Within a few seconds of hearing his distinct voice, I’m back in high school again. It was the early 90s, and a unique new version of rock was beginning to claim its seat atop pop culture’s fickle throne. Following the disco-laden 70s and the hair-band heavy 80s, rock music needed a massive re-tooling, and it came from an unlikely place. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and New Orleans had all had their turn. Now the music world was beginning to turn its attention to the Pacific Northwest, and Chris Cornell was helping to lead the way.
His band Soundgarden was part of a massive musical shift that included fellow Seattle grunge-mates Nirvana and Pearl Jam, among others. “Alternative rock” had arrived, and love it or hate it, it resonated. Generation X’ers embraced its angry sound and dingee look with the same fervor that Baby Boomers had embraced Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
It was a fledgling genre, but there was no lack of talent. Mr. Cornell was not only a prolific songwriter with a career spanning three decades, but a dynamic vocalist with an almost super-human four-octave range. And tragically, as it is with so many talented musicians, his life was cut short on May 17, 2017, as Mr. Cornell was found deceased in his hotel room from an apparent suicide. Terribly sad.
Up until the early 90s, music’s lyrical themes had been dominated by love. Love gained, and love lost. It is still music’s greatest thematic muse, and likely always will be. But with the arrival of Cornell and Cobain (Nirvana) came a lyrical honesty that hadn’t yet been experienced. The depravity of the human condition was being uncovered in public, expressed in language that was brutally transparent. America’s youth felt alone, depressed and angry, and Seattle was giving them a voice.
The depravity of the human condition was being uncovered, in public, expressed in language that was brutally transparent. America’s youth felt alone, depressed and angry, and Seattle was giving them a voice.
Topics like emotional pain, abuse, depression and a deep sense of rejection became prominent. Cornell’s song, Fell On Black Days finds him wrestling with depression:
Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life. Whatsoever I’ve fought off became my life. Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile, sunspots have faded. And now I’m doing time ’cause I fell on black days.
In a sense, these dark themes became celebrated by America’s youth. Someone was finally talking about real life pain, and bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden were becoming Generation X’s functional savior.
Here’s what I wish I could write next:
Just as hope seemed totally lost for Cornell and Cobain, and for the millions of youth who found resonance with their anger and hurt, seasoned Christians and church leaders embraced that generation. They didn’t push them away, or condemn them, or double-down on their own “Christianized” version of rock music. Instead they suffered alongside them. They entered their pain and lovingly, over time, pointed them to the real life sorrow found in Lamentations, and to the deep sense of rejection and depression that David felt in the Psalms (43), and to a suffering Savior that was rejected and scorned not only by men but by his own father. And then as they modeled Christ-like servanthood, those believers graciously told that hurting generation about what the purpose of the Savior’s rejection and scorn was, and how it accomplished for them an eternity of acceptance and approval and love from the only one that really matters. Many lives were transformed by the good news of the gospel of grace.
My God, I wish I could write that.
Chris Cornell’s distinct voice reminds me of high school, and his death reminds me of a missed opportunity. It also inspires me to welcome in folks who desire an open and honest conversation about the temptations, suffering and pain inherent in human existence, including their anger with God.
If I don’t welcome them, who will?
Check out some of these helpful resources:
Talking About Jesus With America’s Least Religious Generation by Greg Gilbert
Understanding the Depressed Person by Cindy Help
Realistic Hope for Those who Suffer From Depression by Zack Eswine
Authored by NCC Assistant Pastor Jonathan Valletta | northcentral.org