It goes without saying that there is music beyond the Pagan label that feels quite comfortable in a Pagan setting. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Dead Can Dance, Nine Inch Nails, and on and on, have always appealed to Pagans in that kind of way, though most of the members of those bands have never come out as being Pagan themselves. There is a deeper discussion to be had about that subject. But, it is one for another time. Today, I’m going to focus just on one of those type bands – one that affected me in that very way: Soundgarden.
Lead by Chris Cornell and his snarling, howling, and quite beautiful singing that ranged four octaves, some songs felt more akin to ritual than rock ’n roll. The following article, a letter to Chris Cornell, was written shortly after hearing about his death May 18 of an apparent suicide.Dear Chris:
I know what you’re going to say already. I hear you echoing across the emptiness of the void between us. We never had much anyways; it was a tryst at best. You’re going to say something like that the moment passed you by; that you were stuck in the past like a paper doll, cut into a sloppy relief with safety scissors and left forgotten in a drawer. That you were never creative, that you were never creative enough, that is, to escape the you-ness of you.
It’s 1991, and I’m wearing husky jeans. I’ve got glasses on that look like they were created by a shop teacher for what he thought was the shop teacher look. I’m wearing a frumpy purple sweatshirt with a green triangle on it. I’m walking in a department store. K Mart? Venture? Definitely wasn’t Shopko; those were years later in Wisconsin when my life was already halfway into the violent spiral that it became.
There sat a display full of CDs just below eye level. This was the time when music was still bought in stores. In my periphery are blue jeans; giant red letters span the top of the album in an exaggerated, elongated font.
SOUNDGARDEN, it says.
A gold wheel that looks like a saw blade spins in front of an oily purple background; a triangle in the center borders an esoteric symbol.
Looking more closely, I see white letters that fill the border of the triangle. BADMOTORFINGER.
At a young age I had started listening to metal music. I had all of Metallica’s tapes, some Megadeath, Slayer, Motorhead, AC/DC, and Judas Priest. I was a tween metal head. And, while Soundgarden had been around for a while, this was the first time they had made it to the Midwest. It was early grunge days then. Pearl Jam’s Ten had just been released, but I hadn’t really gotten into it yet. Later that fall, Badmotorfinger followed its lead.
The latter was the bridge for me from my metal phase to my grunge phase. It was a terrible term, grunge, one that even the bands so-labeled recoiled from. But it’s how we know it now.
This album, your album, opened up the maws of change, transformation, of life, of witchcraft, and of drugs. It forced me to learn how to process the music, to read through the lyrics, to experience empathy, and to be introduced to the idea of the shadow self.
Just three years later, June 30, 1994, am 15 years old and going to my first rock concert with friends – no adult supervision. Soundgarden is touring to support Superunknown, Kurt Cobain is already more than two months dead.
Like you decades later, also a victim of suicide.
I’m nervous and excited. Tad and Eleven are the openers. For some reason my friends and I brought action figures with us, Batman is the only one I can remember. We throw them on stage in some hope that if one of the band members touch it, they’d be touching something that we held, transferring some of their rock god status to us.This was sympathetic magic before I even knew what to call it.
You come onstage with the rest of the band, open with “4th of July,” appropriate this close to the holiday. It’s hot, I jump into my first moshpit and get thrown around, but not hurt. People pick me up quickly when I fall. Guitars and drums create a primal rhythm, and you’re screaming on top to them. Smoke machines are pouring into the crowd and lights are strobing a staccato. It’s like the witches sabbat brought to the physical world. I’m in a trance and feel like each cell in my being is screaming alive for the first time. Little nuclear reactors firing up with the energy of the universe pulsing through and out.
A couple songs in, after “Slaves and Bulldozers,” I throw the last action figure, I had saved Batman for this moment. Arcing through the air, I quickly lose sight of it, but I soon discover that it hit you because you’re suddenly yelling at the crowd to stop throwing shit at the stage. Then you take the microphone stand and bring it down hard, ending the last mission of the caped crusader.
I am terrified but simultaneously elated. My friends are screaming and high-fiving me and in some way, some of that rock god status has been momentarily conferred to me.
Years pass and I get into drugs, mostly psychedelics and marijuana, as well as occultism. I’m trapped in a town of 700 people and feel like I’m in that room, a thousand years wide that you wrote about on Badmotorfinger. That spinning golden disc keeps opening up the world of possibilities though: some good, some bad.
I find Buckland’s big blue book and the Satanic bible; I get bored with the latter but find a kernel of something that I’m looking for in the Complete Book of Witchcraft. But again, I’m on my own with this stuff – no coven within 100 miles of where I live. And if there is, they aren’t taking on kids. So I get into Cunningham, who gives me some hope by contradicting Buckland, saying that I can initiate myself.
So I do, in the woods, like I imagine real witches do.
In hindsight, it’s more of an initiation into adulthood than anything else. At that moment, I made the choice to step into something larger. I stepped into the Craft and into a world of personal responsibility, though it would take a lot longer to begin to actualize it.
I stepped away from that town, away from the crushing mental prison, a metaphorical rusty cage, and the institutionalized apathy and fear that ruled it.
Now, we’re in the present. It’s twenty-some years later, and you’re gone, Chris. You were one of the earliest sentinels in my life, a guiding spirit who sang about the darkness that tormented you. It wasn’t emo though; it was authentic. I found a kindred spirit who helped guide me out of my own dark places.Toward self-discovery, toward a life far away from the claustrophobic home I had known, toward a new identity, toward my Craft and my own realization of the natural world.
What I believed about you was that your lyrics were a way of processing the shadow self. You struggled with drug addiction; you were well versed in the benighted, harrowing realms through which a soul struggles. In reading and singing along with your words, I was able to process some of those elements of my shadow, as well.
At some point, I moved on. Your music stuck with me, but I didn’t stay in touch like I did before. I enjoyed your acoustic, solo stuff, but even that faded into the background of everything else that was happening in my life.
Now that you’ve moved on to the Superunknown, it’s hard to accept that you died of suicide. I’ve struggled with lifelong depression and occasional suicidal ideation. But for all the help and strength, solace and transformation you provided me you still succumbed. It was written through so many of your songs, most of the time right out in the open.
But I always felt, hoped, it was part of the processing of your shadow self.
Matt Cameron, drummer of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, was one of the first to respond after your passing, saying, “my dark knight is gone.” In the darkness of life, I learned to find the paths that were not away from it, but by growing comfortable with it. In more ways than one, you lead me toward witchcraft and the occult and through them, a sense of ownership of my own choices.
That spinning disc on the cover of Badmotorfinger helped me to find that which is hidden, to not recoil from the unfamiliar but to bring it close and learn from it.
Hail to the dark knight, may you live forever in song.