Chris Cornell was found dead on the bathroom floor of his hotel room at MGM Grand Detroit shortly after a Soundgarden show on Wednesday night. According to TMZ, there was a “band” around the 52-year-old rock star’s neck and no blood, so the police suspect a suicide — and that plays into his spokesperson’s statement that it was “sudden and unexpected.” His wife, Vicky Karayiannis, reportedly had called a family friend to check on Cornell and that person forced his way into the room and made the discovery, though she also told friends Cornell didn’t seem depressed and wouldn’t take his life.
With autopsies and toxicology reports to follow, people are left wondering what happened to the talented singer and songwriter — who also was in Audioslave and had an extensive solo career — and looking back at some of his personal struggles, including with addiction and depression. The story begins in Seattle, where Cornell and Soundgarden were part of the grunge scene. He grew up in the city, but described his neighborhood as very “white. Urban but not really urban, suburban but not really suburbia. It was lower-middle-class white.” But it was a place where he was introduced to drugs and alcohol early on.
“We were all selling drugs by the time we were 12, or doing them,” he told Rolling Stone in that same interview in 1994. “Pot or pills or anything that was easily available. My neighbors to the south had two boys who were probably in their late teens when I was about 11, and they were just huge into drugs. I remember walking by the basement window one time, and this one dude … was shooting something at me from a syringe out the window. I don’t even know what it was, but it was shooting 15 feet, and I’m walking by, trying to dodge this thing. Those were the kind of people who lived near me.” He had said he also started drinking at that young age.
Cornell attended Catholic school and after being kicked out of eighth grade (twice!), he was sent to a vocational school, which he attended only briefly, bringing an end to his formal education.
“It was mainly for degenerate young people,” said Cornell, who was the youngest of six (aka the “Bobby Brady,” he once quipped). “It was the last ditch for kids that couldn’t go anywhere else. The concept for me was entirely wrong because it was sort of learn at your own pace, do your own thing, and my own thing was not school. So I’d go there and not do anything at all. It was just a waste of time.” (He and Vicky, his second wife, later started a foundation to help troubled kids. He recently traveled to Greece to visit a refugee camp there.)
The drug thing stuck with Cornell — or should we say surrounded him. His roommate Andy Wood, of the band Mother Love Bone, died of a heroin overdose in 1990, inspiring Cornell’s band/album Temple of the Dog. He struggled himself in the ’90s and early aughts, seeking treatment for addiction in 2002. (He told the Mirror in 2012 it was “mostly alcohol — from my late teens until my late 30s.”)
“The thing is, when you pick up the pipe for the first time, you don’t know that that’s your fate,” Cornell told Details in 2012. “The moment isn’t that dramatic. And then that was it — I didn’t want to care anymore.” He added that the “biggest difference I noticed” post-rehab with his band, which he split from and then reconnected with, “and we haven’t even really talked about it: There are no bottles of Jack Daniels around or beers. And we never talked about … it’s just not there.”
As for his decision to go to rehab, he told Launch in 2007, “I really had to come to the conclusion, the sort of humbling conclusion that, guess what, I’m no different than anybody else, I’ve got to sort of ask for help — not something I ever did, ever. And then part two of that is, like, accept it when it comes and, you know, believe what people tell me. And trusting in what I have been told, and then seeing that work.”
In 2015, while promoting his final solo album, Higher Truth, he talked about how his sobriety helped his music but noted he was still trying to “kind of figure out who the substance-free guy is.”
“If I think about the evolution of my life as it appears in songs for example, Higher Truth is a great example of a record I wouldn’t have been able to write, and part of that is in essence because there was a period of time there where I didn’t expect to be here,” he told Rolling Stone Australia. “And now not only do I expect to be here, and I’m not going anywhere, but I’ve had the last 12 years of my life being free of substances to kind of figure out who the substance-free guy is, because he’s a different guy. Just by brain chemistry, it can’t be avoided. I’m not the same, I don’t think the same, I don’t react the same. And my outlook isn’t necessarily the same. My creative endeavors aren’t necessarily the same. And one of the great things about that is it enabled me to kind of keep going artistically and find new places and shine the light into new corners where I hadn’t really gone before. And that feels really good.”
In June, he was asked by the Tampa Bay Times about the recent high-profile, drug-related deaths of artists like Scott Weiland and Prince in an interview that noted he had been “sober for years.” He said, “What ends up happening with musicians and actors is, they’re famous, so when somebody has an issue, it’s something that gets talked about. People die of drug overdoses every day that nobody talks about. It’s a shame that famous people get all the focus, because it then gets glorified a little bit, like, ‘This person was too sensitive for the world,’ and, ‘A light twice as bright lives half as long,’ and all that. Which is all bulls***. It’s not true.” (He did a lot of work to help other musicians overcoming addiction and was awarded for it.)
Dealing with depression
As far as depression, Cornell had said that he had a tendency to “be pretty closed off” and reclusive.
“It’s about trying to step out of being patterned and closed off and reclusive, which I’ve always had a problem with,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s about attempting to be normal and just go out and be around other people and hang out. I have a tendency to sometimes be pretty closed off and not see people for long periods of time and not call anyone.”
He once described the period before rehab as a time in which he was dealing with the “daily drudgery of depression and either trying to not drink or do drugs or doing them.” In the 2015 interview with Rolling Stone Australia, he said that when he was drinking too much, it “has its own problems, particularly with depression.”
Talking about how his own music had melancholy vibes around the release of 1999’s Euphoria Morning, he told Guitar.com, “I’ve always liked depressing music because a lot of times listening to it when you’re down can actually make you feel less depressed. Also, even though a person may have problems with depression, sometimes you can actually be kind of comfortable in that space because you know how to operate within it.”
Asked if he perceived run-of-the-mill depression as a comfort zone, he replied, “The problem is, no one really knows what run-of-the-mill depression is. You’ll think somebody has run-of-the-mill depression, and then the next thing you know, they’re hanging from a rope. It’s hard to tell the difference. But I do feel that depression can be useful. Sometimes it’s just chemical. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. And whenever I’ve been in any kind of depression, I’ve over the years tried to not only imagine what it feels like to not be there, but try to remind myself that I could just wake up the next day and it could be gone because that happens, and not to worry about it. And at the same time, when I’m feeling great, I remember the depression and think about the differences in what I’m feeling and why I would feel that way, and not be reactionary one way or the other. You just have to realize that these are patterns of life and you just go through them.”
The family man
That said, Cornell relished his family life. After his first marriage to Susan Silver ended bitterly (she was Soundgarden’s band manager and they had a daughter, Lillian, now 16, together), he got remarried to Vicky, a Paris-based publicist, in the City of Light in 2004. Their engagement was star-studded (he gave her a Harry Winston diamond, then they partied with supermodels) as was their wedding. Talent manager Jeff Kwatinetz was Cornell’s best man, and Brittany Murphy, who was engaged to Kwatinetz at the time, was the maid of honor. After Murphy died in 2009, stolen video footage from Cornell’s wedding was put up for sale (dubbed “lost” footage of the dead starlet), leading Cornell to take legal action.
The singer had two children — Toni, 12, and Christopher, 11 — with Vicky, whom he described as an “an angel,” a “lioness,” and “the perfect mother and perfect wife” in a sweet Mother’s Day tweet.
Cornell said in the Details interview that he had to work hard to win over her family, saying, “When I met my wife Vicky’s family, I had to go out of my way to convince them, to show them, that I wasn’t anything like their idea of a musician,” he admitted.
He proudly showed off his family on the red carpet, including at an event just last month in NYC.
He also shared photos of his family on Instagram, including his daughter from his first marriage.
In fact, all his final social media posts seemed full of optimism, hope, and love, including his last tweet about being excited to be in Detroit. Though it’s been pointed out that he closed his show with Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” and posted a Facebook clip yesterday from “By Crooked Steps” that he captioned with the lyric “I’m the shape of the hole Inside your heart.”
While it’s hard not to look into every little thing, especially while we wait for definitive information about his death, Cornell — almost cryptically — once complained about people reading into a songwriters lyrics after they died.
“When Andy [Wood] died, I couldn’t listen to his songs for about two years after that, and it was for that reason — his lyrics often seem as though they can tell that story,” he said to Rolling Stone of his friend’s drug death. “But then again, my lyrics often could tell the same one. In terms of seeing everything as a matter of life and death — if that’s what you’re feeling at the time, then that’s what you’re going to write. It’s sort of a morbid exchange when somebody who is a writer like that dies, and then everyone starts picking through all their lyrics.”
Let’s try not to pick too much until we have more answers.
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