Monday, May 22, 2017

Cornell: Not Everyone Escapes

Like most (white) American men of a certain age, grunge was my formative musical experience, and the music resonated with incredible power. Even my lesser lights in the big 6 grunge bands (I always included STP and the Pumpkins alongside the Seattle groups-it feels right spiritually, if not geographically) were still tremendous talents, and it seemed impossible that this much amazing music could come out of one brief moment in time (one I assumed would extend on into forever). 1991-1996 saw Ten, Nevermind, Gish, Badmotorfinger, Core, Dirt, Vs, Siamese Dream, In Utero, Jar of Flies, Vitalogy, Purple, Mellon Collie…, No Code, Tiny Music…, Down on the Upside. 6 bands. 5 years. 16 classic albums. Four genre-defining singers coming out of the same god damned town. What a time to find yourself first opening up to music. This became the benchmark against which we all came to measure what music could do. Even as we left these songs behind we expected new music to make us feel the same way.

During those formative years, struggling with the transition into adulthood, I found the darkness and the bleakness in grunge utterly compelling. It felt true, in a way that joy and light and peace and acceptance never did – at least not without being earned, purified through suffering. But one of the things that spoke to me the most about Pearl Jam, which I wasn't able to articulate until I was a bit older and started writing and talking about them in a systemic way, was the optimism that lay beneath the music, though you’d miss it on a superficial listen. Grunge reflected a lost soul searching for a companion to walk with them down a long, dark, lonely, road. In Pearl Jam's music, that ultimately lead someplace better, even if it lay someplace beyond the limits of your current vision. But for Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, and now Chris Cornell, there was no way out. The road itself was the final destination.

Cornell's story is really striking in this regard. He's someone who seemed to make it out, and maybe he did, but the darkness and the demons stayed with him. Even if they were under control, all it takes is that one slip, that one bad night, that one mistake. And his death, or really what his death demonstrated, has made the music more vital. As I've grown up, started a family, a career, and have generally lived a very happy life there's a way in which the grunge themes that seemed so powerful became, if not nostalgic, at least historical. Something you interacted with from a distance and as memory. These songs were still great, but I had to remind myself that they were great. They were no longer living truths. As a result, I had a tendency to become ever so slightly dismissive of them. A little overwrought and over the top. Music for white suburban kids struggling with first world problems. Music for teenagers that play an important part in your transition to adulthood, but that are best left behind afterwards. Fondly recalled, but lacking the same fierce commitment and deadly seriousness.

I love Pearl Jam in part because their music grew past those themes. Themes of alienation became social and political, or personal in a way that reflects a life being lived. When there was a grievance it was a legit grievance with a world that failed to live up to its promise, rather than sullen personal, static, experience. And the best songs were inspirational - reflecting a desire to be a better person, to live a better life. They were written from a place of wisdom and experience - from someone who completed their journey and made it out alive, rather than from someone still stuck on the long, lonely road. And even if I preferred the songs written on the road, I was glad that they moved past it. The fact that they grew, that they weren't stuck in that moment, made those earlier moments feel more authentic - an important part of a larger, more vivid picture. A central chapter in a complex and moving arc, rather than the story in its entirety. It's why a middle aged album like Lightning Bolt, filled with middle aged themes like love, fear of loss, the inadequacy of what we leave behind, both resonant with me and make the earlier work simultaneously more vital.

It’s my experience, but it comes from a place of satisfaction, of having lived, thus far anyway, a good life. Pearl Jam speaks to my experiences. Chris Cornell's tragic death has been a stark and powerful reminder that not everyone escapes, or that you can escape and find yourself wandering back in a loop that feels closed, even if it isn't. That these songs no longer speak to my direct experience doesn't mean they have nothing to say. And in the last few days I find these lonelier, angrier, more hopeless and nihilistic songs have recaptured much of the dark power and terrible beauty lost with age and experience.

Chris Cornell was not one of my favorites in the grunge pantheon, but he was still in the pantheon. I was drawn more to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains. But there were no shortage of his songs that I adored, and Soundgarden was my younger brother’s first favorite band. I have vivid memories of him listening to my copy of Superunknown on my Sony discman on long driving vacations with my parents, and feeling proud of my work as a big brother. And given the place that grunge holds in the formation of my identity during those critical years, and Chris’s place within that story, his death hurts, and hurts more for seeing how raw that wound is for so many other people.

I have also received enough 'Eddie is the last man standing' texts from my friends that I find myself incredibly grateful for the fact that he is, especially since, 20+ years ago, he seemed the person the most likely to go first. Some fans have bemoaned the celebratory atmosphere that defines the modern Pearl Jam concert experience. But maybe we should be celebrating the vanquishing of our demons, and finding passage into safer harbors. I had the following thought watching the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony on my bootleg periscope feed - especially with the Alive - Given to Fly - Betterman run of songs.

In the story of grunge Eddie was cast as a martyr. That mystique was one of the things that drew us to him, and to the music. The scene was full of them. But what makes Pearl Jam's story special, possibly even unique, is that this messiah didn't have to die to liberate his followers. Instead it was the followers who helped saved the messiah. The night of the Hall of Fame I was so incredibly grateful for that as much as the music and the history. And that's why songs like Alive or Betterman can have their meaning almost entirely inverted from the original intent, and feel as powerful as ever. Maybe even more.

In the face of the alternative that is, I think, something to celebrate