Chris Cornell, best known as the lead singer of the band Soundgarden, died Wednesday night in what has been ruled a suicide.
What I remember best about Cornell was that even though my friend Jordan was straight, he was gay for Chris Cornell and he wanted everyone to know it.
In our basement Hebrew School classroom in suburban Maryland in the early 1990s, he inked the Soundgarden logo on the rubber sides of his canvas Converse high-tops and demonstratively kissed pictures of Cornell that ran in Spin and Rolling Stone.
I, meanwhile, was observing the whole grunge phenomenon from a bemused distance. My tape collection was morphing from Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco to louder, but still explicitly political, fare: Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Hole, and DC hometown heroes Fugazi. Grunge just wasn’t my jam. But it was Jordan’s.
So Cornell was significant to me, even then, not so much for his work as a singer as for the sort of ’90s white masculinity he performed, sold and embodied. He had that long, well-tended hair, those delicate facial features, those sung flatted fifths and “whooo-ooo-ooo-ooo”s that telegraphed a decided sincerity. He could sing, remorseful and unsneering, as he did in “Fell on Black Days”: “Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now/And whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down … I’m only faking when I get it right.” Cornell sang that song in his final performance in Detroit. He was the kind of man Jordan — and other introspective, straight-but-not-narrow guys coming of age in the 1990s — could love, and that love helped inspire them to break old rules of masculinity.
My partner unearthed an old Soundgarden CD recently, and when we played it through our open car windows while driving around our new home of South Bend, Indiana, listening to it felt like a countercultural act. I can’t imagine a song like “Hunger Strike,” which Cornell wrote and sang with his short-lived supergroup Temple of the Dog, reaching the top 10 today, with the line “I can’t feed on the powerless when my cup’s already overfilled.” Taking more than you need from people who have nothing: That’s what Americans these days call winning. Does Cornell’s version of white masculinity — emotive, self-castigating, softened edges but still edgy — still have a place in Trump’s America?
In the ’90s, I often heard feminists dismissing grunge as a cosmetic update on the age-old sexist dudeocracy of rock ‘n’ roll — David Lee Roth with a less feathered coif. I shared that view myself, for a while. But if another Chris Cornell were to emerge today, to inspire a new generation of guys to acknowledge their anger and their vulnerability, their capacity for love and humility, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at him. Come on in, I’d say. We need you.