All day I’ve been asking myself why I am so upset; why the death of someone I don’t know would actually make me cry upon hearing the news. I haven’t been able to shake the feeling all day. It isn’t the first time losing someone famous made me sad—even this level of sad—nor will it be the last, but still I questioned myself.
For the last few months, my husband has woken me up many mornings and reported first thing—as encouragement to get up—“Well, no one died today.” This is because he was up before me and already scrolled through his newsfeed on Facebook. This is because so many people we know—and don’t know—have died. This is because he calls me “Death Lady,” my having spent so much of the last decade processing various shapes and sizes and phases of grief.
When the alarm went off today, I did exactly what I keep telling myself I absolutely must stop doing: I logged into Facebook first thing. And there it was: “R.I.P. Chris Cornell,” published a mere hour ahead of my waking. Like most people, I scrolled rapidly ahead to verify this, saw three more posts from other friends with the same information, and put my phone face down on the bed.
“Oh no! I was going to tell you!” my husband said sadly when he walked in and saw me. He knew how this one would hit me.
I have this notion I refer to as “the hierarchy of grief”—something I tend to ascribe to people who deem one person’s loss greater than another—say, a mother losing their child and getting tons of sympathy when the sister of that child gets precious little (not that I’d know anything about that). But this was a different hierarchy of grief, it seemed, to me—one that had to do with how much a death affected a person; the way they were gutted; why it mattered to them.
Before today, I couldn’t even tell you the last time I listened to a Soundgarden song. But I’ve listed to a lot of them, a lot of times over, for a long time. I can tell you that I almost literally ran into Cornell at Lollapalooza in Houston during the summer of 1992 and that he was wearing a fetching straw cowboy hat—and that he looked me squarely in the eye with those blue, blue eyes. And I can tell you that right afterward, I started dating the manager of the record store where I worked largely because he had the same kind of beautiful long, dark, wavy hair that Chris Cornell did. That was between my first and second year of college.
Which is really the most important thing about what I’ve been feeling, I realized over the course of the day. Soundgarden was a major component of the soundtrack of my college life—that formative, almost-grown-up, magical in-between, ephemeral age and time that shapes so much about what a person cares about, what their personal culture is. It’s such a brief span, we realize later, but it digs deep grooves into us. Along with Nirvana and Mudhoney and Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone and all of those other great Seattle bands that coined the term “grunge,” there was so much Soundgarden being played around my friends and me.
I dressed in the uniform of the times: plaid flannel shirts and Doc Martin boots and a nose ring. I worshipped the music and the musicians. I loved the movie Singles. I relished the angst and fieriness of those songs—they spoke so much to me. I steeped myself in the movement. I mean, when I think about my college years, the experience sounds like the belted four-octave range of Chris Cornell.
When Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, we all had to take the day off. I was not quite even drinking age; we were all of us practically still teenagers. It was somehow OK then to be destroyed by our emotions, especially when mourning the tragic loss of a beloved icon.
Today, I had to get up and go to work at a college on the day my office opened the doors to classes coming back for reunion, just before the weekend of graduation. The halls were filled with kids the age I was back then, just about ready to launch, and alums of all ages coming back to regain a few of those lost college feelings.
So I did what made sense: I put in my earbuds at my desk and listened to Soundgarden all morning while I worked. At lunch, I logged back into Facebook, tentatively at first, then ravenously, as I saw post after post and realized just how upset so many of my peers were—my friends, the people my age, from elementary school to high school to college—all of them feeling what I was feeling.
They remembered rocking out at concerts, cranking those records in their cars. A friend relayed once selling theater tickets to Cornell’s mom, who was apparently so incredibly proud of her son that she couldn’t help herself from name-dropping. Another said Soundgarden songs were the only thing that got her through a terrible patch at 19 when she was living with junkies. One wrote, “It’s like Kurt Cobain all over again…” When they think about that weird, nebulous space between childhood and adulthood, they too think about that outrageous Cornell wail and his whirling long dark hair.
I’m grateful for these recollections, the way they remind me I am not alone. Also posted today, the words of a wise childhood friend: “…that’s what we do on days like this—share stories and sorrows.”
Photo by Nicholastbroussard via WikiCommon