I navigated the turbulent waters of high school with my head down and my guard up. I was poor. Most of my clothes were old hand-me-downs from a cousin. Despite my best efforts, I could never fit in—whatever the hell that was supposed to mean in 1991.
Instead, I suffered through constant abuse—both physical and social—because I simply wasn’t “good enough”. I was pushed down stairs. My shirts were torn and written on. My appearance was openly mocked every morning as I passed the cool kids on the way to my locker. I was in retreat. For four years, I did nothing but try to get by. There were brief flashes of brightness from the few people who accepted me, who allowed me to step a little closer to the flames of popularity. Only for a moment, though; I was still me, after all. That fire could never really transform me.
It was early on in those four dark years that I discovered the music that would define my adolescence. My friend Tim gave me a mix tape of his favorite songs, and each one opened my eyes a little wider. Songs pulled from a diaspora of albums that all seemed to have been fired from a single cannon in Seattle. They were loud. They were strong. They were brutally honest. And for me—all broken and weak and drifting without a single star in the sky to guide me—they were brilliant.
Pearl Jam. Alice in Chains. Nirvana. Soundgarden. Stone Temple Pilots.
They were just rock bands, but they were my rock bands. They gave voice to the pain and distance and fear that I felt every day. They didn’t sing; they screamed, and their words perfectly echoed the cries of my teenage angst. So I clung to them. I held on and refused to let go, because it felt as if I would be letting go of my own honesty and identity in the process. These bands had become a part of me.
For years, I reveled in them and celebrated their power—and then Kurt Cobain died. Nirvana hadn’t been a Seattle band, but that was fine by me. They were still a cornerstone, a pioneer, a step forward. And I remember where I was when he died, just like your parents or grandparents remember the day Kennedy was killed, or the Challenger exploded. I was trying to navigate the waters of college for the first time, and one of the stars winked out. So I closed my eyes and swam harder.
A funny thing happens when a musician dies. When they’re gone, they take their future with them. Their potential. That next great project, or their return to glory, or that success we all knew was bound to happen. But they leave behind a piece of themselves that has a way of staying alive inside the machine. Press play and they come to life. They can still walk you down that same narrow path between the darkness and the night. They can still reach out and grab you by the emotions and give a big ol’ yank.
Musicians never truly die, it seems.
Then it was Layne Staley, who careened toward death like one of those slow motion videos of a drunk man beside a swimming pool. If you knew enough about him, you could see it coming. And yet it hurt, because loss is still loss, and damnit, these people were supposed to live forever. He’s still there, of course, singing in my head, but we’ll never know what he could have become. I miss Layne as if I really knew him.
And yet…and yet, there’s something that happens when a musician dies, isn’t there? Because their songs get left behind, and you can still listen to them and sway to them and nod your head to them, and yet…and yet, now it hurts to do all of that. Because that voice—the one that had echoed the cries of your teenage angst—no longer tells you that you’re not alone. In fact, it does the opposite; slowly, surely, steadily, life is eroding away at our past and taking things from us. Trivial things. Precious things. Things we love.
Scott Weiland burned bright and strong for a lot longer than most people honestly expected. Besides Layne Staley, he was probably the most troubled singer, waging a war with addiction and self-destruction right in front of every single listener. Stone Temple Pilots wasn’t from Seattle either, but they were familiar and comfortable and part of those early memories for me. It came late—three decades after they formed up as a band—but time caught up with Scott and pulled him under. And I miss him.
And that might have been the moment that I realized what was really happening. My past was slipping away bit by bit. My “Grunge Favorites” playlist was starting to invoke new emotions. The angst was transforming into regret. The power was fading into loss. They were still screaming, but now it felt like they were fighting to be heard over the din of a generation mourning their passing. So I began to cling tighter to what was left.
Pearl Jam and Soundgarden had always been the core. Their story is tied to the roots of grunge in the same way Elvis Presley is tied to the birth of rock. And in a bitter twist of irony, all of it was due to an earlier loss of an earlier voice: Andrew Wood.
When I discovered these bands, the loss of Andrew Wood was still fresh on the minds of Seattle music lovers. His band, Mother Love Bone, had been heating up. They were that stereotypical rock band on the threshold of something big. It was right around the corner, and then days before the release of their first studio album, Wood overdosed, leaving the bus without a driver.
But they still moved forward. They could have packed it all in and walked away, but they pressed on. Because life is full of loss and pain and you just have to hum louder than the crying and hope you can make something worth remembering. Out of the wreckage of Mother Love Bone came Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. And right beside them—part of their inner circle of friends and colleagues—was Soundgarden. Which is why, to true fans of these bands and the movement they sparked, the Temple of the Dog album is so important.
Because something happens when a musician dies, you know? They leave a hole, and no one else can completely fill it no matter how hard they try. And yet they tried. The broken pieces that would soon become Pearl Jam grabbed hold of Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, and together they grieved. They wrote and wept and sang. They celebrated and questioned and shook their fists at the sky, singing the whole time. And their words perfectly echoed the cries of my teenage angst.
And now—in the aftermath of Chris Cornell’s death last week—those words have a double meaning. I can press play and hear Chris plead with the ghost of his friend Andrew Wood. I can listen to him sing his eulogy, all dark and raw and honest. I can hear beauty born from death. And yet…and yet the past now hurts a lot more than I expected it to. Because another star has winked out, and it’s starting to get a bit too dark for my liking.
My past is fading away. It doesn’t beat with the same strength and hope that it used to. Those formative high school years—when the pain of adolescence was soothed by a choir of angry, beautiful screams—feels less comforting now. There are fewer voices in the choir, after all. Sure, I can press play and bring them all back to life, but it’s fleeting and bitter now.
They were just rock bands, I know. But they were my rock bands. They were my rock. Once, they gave voice to the pain and distance and fear that I felt every day, but now…now they give voice to my grief. To my loss. To my inability to halt time and keep the stars in the sky.
Because something happens when a musician dies. Whether we like it or not, they take a part of us with them.