. Cornell later said that he and the rest of Soundgarden weren’t sure whether to accept the tour. Guns’n’Roses played loud, straightforward rock; Soundgarden were much stranger and quirkier, always ready to experiment and innovate. How would Guns’n’Roses fans react to music that was aimed at the head as much as the heart? Very positively, it turned out. As Cornell said: “We toured with them and their audience all bought Soundgarden records.”
Millions of records. And the music those new fans heard made them eager for more. The album Superunknown reached #1 in the US charts. By then Soundgarden had toured with another very big band: the industrial hell-raisers Ministry, whose music was loud but not at all straightforward. Cornell and his bandmates reached another new audience and made lots more fans. The grunge revolution was well under way, spearheaded by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with Soundgarden snapping at their heels for accolades and record-sales. Soundgarden were friends of both bands, but were more experimental than either, never afraid to mix a variety of genres into their hard rock and heavy metal.
Like millions of others, Soundgarden were shocked and saddened by the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994, but they were among the few who could truly appreciate the pressures of fame and touring that had driven him to pick up a shotgun and take his life. Cornell knew about Cobain’s drug-use from the inside too. He would struggle with drug-and-drink addiction himself, particularly after the turn of the century, during his time with Soundgarden Mark 2. That was the version of the band that got back together in 2010, thirteen years after they broke up in 1997.
Cornell didn’t rest on his laurels in those years in-between: as a popular and respected singer, he easily found new musicians to play with in bands like Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. With millions of others, he had dreamed of being a successful musician; unlike millions of others, he achieved that dream. He was world-famous and even after their break-up Soundgarden never stopped earning new fans. Their reformation was greeted with roars of approval and the tour they undertook this year was a sell-out.
So why did he do it? He was only in his early fifties and looked much younger. He was in good physical health, back singing with the band he loved for fans who adored him. But his mental health wasn’t good and he was taking psychiatric medication. Something dark must have possessed him hard and long enough to drive him to suicide. His wife guessed something was badly wrong when she spoke to him on the phone and his bodyguard was trying to break into his locked hotel room even as he was passing away.
Chris Cornell brought happiness to millions with his music while he lived. Perhaps in death he can do something more: educate them about issues of mental health and persuade them to seek help when they feel trapped as he did. He could have had help in abundance; he chose not to reach out to those who loved him. Now he’s left them devastated and grieving. Let’s hope that his tragedy can teach other people how to avoid taking the same irrevocable step.