Chris Cornell took his own life two days ago. I found out yesterday, the same day I turned 54. I also graduated with a Masters in Addiction Studies on Tuesday. This has been a very big week.
Going back 25 years, I never could have imagined living the life that I now do. Back then, I was completely dependent on alcohol to function on a daily basis. My tolerance had ramped up to where, in order to maintain function, I needed approximately a .20 blood alcohol level at some point during any given day, or I would begin the process of withdrawal.
The music of Chris Cornell and Soundgarden made it very difficult for me to rationalize my addiction to alcohol or marijuana. I could understand oblivion during the era of Winger, Def Leppard, Poison, and Cinderella. The very culture of the hairbands was offensive to me, even in my drunken stupor. But bands like Soundgarden, Helmet, and Screaming Trees were constant reminders that I was not living a life worth living.
I have rarely expressed this point of view to anyone who understands the point that I am making. I have a few friends who get it, but they experience a similar thing. So, let me try to explain it. One of the hallmark symptoms or consequences of addiction, according to the wisdom of Narcotics Anonymous, is that it robs us of the ability to be ourselves. NA goes so far as to proclaim that addiction reduces us to the “animal level.” And while I am generally appalled by the almost subliminal morality of the Disease Model of addiction, I have to honestly admit that this is exactly what I experienced.
42 years ago today, I bought my first record album, Volume 4 by Black Sabbath. Thus began six years of record collecting, exploration, and the development of a very eclectic taste and sensibility when it came to music. I went from Sabbath to Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Klaus Schulze, and even The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Drugs simply did not fit into this exploration. In fact, I would go so far as to submit the music was a “protective factor” during my adolescence.
Now, I’m not entirely a fool. If I continue with this blog, you will have ample evidence that I am quite often foolish. But I’m not entirely so. I am very, very acutely aware that heavy metal, psychedelic, and modern music in general is very closely related to drug use. I am absolutely aware that Black Sabbath was using copious amounts of cocaine during the recording of Volume 4. I am equally aware that the song Sweat Leaf is absolutely about marijuana and most likely was performed under the extreme influence of that particular drug. But for me, as a young person growing up in the 70’s music was my drug of choice, and I did not need any particular embellishment.
Until I did. Just prior to my 18th birthday, I smoked marijuana for the first time. It may also have been the last time for 11 years that I was functionally sober. The effects of marijuana on me were instantaneous, and within mere weeks I began a sustained, daily habit. I am that rare percentage that is absolutely, physically, and psychologically vulnerable to marijuana addiction. And yes, for about three years I was able to combine my love of heavy music with equally heavy drug use, including alcohol, LSD, and eventually meth amphetamine.
However, an interesting phenomenon began to happen. As my drug use increased, my participation in musical activities decreased. Within four years of my first drug experience, I went from being a fairly competent bass player, into owning no bass equipment whatsoever, having traded all my gear for a case of Heineken beer and a half ounce of weed. While I was in the Navy, by the way. Eventually I got more equipment, generally gifts from girlfriends that didn’t cost more than $100. I am grateful, but cheap equipment is cheap equipment. By the end of my active addiction, I didn’t even own a functioning stereo. I had a lot of music, CDs being my delivery method of choice. I simply had speakers with blown woofers and a stereo with a blown channel.
Such was my life. And then Soundgarden started hitting the airwaves, showing me in very blunt terms what I was missing. Here is a band that seem to think like I did, loved the music that I did, and were actually doing it. Chris Cornell was actively participating in life, instead of sitting in a single room in a boarding house drinking himself to oblivion or smoking himself into a coma. It was very hard for me to rationalize my continued use while people my age were actually contributing to the culture.
In other words, the merging music scene was killing my buzz. Which, as anyone who is familiar with addiction knows, means that the logical solution was to increase my intake. By August 2nd, 1992, my body could take no more. I had gotten to the point where I could consume up to 36 beers daily, supplemented by shots of vodka, gin, and generous amounts of Humboldt County sinsemilla. Within two hours of stopping the consumption and going to bed, I was awake with the beginnings of acute alcohol withdrawal. After 3 to 4 shots, and I was able to go to sleep again for a couple more hours.
As a professional counselor, I have gotten to know countless people who are able to survive in that state for years, decades, at a time. I could handle it for about a week, and on August 8th that same year, I began my third attempt at recovery. It was a slow, brutally painful process. But in that process I got something back that was very important to me: the music. Specifically, of the Stoner/Doom variety. Bands such as Kyuss, Orange Goblin, Cathedral, Sun 0))), Boris, Opeth, and recently Black Willows and Spaceslug, have resumed their function as protective factors for me. As I read one fan put it, after listening to Truckfighters, I simply didn’t need to get high anymore.
So, Chris Cornell decided to end his life. This is sad, tragic, and terrible in so many ways I can’t even begin to describe it. We don’t know the reason, and it would not surprise me if medication were somehow involved. Regardless, he chose to check out: I have not. His music is a big influence on me, but it is not me. I have no need to follow his lead, no reason to live by his example. My understanding of his music is quite different than his, and my interpretations of his lyrics probably have nothing to do with his intent.
The world will still be turning, now that he’s gone…