Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

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10 thoughts on “Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

  1. I googled Mississippii… so what am I looking for that’s “horrible?” All I see that’s horrible is black on black crime which, while horrible, I know is not what you were referring to.
    I graduated high school in ’97. Soundgarden was literally a part of my life and part of what makes me who I am today. Nevertheless, I never felt an urge to have sex with men. And while Chris would have said “hey man, keep it off my wave”, I still think he would have had a chuckle at the idea that he had a hand in your discovery of your latent homosexuality.

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  2. I’ll be the one to say it, but I find it interesting that people actually cry and mourn over these celebrities like they were a family member. He was another person in the world who took his own life. Let’s be honest, he’s a coward who took the easy road and didn’t think about what it can and will do to his family.

    I’m thick skinned like that because I’ve lost 5 people I served in the army with. Those 5 guys all killed themselves. They didn’t stop to think about what it could do to the family member. They were to busy thinking about themselves. I’ve seen the hurt and pain that was caused to them.

    Yes, every person has their own story and background. It takes a true person to stand up when their back is against the wall and at rock bottom to say, “I got myself here, now I’m going to pull myself out.” Unfortunately, people actually say, “Well, I’m already at rock bottom, can’t get myself out. This is it.”

    I grew up listening to Chris Cornell and yes, I did enjoy his artistry. He was very talented. As sad as it is to say, I now have zero respect for him because he was selfish by hanging himself and didn’t think about his wife or even his children. His kids are have to say that their dad is dead because he killed himself. There’s a sense of embarrassment saying that. Sorry, but I could officially care less about him now.

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      1. People always need reason. It doesn’t matter if your Kirk Cobain high off drugs and shooting yourself or Chris Cornell on ativan and hanging yourself, suicide is suicide. He could have said something to his doctor about the medication. I’m not sure if people need a reason, explanation, or what.

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    1. Funny how so many men have such a harsh and judgmental reaction to Chris’s suicide. Not sure why people don’t consider the medication he was on was know to cause suicidal thoughts in people. This is a published side effect of Benzodiazepines. Look at the possibility before you pass judgment on a beautiful soul that obviously suffered with anxiety and depression. I will always consider him another person lost to the drug crisis in this county. Sorry to see so many seriously lacking in empathy.

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      1. It’s not that I don’t lack empathy because I do. I’ve lost 5 friends I served in the army with who committed suicide. At first, yes it hurt inside. Then I eventually realized that suicide is an easy way out. Yes, medication does lead to it, but if the medication isn’t working and it’s making you feel different, then it might be a good opportunity to see your doctor about it.

        So really, it’s not just the medication or the pharmaceutical companies to blame or even the doctors who prescribe it….it also falls on the individual.

        I say that because I was once on medications that spiraled me downward in a hard way. I realized that it wasn’t me and I needed to see my doctor about it. From there my doctor helped me with it.

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    2. Wow, all you’ve been through and all you’ve lost, you still arrive at that same conclusion that suicide is selfishness? You don’t get it at all dude. Sorry that you think you have thick skin bcuz of ur losses, when in reality you have a lack of empathy. So happy for u that u haven’t had to deal with suicidal depression, bcuz if u had u would understand and have compassion for those still suffering. Ur understanding would come from a place of knowing that it is a mental illness. Nobody kills themselves in their right mind. Ur self righteous attitude and narrowmindedness is both ignorant and offensive. People don’t decide to get themselves into mental illness and therefore can decide to just pull themselves out. If you have all the answers bcuz ur so strong, why aren’t you helping ur fellow veterans and all others still struggling?

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      1. I am well familiar with depression. I’ve been down that rabbit hole before. Spending 15 months in a hostile combat environment in Baghdad, I did come home messed up. I entertained the idea of suicide many times. What made a difference is I made the choice to make a change. I made the choice not to be selfish and abandon those who love me. I made the choice to do something different. If I was able to do that, then I know it’s possible for anybody else.

        Let me ask, what makes you think I’m not reaching out and helping the veteran’s committee? I’m actively involved with other veterans. Did you know that 22 veterans a day kill themselves? But nobody seems to talk about that because we live in a society that is so warped around what Hollywood or media is saying/doing.

        I feel empathy for the families because they are the ones that has to clean up the mess from the individual who made the selfish decision to kill themself. My wife’s father shot himself in the head. My wife still hasn’t been able to move past that and it happened 30 years ago.

        I still remember when I found out a really good friend of mine killed himself. Yes, I was upset and hurt that he did that. But as I started hearing more and more, he was given so many opportunities to seek mental health treatment. Instead of getting the help, he opted not to.

        People with mental health conditions are usually offered so many opportunities to get help. When it comes to people with metal health conditions, there’s people who are the one’s who get the help, active with treatment, and wanting a better life for themself. On the other side of the coin, there’s those who don’t seek treatment, usually addicted to drinking or drugs, and aren’t active trying to pursue a better life.

        Those who kill themself made the choice to be selfish, not think about their families and how it will affect them. I may be tough skinned in some ways and I’m also soft skinned in some ways. To the person who killed themself, I don’t have empathy toward that person. However, I do have empathy for the daily.

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  3. There’s much to say about suicide (and everything else, for that matter) or the reasons behind it. I don’t think this is the place, as the author said: he wrote about sex (which, by the way, was a personal and beautiful homage to the man).
    That being said, I think it takes a lot of courage (fueled by other emotions) to take your own life for that we, as human beings, are wired to the bone to hang on to it, even in the hardest circumstances.
    Now there is a chance Ativan may have contributed to Chris Cornell’s death. I hope this gets cleared, so his family can rely on the fact he wouldn’t leave them intentionally.
    For me personally he was an influence, a force, even a cupid. The only rock celebrity I would scream “Make me a child!” to while pulling my hair.
    His “presence” (from someone who never knew him or had the chance to see him live) will be truly missed.

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  4. Reaalllyy jealous… Didn’t know about them until ’91. And the closest I got was 15 feet at Lakewood during a radio interview… We did lock eyes though.. was good. Miss him!

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