It’s been a few weeks since I wrote last, primarily due to being caught up in the rat race of living, perhaps a little writers’ block, and keeping myself comfortably numb to what’s all around me—something I’m not typically very good at. Having said that, my growing battle has been that it seems as if an awful lot of the culture of which I am apart seems to be really skillful at it; and methinks contrary to primrose prophets, this is to an abysmal fault! Perchance also this is a point of comradery I have recently found between Chris Cornell and myself besides both being born in 1964, as he wrote and crooned melodically about things that I hope never cease to break my own heart.
By the time Soundgarden debuted in 1984, I was coming back from Los Angeles right before the Olympics after a brief hiatus in 1982 to the Western shores from my South Carolina home. “Down at the Sunset Grill” by Don Henley was playing as I walked down the Sunset Strip where for the first time “we can watch the working girls go by” and “watch the basket people walk around and mumble” were given true flesh and bone meaning in the city of Angels. I can remember feeling for the first time that I was not in Kansas, or Sumter anymore for that matter, and that besides my own dysfunctional upbringing of which I was in constant escape from, the world became a much scarier place for me. After a 1 ½ year stint there and feeling even more lost and alone, I packed up my bags and moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky to hang out with the guys and girls, girls, girls in and around Western Kentucky University, all the while finding a new smokescreen life behind the bar of a famous hotspot in that town–yet with still no particular place to go and with no answers to life’s questions in near sight.
Having said that, and given my age, I had pretty much bypassed the grunge era of modern music that was coming upon us during that time. Partly this was because though Chris’s same age, I had my teenage rebellion of which Soundgarden was it’s Priest in the years of the age of 13 to 18. That’s not to say that I didn’t listen to this new wave of music with the likes of Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and others, but I had grown up on the rock n roll of the 70’s and early 80’s with the likes of AC/DC, Van Halen, Boston and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. So in essence, by the time they came out, I was trying to find my adult voice and move forward from a life of teenage angst and stints in reform school in my early years, while some who had played it cool during my “stick it to the man” days were starting to find their rebellion in their early 20’s instead. The only miracle for me is that I survived it all. And though I was still dazed and confused about everything for some more years to come, I had figured out a way at least to stay out of trouble with the “Po, Po” (Madea), and in some loose sense, was striving for how I could rise above the story I had made for myself in a small and seemingly unforgiveable town up until that point. This was pretty much the reason I bolted for California, or Kentucky, or anywhere I could possibly go in order to forget about my seemingly hopeless and directionless life for a while. And as you might have guessed, I quickly found out a change in geography doesn’t have much to do with filling the inner void that one tries to fill with almost everything except what one needs the most: a steady dose of communion with the creator and hopefully some of his people who actually give a damn. Though admittedly, chasing after both of these for someone who is inclined towards depression can be like chasing a girl who is purposefully playing hard to get.
Nonetheless, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, as I slung drinks at the speed of sound to other life escapees, I continually was both drawn “to” and repelled “by” the grunge music that was now center stage. This was simply because as I was struggling with my own quest for answers to life’s questions and the cosmic battle between good and evil that was raging inside of me. And of course in these songs, their dark and melancholy anthems both reminded me of days gone by and of course my own loneliness–but it also began to show me that it’s nihilism could not ultimately lead anywhere but inside the bottom of a bottle, an empty pill dispenser or at the receiving end of a .45 to the head! In fact, at the time, one of my drug dealer friends played that scenario out all too close to home. With that cataclysmic event, and another close call with the law and a wife and two kids already in tow, these were the final speed bumps I needed to get me searching for the wisdom of Jesus and Augustine instead of the cultural reactionary’s and prophets of Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain, whose deaths now sounds an all too eerie alarm to us all. An alarm that like the fictitious world of Facebook and the American Dream (nightmare), remind us that all that glitters is not necessarily gold, and perhaps those we admire and respect for a variety of reasons, without any real truth serum to inject us with, are leading us to nothing more than the realm of being proverbial nowhere men. Please listen.
So as I said, I was not a huge fan of the grunge scene at that time, though as I made my peace with the creator at the age of 27, I began to understand and even like their sound very much. I was was also particularly attuned to what they were saying and feeling, while most of the churches I was apart of could not see past their blasphemy and potential menace to society’s young. The Jesus Christ Pose video was what they thought was their case in point https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14r7y6rM6zA. In fact, it wasn’t until several years back that I began to notice Chris Cornell again as I watched a movie I cannot recommend highly enough called Machine Gun Preacher starring Gerard Butler, and of which the theme song was written and performed by perhaps the Godfather of alternative music himself. The story is about a man both very much like and also unlike me in many ways, who lived on the rough side of the track, and who after a dramatic series of events with where his outlaw life was taking him, had an encounter with Christ that would change the trajectory of his life in ways he never imagined. Though his style was unconventional and unpopular, his remedy to the pain and suffering of the children of East Africa with no home and no voice was to fight fire with fire and an army of reciprocal machine guns. The song Chris wrote for the film was called The Keeper, pretty much giving words to Sam Childers life, but in it I believe he was subtly exposing us to his own wrestling with the pain and suffering of the world and his wish to be a part of its solution where he writes,
“Beauty and truth collide
Where love meets genocide
Where laughter meets fear
Confusion all around
And as I try to feed these mouths
That have never known singing”
And then like the character he is describing, I thought I heard his own heart break when he wrote,
“I cannot see the light
At the end of the tunnel tonight
My eyes are weary”
I live back and forth on any given day in the acute understanding and experience of those words myself, and those lyrics, depicting the character in the movie, I believe also described Chris’s struggle that many of us have. A melee of trying to make sense in a world where the tunnel seems to be getting darker, even as we try to put up our own feeble lampposts along the way for some poor lost traveler (including ourselves) to see with.
As I was in a googling frenzy yesterday to try and find some answers from a man who supposedly just converted to Orthodoxy just a few years prior through the influence of his Greek wife, I wondered had that faith taken hold, and to what extent. I knew he was searching, though previously his search unfortunately had led to nothing more than a Postmodern quest that only ends up trying to “nail Jell-O to a wall” (which I also empathize with) instead of really coming down on some kind of truth that has the substance to get us up in the morning and even in the darkness compels us to not be weary in doing good. Yet I also thought, that even if his new Orthodox faith was compelling for him, his suicide blows a hole in this concept that primarily Evangelical Christianity has sold to the gullible masses: that somehow faith in Christ and entrance into this church solves everything, as if somehow the fallen world we are taught about has magically ceased to be fallen in the aftermath of our conversion. The truth is, faith in Christ that is not also immersed in a community of people who truly give a damn daily about each others lives with the honest bearing of one another’s burdens and holding up the weak will not cut it, and currently it is not. Instead, most would rather resort to their doggedness of accusatory glances at incorrect doctrine and who resign to the belief that their lives, compared to their current condescendees, are definitely a measure above. This current lack of communal glue stuck together with love to make what Christianity really has to say taste good in our culture is indeed the $64 question whose answer I am still feverishly looking for.
And the truth is, that I really don’t know where Chris was at in his life, though in the days ahead we will get some piece of the story, yet to be sure it will be fragmentary at best. However, in the aftermath of this sadness, it reminds me that it is high time that the people who call themselves “the church” light the way in getting their feet and hands dirty with their pocketbooks, possessions and love rather than equally being caught up in the distraction of the ravenous quest for the American Dream that is derailing all us into oblivion. And the truth is, Cain cannot tell us anything here, for we really are our brother’s keeper contrary to our current belief solely in the love of our individualistic selves, which supposedly needs no one and nothing. And as I sit here today, I ponder whether anyone was paying attention to Chris, and whether or not we are really paying attention to all the pain and suffering around us as the only hands and feet that Jesus has. Or are we, as I confessed earlier, quite comfortably numb to it all, blissfully following our own white picket fence dream on the yellow brick road, while life’s inconvenient traveling companion casualties topple all around us threatening to block our path. Perhaps the desensitization of our culture has now come of age, and we are now past the point of no return in a world where we surf back and forth between news of the latest fashion trend, vacation getaway, or solicitation to buy our favorite cultural icon; yet pass by the bombs that kill little babies or belts that kill fathers in lonely hotel rooms–all in the same sound bite or pixel across our screen.
But don’t worry, there is no guilt here intended, unless I start with myself first. And upon Peter’s admonition, I recognize that judgment begins with God’s house of which I am reluctantly apart. And though I have perhaps preached and at least tried to live this message more than most in my circle with my hands and pocketbook, I too am painfully wed to the quest for survival in a naturalistic world that’s random selection cards are almost all taken–and perhaps like you, contemplation of it’s small deck realities consumes way too much of my time. Chris’ passing again reminds us that perhaps fame and some fortune are not what they are cracked up to be, and that even the veneer of family can be a clever camouflage of what’s really going on inside of us that perhaps no one, including your bed buddy, is truly listening to. My prayer is that those of us who call ourselves Christians will take our earplugs out for a while.
RIP Chris, and thanks for bearing your soul with us. I hope you now rest in the arms of your Savior. May we all be Keepers of a flame in some small yet profound way.