RIP Chris Cornell…and Why Celebrity Deaths Matter

The music world and its fan base woke up Wednesday morning to dreadful, tragic, and shocking news: Chris Cornell, musician, vocalist, and lead for the groundbreaking band Soundgarden, was found dead. As his family, friends, and fans mourned, the news from all media sources, including Rolling Stone, the New York Times, NPR, and Billboard were alleging his death was suicide. It was a day-long, and excuse my language, shitshow of agony.

Cornell was born on July 20, 1964, a couple of years and days younger than I. In his youth Cornell was a loner, and suffered from anxiety and depression. Music was his solace, as it has been for many of us. Fortunately for his fans, Cornell possessed a voice that hit you from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. He’s stated that the Beatles were a large musical influence after finding a large collection of albums in a neighbor’s basement. As a teenager, Cornell played drums in a local cover band as he worked jobs as a wholesaler and sous-chef.

His first band was the Shemps, consisting of Cornell, Hiro Yamamoto and Kim Thayil. The Shemps disbanded in the early 1980s. In 1984, Cornell, Yamamoto, and Thayil formed the band that would become Soundgarden. The band was originally a power trio, with Cornell initially the lead vocalist and drummer. The band’s earliest recordings were three songs that appeared on a compilation for C/Z Records called Deep Six. In 1986, drummer Matt Cameron became a permanent member of Soundgarden. The band had numerous releases on independent labels before eventually signing with A&M Records. Along with Alice In Chains, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden became one of the major driving forces of the early 90’s grunge movement. (A great deal of the 90’s were lost on me, as I had just had a child and she was pretty much my world. However, I shared music, all kinds of music, with her from the time she was born, so songs like “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Black Hole Sun” were a part of both our lives from the beginning. In fact, I think my daughter now likes Soundgarden even more than I do.)

“Jesus Christ Pose” stirred up controversy because of the lyric’s subject matter and the video’s unorthodox religious imagery. You can hear this remarkable song and watch the video on YouTube. The song was from the band’s first album, Badmotorfinger, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1992 for Best Metal Performance and is considered one of the best albums of all time.

In 1994, the band released Superunknown, which is considered their breakthrough album. “Black Hole Sun” is an incredible blend of vocal talent, lyrics, and instrumentalism. Since it’s my favorite, I’m including it here. The album debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200.

Cornell’s many talents led him to explore varied musical paths, including creating music for the Singles soundtrack and his first officially released solo composition, the acoustic “Seasons.” He also worked with composer David Arnold to create the opening song for the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, called “You Know My Name.” It was the first James Bond theme song that didn’t end up on the official soundtrack, but was included in Cornell’s solo album, released in 2007.

In addition to his solo work, his motion picture compositions, and a song for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Cornell performed in many other bands including Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. Cochise by Audioslave is one of my all time favorite albums. He also wrote and produced songs for a number of bands, and did memorable covers including Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” – an acoustic ballad that gives the song a whole new meaning – and the Prince composition “Nothing Compares to You,” a genuinely passionate performance captured here, courtesy of Sirius XM.

Cornell’s performances and songs touched and changed the lives of millions of fans. Soundgarden reunited in 2014, and was currently on tour when his unexpected death occurred.

When I began writing for the entertainment field in 2015, I never expected to write obituaries, especially for people I respected and loved. We lost so many (and many so young) greats in 2016, including David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, George Michael, Alan Rickman, and the worst blow of all in December, Carrie Fisher. We had hoped 2017 would be a bit better, but we’ve already lost Bill Paxton and Powers Boothe, and now Chris Cornell’s voice falls silent; but it will never be forgotten.

I also have encountered many comments along the lines of “Big deal, it’s just a celebrity, you didn’t even know them.” I find that heartless, unsympathetic, and not just a little insensitive. I want to take this time to refute this notion. No, I did not know Chris Cornell, but his wife, children, friends, and bandmates did. I hope the outpouring of love from fans help them during this time of unspeakable grief.

No, I did not know Chris Cornell, but I know a lot of other fans, and in the last 24 hours I have seen so many posts on social media about how Cornell touched their lives, helped them through their own struggles with anxiety and depression, and how Cornell’s music saved them, over and over. Brent Smith of Shinedown went live on Instagram to share his own memories of Cornell and Soundgarden. Many other artists across the world have done similar posts. Cornell touched so many lives, too many to count. To me that is perhaps Cornell’s greatest accomplishment. Don’t most of us dream of changing the world? Cornell did.

No, I did not know Chris Cornell, but I knew his music, his incredible voice and amazing lyrics. I knew he was my late husband’s favorite vocalist, and it was on one of our first dates that he introduced me to Audioslave’s “Show Me How To Live.” Scott sang along so passionately as we stood there by the jukebox. He later told me he would give up any body part just to be able to sing and write like Cornell. These are the moments, the memories that will stay with me all of my life. I lost Scott to a motorcycle accident in 2015, but I can tell you if he were alive he would be sobbing for a long, long time (and I know this because up to the day he died, he would cry over the loss of Avenged Sevenfold’s Jimmy Sullivan).

I woke up yesterday to this news and my heart broke. For the tragic loss, the grief of Cornell’s family, and because it felt like my own husband was dying all over again. I am still crying as I write this, because I will never understand the nature of loss.

No, I did not know Chris Cornell, but his death by alleged suicide opened up so many conversations on the matter, with many people posting links to suicide hotlines and prevention websites. It opened up many conversations on anxiety and depression, with so many of us hiding our illness, because there are just too many people of the opinion “it’s all in your head” and you can just “get over it.” For those of us who suffer, know that what’s in our head is a demon bent on destroying us on a daily basis and, like those who suffer from addiction, every day is just one step at a time.

Celebrity deaths matter because celebrity lives matter. You may not realize, or just take for granted, the gifts that celebrities give us on a daily basis. Whether it’s actors on your favorite TV shows, musicians of any and all ilk, writers, game designers, movie stars…the happiness and memories they give us, that bring joy into our lives, should be valued and cherished.

Life is a precious gift that can never be treated lightly. Someone you love may go out on a routine errand and never return. The monster of disease haunts us and world events are so tense right now it’s panic inducing. Tell those you love how you feel as often as you can, because I know, all too well, the desolation of not being able to tell someone I love them ever again. I certainly ache for Cornell’s wife and children as they enter the hell known as grief. And I don’t discount his fans’ grief and mourning.

If you have a favorite celebrity, artist, writer or musician, take time to drop them a line or two about how much they mean to you. It’s corny, but you never know how your words of kindness can affect someone’s life.

If you are suffering from anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, reach out. You can call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, contact them by email at, or at To Write Love On Her Arms is a non-profit organization dedicated to finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery. Reach out to them online here. If you know or see someone whose behavior is changing or is doing something, acting somehow, out of character…reach out. You may save a life.

I want to close with my special song, and dedicate it to Scott Allen. Hey love, I hope you get to hang with Chris Cornell in Heaven.

1 comment

  1. This was a beautiful piece, Arlene. Celebrities, for better or worse, circumscribe a shared common experience of arts, of music, of culture. Their deaths definitely remind us of the relentless passage of time, and of loss and vulnerability. No one is immune, and I think that’s why they resonate so strongly.

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