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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!”
“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?”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.