Soundgarden Taught Me About the Beauty and Terror of the World

I was raised in a religious household. Chris Cornell showed me there was another side to life.

By Elijah Watson May 19, 2017
via Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
via Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

A full autopsy report has not been completed, but medical examiners say Chris Cornell died two nights ago of a suicide. He was 52. The account of the police officers who arrived at his hotel room in Detroit, where Soundgarden was on tour Wednesday night, seems to confirm this; officers told the press that the singer had been found in the bathroom with a “band around his neck.” Hours before, Cornell ended his last performance with Soundgarden with the songs “Rusty Cage” and “Slaves & Bulldozers.” During the latter, Cornell added the refrain of popular gospel song (famously covered by Led Zeppelin) “In My Time Of Dying.”

The gospel song opens with:

In my time of dying, I want nobody to mourn. All I want for you to do is take my body home. Well, well, well, so I can die easy.

Disguised as a last request, this was Cornell’s swan song—simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

Soundgarden could arguably be described as those three words. The band makes beautifully complex and dissonant music accompanied by a sense of terror. There was an apocalyptic grandeur to the quartet, the piercing guitars of Cornell and Kim Thayil propelled by Ben Shepherd’s bass and Matt Cameron’s drums, with Cornell’s powerful singing voice leading the charge.

As a pre-teen I found Soundgarden’s balance between beauty and terror alluring. I discovered the band by accident, scrolling through different TV channels until I stumbled on MTV, which was showing Beavis and Butt-Head. The episode featured the two commenting on the music video for “Black Hole Sun.” As terrifying as that video was, I couldn’t look away. This was unlike anything I had ever heard or seen before: people becoming caricatures, their eyes and smiles wide as a black hole descends upon them, the song building and building until it reaches its climactic end. For some reason, the most terrifying part of that video will always be the little girl eating vanilla ice cream as her doll burns in a grill. The more the doll burns, the more lifeless the girl becomes, ice cream dripping down her mouth. Like her, I was entranced and frightened, aware that I shouldn’t be watching this video but curious about what it all represented and how it made me feel.

I couldn’t contextualize Soundgarden. Raised by my grandmother, the only music played in her house was funk, soul, R&B, and gospel. As one of my first tastes of self-discovered secular music, Soundgarden was so refreshing but also felt forbidden—as if by listening to them I was doing something wrong. A part of that was my upbringing. My grandmother was—and still is—a religious woman, so attending church with her was expected. I’d listen to the pastor talk about Jesus and God and the way the former was this supernatural being, able to turn water into wine and heal people by simply touching them. This was the only representation of Jesus that mattered, and everything else was wrong.

So, I was inevitably conflicted in my growing fandom for Soundgarden. When I watched the music video for “Jesus Christ Pose,” I was so confused. The upside-down crosses, as well as the crucified skeleton and girl seen throughout the video were images unlike the ones I was introduced to in church. But even in my discomfort, I continued to watch the video in my bedroom, my finger on the channel-up button of my TV’s remote control just in case my grandmother came in unannounced.

Then, there was “4th Of July” from Soundgarden’s seminal album, Superunknown. The song is still one of my favorites from the band: moody, slow and sludgy, the discordant guitars chugging through the verse, a complete contrast to the song’s boisterous and powerful chorus. But there was a specific part of the track I was both captivated and disturbed by when I was younger:

Down in the hole / Jesus tries to crack a smile / Beneath another shovel load.

Cornell’s lyrics were provocative, evoking an unsettling image of this biblical figure smiling in the face of his demise. I often held the rewind button down to listen to these words over and over again, examining the way the lyrics were phrased and sung. Even as a pre-teen, I could hear the poetic beauty in Cornell’s words, even if I was having a hard time accepting the music.

Revisiting the band’s music following Cornell’s death I still admire them for the way they seemed to effortlessly balance those two qualities, while continuing to explore their sound. Now at 25, Soundgarden doesn’t scare me in the same way . Where my younger self was scared by the provocation and how unfamiliar it all was, my older self is scared by the group’s genius, and how they managed to define and redefine a sound and era.

And leading them was Cornell, a man whose voice embodied what I will always love about Soundgarden: a powerful roar, beautiful and terrifying, one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard.