Say Hello To Heaven – R.I.P Chris Cornell

On Monday, I was at a memorial. A catholic service. The deceased had killed himself. Mixed with the grief was a disbelief – an incomprehensible place where nothing can possibly make sense. I was trying to explain depression to a friend. It wasn’t working. A hushed conversation in the back of a funeral parlour isn’t going to do it. Where is a good place?

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Some people talk to me about music. It’s built into the description of being a music geek. Like minded people communicate in that somewhat nuanced language, and others will ask you about it when something happens… usually a tragedy. As I walk into my son’s school yard another parent begins.

“Did you hear about Chris Corn…”

“Stop.” I reply. “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I don’t want to talk about it. Especially in the school yard. And definitely not as a casual conversation.”

He stumbles with his next words. “Sorry, I just…”

“No problem. Just not going to talk about it.” And with those words I deliver my child to the door of the school and walk home.

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My turntable spins. A line keeps coming back to me. I grab the liner notes to verify it. Fuck Wikipedia and the second-hand sources that screw up lyrics on the best of days.

“He hurt so bad / like a soul breaking / but he never said nothing to me…”

In the spring of 1991 I picked up this record – Temple Of The Dog. It was before Soundgarden had released Badmotorfinger in October, and I was telling a recently met acquaintance/friend about it. I hadn’t realized he was the Entertainment Editor at the campus paper until he asked me to write a review. Although, “Hunger Strike” would go on to be a hit the following year, it was “Say Hello To Heaven” that had sold me on the record. It was a song Chris Cornell had written after his former roommate Andrew Wood had died of an overdose. Wood, the vocalist for Mother Love Bone passed before the bands debut record had hit the streets. Like all overdose deaths tend to do, the lines between substance abuse and mental illness get blurred. Wood’s public persona had been one of fun loving and flamboyance, Cornell’s interpretation said something far more personal.

“Since you can’t say to me / now how the dogs broke your bone / there’s just one thing left to be said…”

Cornell’s voice soars into what I think is his most poignant moment. “Say hello to heaven.”

The turntable spins.

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Other people talk to me about depression. I’ve been pretty open about my own battles with it. But, trust me when I say that like minded people do not communicate with conversations about it. You don’t walk up to someone on the street and say, “so, I hear you feel like you’ve been run over and dragged on gravel.” Or… if they do, I’ve not joined that club. Those that have gone through it will either talk about their own experience, or listen as someone talks about theirs. Usually, these take place either one on one, or, if you’ve ever been hospitalized, a group setting. I tend to try and bring a sense of the ridiculous when I do open up, mentioning the full on weeping despair I once had over not finding a clean pair of socks. While a person’s tone can be jocular or matter of fact, there is nothing casual about depression, anxiety or mental illness. Still, my lack of foot covering story gets a laugh as a ‘WTF’ moment.

Still, life can be wonderful and then you have an episode…

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In June 2001, I was looking out the window of a hospital room down upon a place I had dubbed the “crop circle refueling station.” A fire hydrant in the middle of a large grass field, mowed in circles until it reached the concrete of the building itself. Detoxing off of thirteen prescriptions given for a mixture of pain and overwhelming sadness. It had been six months since I cried about the socks. Three months since the back surgery to remove two herniated discs, one of which had been calcified and impaled the sciatic nerve. The doctors hadn’t caught onto the fact that the ‘Oxy’ mixed with an already diagnosed ‘clinical depression’ was causing a severe reaction.

My life was good, but it felt like shit.

I was so heavily medicated I wasn’t sure which thoughts were real and which were the drugs. What I do remember most about that time in my life… an eternity worth of sleep seemed a whole lot better for me and everybody else than sitting around and waiting for the pain to subside. Three days after I arrived in the hospital, down to just my meds for cholesterol, it felt like a fog was lifting off my brain. Looking down on the “crop circle refueling station” I wondered what the fuck had happened to me.

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^^^^^^^^^^^

April 2001. A month after my surgery.

The meds say half a pill before bed. That was an hour earlier. I want to be better. I want to sleep. Fuck it! I’m taking more.

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Chris Cornell’s wife released a statement on Thursday. She believes her husband had taken a few extra Ativan tablets after his concert on Wednesday night. A medication that helps with anxiety when taken in low dosage.

Problem with anxiety… patience for medication to kick in doesn’t work so well. If you are having a panic attack, or looking darkness in the eye waiting isn’t something you are prone to do.  In a moment like that, when the abyss creeps in, it’s easy to over medicate. And that’s when the real shit begins.

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Friday afternoon the CD player is shooting a laser on a plastic disc and I’m being flooded with traces of doom. Every god damned lyric has me projecting bullshit about how dark everything must have gotten over the years. I’m looking for reasons. Except, you know, they just don’t exist. What am I searching for…

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A month ago, I was talking to my thirteen-year-old son about Vic Chesnutt. His suicide came up and we both cried. He asked why, and if it was wrong. It went something like this…

My head began to hurt. “I don’t have a good answer for that. Some people will hold up a Bible and tell you it is a sin. Others will talk about how selfish it is to hurt the people you love by ending your own life. Personally, I don’t buy into that. I believe that mental illness… depression; it takes away the hope you have for a good future. It only leaves you with the impression that your pain needs to end, and that you are a burden on those who suffer through it beside you.”

“That doesn’t make sense!”

“What?”

“The burden thing. Mommy pays for you to be home with us. You’re not a burden. So what if he owes money.”

“Part of being an adult is the desire to be self sustaining. That our own life should not impede or lower the people we care about.”

“THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE! When Grandma and Grumpa got sick you moved and took care of them didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Were they a burden?”

“No. I was exactly where I needed to be. Where I wanted to be. However, they didn’t see it that way. Grandma saw me leave my family to take care of her and it really bugged her.”

“That’s what I mean, if you were sick I would want to be with you.”

“That is how depression works. You forget that people really want to be there for you. You don’t want to ask for help. You don’t want to hold people back from their own lives. You just want to end the pain.”

The conversation went on… it never really reached a satisfying conclusion.

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Looking through the scores of articles published in the first 24 hours, I come across one in the Huffpost, from Julie A. Fast, an expert on mental illness and a survivor herself. I’m struck by a small paragraph near the end of the piece.

“If he has a brain like mine, he has an illness and his brain was triggered by something that resulted in a suicidal episode. It may have had nothing to do with his amazing life. Sometimes an illness is simply stronger than the person. Sometimes medications mess with our sensitive brain chemicals.”

The words hit me with a mix of confirmation, resignation and an awful strong desire to say “No shit – Sherlock.” I’m pissed off at everyone and no one at all. I resist the idea of opening a bottle of wine as Cornell’s epic voice pleads “reach down, and pick the crowd up.”

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The day Kurt Cobain died I was the Entertainment Editor of my campus paper. Quite a few people were bugging me to write an obituary. When I didn’t, a couple staff blamed the EIC (Editor In Chief), actually suggesting she didn’t want one. It was ludicrous. She knew why I didn’t, and I never had to explain myself. She could always see right through me. It was personal. As someone who had visited dark places, I wasn’t prepared to go there. I couldn’t express myself in terms that would bring anything remotely insightful. It had nothing to do with all that ‘voice of a generation’ crap, just a sadness that I couldn’t comprehend. Always regretted not saying something, but I simply can’t find words for it. Still haven’t got them.

Kurt Cobain – Elliott Smith – Mark Linkous – Vic Chesnutt – Chris Cornell. All artists I adored.

What’s the old saying… there but for the grace of God, go I?

I don’t know these people, but I know that place. I can’t help but take it personally. Every suicide I hear about hits me. My ears burn. I ache. I place it in a compartment tagged “to deal with later” and wait until I have time alone. Then I ache some more.

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Last year a friend posted an article on Facebook – Suicide Rates Amongst Middle Aged Men Rises 43% in the last 15 years. Chris Cornell was 52. I turn 50 in July.

Fuckin’ Facebook and its fuckin’ statistics.

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Twenty-four news cycle, major media, outlets that only mention artists when tragedy strikes, headlines about a voice silenced, and I feel rage. Misdirected rage. Quite honestly, why should I give a shit about all the talk about ‘grunge’ and ‘Seattle’ and ‘vocal range’ and the hyperbole surrounding it. 1990’s superlatives that lessen the time to a cliché. I’m smart enough to know what I’m searching for; the need to find something – someone to articulate how I’m feeling. Words that parallel my thoughts and give them voice. A smarter person than I to bring perspective. I’m searching, listening, searching and listening. Nothing so far.

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It’s Saturday morning. It starts with “Big Dumb Sex.” Cornell sreams ‘fuck’ enough times to make even Zac De La Rocha blush. This back before Soundgarden could fill a stadium. Before metalheads and alt-rock fans had been hearing “Jesus Christ Pose” on Walkman’s. Before people were bringing his voice up in conversations about rock’s greatest vocalists. It’s just a stupid fuckin’ song by a barely twenty something guy. The hook is the fact that he is using profanity to the point of hilarity, as a means to say “this is my version of pop music.” A parody of all the glam metal/big hair bands of the day. Essentially, it was meant to make you laugh. No deep meaning. Just a moment of being a dumbass.

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Outside the funeral home my friend and I get a bit into the whole self-referential morbid mortality thing. He wonders how people can catch up inside a funeral home. How laughter can continue in a room with the deceased. I take a different angle.

“Do me a favor. If or when I go – laugh. I don’t care what the circumstances are – laugh. I don’t want how I died to define me. I don’t want singular moments of when I was exceptional or unexceptional being the focus. I want The Lemonheads punk version of “Amazing Grace” played at the memorial. I want stupid stories regaled for all to hear.”

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I didn’t know Chris Cornell. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want Wednesday night in Detroit to be his epitaph. So, If, like me, you are looking for something to make sense of it… stop.

Just go put on a record.

Don’t watch the latest CNN updates.

Just put on a record.

Listen.

Repeat.

I suggest the Soundgarden cover of Devo’s “Girl You Want” from the EP SOMMS. It’s awesome fun and a great way to remember a person in their happier “dumbass” moments.

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A Parenting Lesson & the Vic Chesnutt reissues…

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It can be difficult to explain pain to people. Words wrapped in metaphors trying to communicate the signals of nerve endings setting your brain alight. Both physical and mental anguish causing a torment that it often seems no one can relate with. I’ve visited these worlds from time to time; laid in a hospital bed and stared at the ceiling with a morphine high; taken pain killers to merely dull the excruciating; ingested medications to keep you from being overwhelmed by the thoughts manufactured by the prescriptions given for the original injury. I was a fan of Vic Chesnutt before I really understood these things, but I found a whole new appreciation once a calcified disc had pierced my sciatic nerve.

Recovering, I spent a great deal of time with Chesnutt’s early catalogue. Hearing it as if for the first time. It had become a part of the soundtrack of that time in my life. Songs that could be depended upon to show up right when I needed a good cry or laugh. His songs had given my own screwed up existence a voice I could recognize.

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Driving through the east coast of Canada over a three-week trip, Drunk, West of Rome, and Is The Actor Happy were in constant rotation. At one point, I had to stop the car in Fundy National Park as a porcupine had decided to point its quilled ass in my direction. Just as Chesnutt sang those ever so visual lyrics from “Dodge” … “I showed my behind so frequently, my dear old mother wouldn’t recognise me” the damn beast pulled its ‘pedestrian right of way’ bullshit, giving me its own version of the middle finger salute. A few seconds up the road a moose gives us a completely ambivalent look as if telling us that this particular occurrence happens everyday. A kind of “get over it” gaze of communication. Fuckin’ nature! Get over yourself!

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Fast forward seventeen years and my first born says “you’ve had this band on a lot, who is it?”

“Artist. Vic Chesnutt.”

“You going to see him in concert?”

“No. That really isn’t possible anymore. He died around the same time as Grandma and Grumpa.”

“From cancer like them…”

Now, I’ll be honest with ya… I kinda suck at this whole parenting thing. My thirteen-year-old son is the most empathetic child I have ever met. Having worked with and around kids since I was one myself, I can say this without the interference of parental pride. He is a soul that feels things deeply, and this conversation can’t end well. So basically, I’m stuck. He’s thirteen. Old enough to find out about things on his own. Dilemma, do I use this as a teachable moment, or just let it pass. As I said, I do suck at this.

“No.”

“A disease?”

“Are you sure you want to keep asking?”

“Why?”

Sigh. “This conversation could go to places you don’t like.”

“Was it a disease.”

How exactly do you answer this? I’m not a therapist. My own father wasn’t exactly the model of ‘after school special/ Dad of the year/ or ‘Dawson’s Creek’ perfectly scripted answers.

“Yes, but not in the way you are thinking.”

“Then what?”

Not sure how long I stared at my toes before I replied. It felt like enough time to have studied and gotten a psychology degree, but as I looked up my son was still standing in front of me with polar bear pajamas and a determined look.

“He overdosed on prescribed medications. Most people believe he committed suicide.”

“But…”

He teared up. I teared up. My nine-year-old walked down the stairs, looked at us, scoffed, went back up the stairs and started building his next Lego battle.

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I began speaking. Or maybe it was stammering. Perhaps pleading. Somewhere in the mix of trying to find words I talked about depression, physical pain, Canadian vs US health care, debt and back to depression. You know what… not a bit of it sufficed.

“Isn’t it wrong to do that, you know, kill yourself?”

My head began to hurt. “I don’t have a good answer for that. Some people will hold up a Bible and tell you it is a sin. Others will talk about how selfish it is to hurt the people you love by ending your own life. Personally, I don’t buy into that. I believe that mental illness… depression; it takes away the hope you have for a good future. It only leaves you with the impression that your pain needs to end, and that you are a burden on those who suffer through it beside you.”

“That doesn’t make sense!”

“What?”

“The burden thing. Mommy pays for you to be home with us. You’re not a burden. So what if he owes money.”

“Part of being an adult is the desire to be self sustaining. That our own life should not impede or lower the people we care about.”

“THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE! When Grandma and Grumpa got sick you moved and took care of them didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Were they a burden?”

“No. I was exactly where I needed to be. Where I wanted to be. However, they didn’t see it that way. Grandma saw me leave my family to take care of her and it really bugged her.”

“That’s what I mean, if you were sick I would want to be with you.”

“I understand that. But it would suck to need or ask for help. That is how depression works. You forget that people really want to be there for you. You don’t want to ask for help. You don’t want to hold people back from their own lives. You just want to end the pain.”

He thought on it for a while.

“Doesn’t his music make you sad now?”

“Some of it always did. Some of it makes me laugh, some of it makes me cringe, sometimes he can make me laugh and cry in the same song. But I’m not really answering your question, right.”

“Yep.”

“Since grade one, you’ve had friends that have moved away.”

“Yeah.”

“When you think of them do you only think of the fact that they’re gone, or do you think of the fun you had when they were here?”

“The fun.”

“A person shouldn’t be defined by how they died, but by how they lived. Vic Chesnutt was an artist who I really appreciated. His music means a lot to me. Look, I’m not great at talking about this. It sucks that he died, especially how he died. But I still love the music he gave us to enjoy. I don’t hear his death, I hear his voice.”

That thought gets left hanging, and it just doesn’t feel like it should end on this note.

“You know, when I play my battered up old 12 string.”

“The one you bought from a weird old guy, and is difficult to tune because the neck was broken.”

“Yeah. I think of Chesnutt every time I play it.”

He catches me on this and calls me out. “You said the same thing about that guy in The Lemons and Wilco, and that lady Victoria.”

“Yeah. And it’s all true. I think about all those people. It’s just that they all have a unique voice. Not singing style. It is an overall, way of phrasing ideas that connects with me. I love that old piece of crap guitar because it doesn’t sound like any other guitar I’ve heard from anyone. Sometimes when I play it, I feel a whole range of emotions. All of them, coming from different places and all moments I wish I could bottle and stay in a little longer than is actually possible. The music ends, and even when I try to play it again, it just isn’t the same. The music that I keep playing, and paying for, it does that too. Those artists… Vic Chesnutt… they help me find moments that connect to … I don’t know… connect to living. To not being alone. Sometimes you can find moments like that on your own, but other times, it’s great artists that pull out those moments and share them.”

“You’re sounding all weird Dad.”

“I suppose I am.”

Anyway. The Vic Chesnutt reissues have caused a bit of a stir in the house. So far, the three that have arrived sound absolutely perfect. My complaint, has nothing to do with the quality, but rather the shipping costs. Despite much lower priced options available, most companies still choose methods that can nearly double the transaction price. For some of my favorite records I went and purchased the coloured vinyl. However, others will have to wait until they become available at my local record store before I can purchase them. Essentially, shipping is pricing me out of the market. Seeing the chat rooms, I’m not the only one.

P.S. West Of Rome will be out on Record Store Day 2017… next week folks.

Driven to Far: An Autobiographical Music Review – Dark Night of the Soul – Sparklehorse & Danger Mouse

Driving

I suppose I could have added up the kilometres, but that information wasn’t relevant.

Distance

Doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with how far you have travelled.

Locked in thoughts of where you were and where you’re going without the benefit of perspective. Each moment passing without the ability to reflect on it, because time passes and you can’t grasp it. Words linger without being able to wrestle them to the ground and beat them for information.

Instead there is only me, the kilometres and the music I’ve chosen to spend my time with.

Driving back and forth through snowstorms, Mark Linkous sings “When you raise your head from your pillow don’t delay / Because people decay / Will you let the rays of the sun help you along / I woke up and all my yesterdays were gone.” I might have a tear. It depends on which day; which snowstorm; they kinda blend together like the snow as it settles on the ground.

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December 24, 2009 is the last Christmas I have with my parents. It isn’t pleasant. Sick people don’t make for good company… and by this time we’re all sick. They have cancer – I have depression. Everyone else is just sick with worry. None of us know yet.

Dark Night of the Soul is playing in the car on the ride home – another snow storm. Vic Chesnutt is singing “What went on in my horrible dream / I was peering in through the picture window / It was a heart-warming tableau / Like a Norman Rockwell painting / Until I zoomed in / I was making noises in my sleep / But you wouldn’t believe me when I told ya / That I wasn’t with someone in my dream / Catfish were wriggling in blood and gore in the kitchen sink / Yeah, I told ya / I told ya / I told you / Now sweetie, promise me / That you won’t sing /This sad song, grim augury.”

On boxing day, as I drive alone towards my parents house I hear of Chesnutt’s death. He took a bunch of muscle relaxants on Christmas Day and never came back. Some tears hit me and I’m not sure if they are for me or him. He was such an awesome songwriter.

New Year’s eve, my parents are both being taken from their home by ambulance. My mom needs surgery, my father can’t take care of himself and I can’t be with both at the same time. Separate rooms in palliative care two hours away from me. Peterborough – nice city, full of shitty memories. I’ve grown to hate Highway 115/35.

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Frank Black is screaming “I’m pluckin’ all day on my angel’s harp / Shoutin’ at the rising moon / Knowin’ that I will soon stay” and I’m driving in another snowstorm… following an ambulance from Peterborough to Toronto. Cars are sliding around, but I take my time, life has handed me enough drama, it doesn’t need me to create more by being an idiot.

After the surgery my mom is in and out of consciousness, sometimes doing well and sometimes not; talking to doctors about my parents is like watching a yo-yo go up and down without any tricks.

Iggy Pop sings “A massive headache in my aging skull / Means I do not feel well / Pain, pain, pain / Bad brains must always feel pain.” Maybe, but I’ve got a steady diet of pain killers and muscle relaxants to keep that shit at bay. There are too many places to be and I‘m never in the right place.

She died. My mom. I don’t know what I was listening to when I found out. I was five minutes from the hospital in another fuckin’ snowstorm. And after, I was alone in the parking lot, distraught, destroyed, and I don’t remember what I was hearing or seeing.

February turned to March, and there was more snow and more trips and the doctors and nurses knew me by name and the Black Keys, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash had joined the soundtrack of my trip along with Dark Night of the Soul. Two days before my father died Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) shot himself.

“Our souls / Time slippin’ by / I call out your pain / All alone / Shadows movin’ / Shadows movin’ / Shadows have long gone by / Dark night of the soul”… words, they haunt you more if you place them into your own context. They take on meanings that the writer never had. I slip further in thought.

Like Chesnutt, Linkous music had meant a lot to me. It had seen me through some good and bad times… and there should have been more. Both had put out an amazing repertoire of tunes and suddenly – like my parents, they were gone.

When the hell everything turned to shit I don’t know, but when my mourning turned into a full out depression, I got help. That was four years ago.

“Daddy’s Gone” spins on the turntable. A tear drops. Not for my parents… it’s for my kids. Cancer doesn’t just rob the sick of life; it steals time from the living; it steals focus away from happiness and places it squarely in survival mode. Caregivers and their families endure but those too young to understand see smiles slip away when heads turn from their eyes to look upon the photos on the wall. Funny, was I just describing cancer or depression?

Every few months I listen to this record and it takes me to places to important to forget. The emotional resonance just pulls me in and washes over me. Then, for a short time, I mourn again, and then I move on.