I'm surprised by how deeply I've been affected by Chris Cornell's death on Thursday. I didn't follow Soundgarden's career. I knew some of their songs, obviously, and I liked them but I wasn't an avid, die-hard fan.
When it came to the exquisite musical artistry that was Chris Cornell, I came late to the party. I arrived five years ago. Whitney Houston had just died. There was a benefit of some sort and on stage was Chris Cornell - this grunge rocker holding his guitar, his curly hair hanging in his face. Here was a man much older and more seasoned than the strapping young rockstar we knew from the '90s. After a few songs, he leaned into the microphone to chat with the audience while he set up his instrument. He began to strum his guitar and he launched into one of the most astonishing renditions of "I Will Always Love You" that I have ever heard. It was extraordinary, his range. I can barely listen to it now without choking up.
What struck me back then as I listened to him sing was the soul of both the performer and the moment. From a genre perspective, Chris Cornell and Whitney Houston seemed worlds apart. There was a kind of unfathomable beauty in his singing for her. But it wasn't just beautiful because he was a grunge rocker paying tribute to a gospel, pop artist diva. It was beautiful because he was one addict paying reverence and respect to another.
I don't think I understood that part of the beauty back then. I wouldn't understand it until years later when my Dad, who was a highly skilled musician and a long suffering addict, died alone in his sleep, deeply entrenched in the isolation that consistently accompanied him and his disease.
I had been out of contact with my Dad for the eight years that preceded his death. I didn't understand addiction. I wouldn't learn, until it was too late, that it was possible to strike a balance between safeguarding my own wellness while still letting my Dad know that he was loved. I didn't know that option was available until my Dad died and the knowledge that had previously eluded me came rushing in to every part of my psyche in the form of an undeniable wisdom that sometimes only comes to us the hard way.
When I think back to the performance Chris Cornell gave five years ago, I feel like he was foreshadowing a moment in time that would come to pass for my Dad and me. I didn't know this at the time, of course, but looking back from my vantage point now, I see that Chris Cornell not only sang his heart out for another musician who had for years been descending into the deep dark lows of her own addiction. I can see looking back that with every note he sang that night, he was telling her with grace, power and compassion that he could see her through the disease.
It's beyond heartbreaking that the world lost him. But I dearly hope we have not lost what he could see.
There is so much about suicide we don't know. But there's a lot we can learn. I hope we learn it quickly and with grace. There are many who pay the price when we learn the hard way; those who die by suicide and those left behind.
Before Chris Cornell sang that night for Whitney Houston, he apologized to the audience.
He said, "I just learned this so when I mess it up, forgive me."
To all those we didn't understand until it was too late, please forgive us.
We're just learning too.
"I Will Always Love You"
The Happiness Detective