Ah man, I’ve been sitting here reflecting on the latest musician stolen from us too soon. Chris Cornell really touched a nerve in me. I don’t know if it is the loss of music icons like Bowie and Prince in 2016 or the cumulative losses from the Seattle and grunge scene, starting with Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, or just the overall loss of so many people I grew up with over these 30+ years that has hit me particularly hard. This one hurts and has me reflecting on a youth spent in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and 90s.
When I remember my youth or think about why I am the way I am – always braced and ready for a fight, a bit wild at heart even as I age and grow more tired, crave live music in smaller venues, and long for shorts and flannel – I think about the context of my youth. Now I am sure my memories and meaning making from my youth varies among the peers that I grew up with but I imagine that there are some similarities as well.
Growing up north of Seattle in the 1980s and 90s was simultaneously at once magical and problematic, exciting and fraught with risk taking behaviors. My generation came on the heels of the free love, protest, baby boom generation. We came of age in the iconic 80s that saw the birth of MTV, cocaine use move from the wealthy to the poor, the crack epidemic, and hair bands galore. Living in the PNW, we had drugs moving up the I-5 corridor and coming in through our ports. And the drugs were plentiful. I attended high school in Anacortes, LaConner, and Mount Vernon, WA – about 70 miles north of Seattle. Anacortes and Mount Vernon High were tied with Garfield High in Seattle as the number 1 high schools in the state for drugs. We were smoking cigarettes at 10 years old (we could buy them at little stores in whatever town by telling the cashier that we were just picking them up for a parent.) We caught a bus to go roller skating in a nearby town where we might find someone to buy us alcohol (if we hadn’t stolen it from home) or sell us whatever drug we were wanting. High school parties were packed with kids, brought tons of alcohol – beer or liquor, and plenty of sex, sometimes rape, and other forms of drunken and drug induced debauchery. Our parents were not over involved in our lives – I fondly refer to this time as “free range parenting.” Fist fights broke out in the middle of high school halls frequently, we smoked and did drugs in the school bathrooms, kids were stabbed at their lockers in the hallways (prompting some schools to take out all the lockers), and we smoked, drugged, and drank on campus outdoors. Most of the drugs and alcohol was given by or stolen from parents. We could hang out outside of a convenience store, ask an entering adult to buy us alcohol, and most would. If they didn’t buy us alcohol, we’d just wait until someone would. In my schools and youth, these were common behaviors. I suspect that because we behaved in these ways, my generation has also become the helicopter parents because we know that when kids run wild, little good comes of it.
I can regale people with stories of friends who had 10 felony convictions by the time we were 18, 15 year old girls (myself included) dating 26 year old men, pregnancies, abortions, drug dealing and dealers, murders, attempted murders, hanging out with bikers, the beginning of mosh pits, cruising the gut, and fights where someone always went to the hospital (and times when someone probably should have but didn’t go to the hospital.) I can tell people about kids I went to school with who went missing in the Puget Sound, presumed dead. Mysterious murders that were never solved. Friends who survived being stabbed 17 times in the middle of the night while sleeping. Friends who walked with headphones in on the train tracks to meet their end, we think it was planned. Friends who were murdered by rival drug families. Friends who took their own lives. Visiting houses where there were outdoor 30+ gallon garbage cans – one full of cocaine, one full of money. I have a lot of stories, a lot of memories. And all of these things have shaped me. For the friends I have from those times, we sometimes marvel that we survived simply because so many of our peers didn’t and work really hard to create something different for our own kids. This is the backdrop that made me.
My generation is often times called Generation X (Gen X for short). We were the disenfranchised and forgotten generation. The economy had shifted significantly between our parents’ generation and ours. The jobs that our parents had had and the industries in which they worked grew obsolete quickly due to technology. We had fewer economic opportunities in many areas of the country and if we wanted an opportunity, we had to relocate. Families were more spread out than in previous generations so there were fewer extended family babysitters. We were the latchkey generation, raised by the Brady Bunch, soap operas and supervised by each other. College grew more expensive (we are the first generation to take on significant amounts of student debt) and was an expectation for too few of us. Reagan era policies created the crack epidemic and mass incarceration, ignored HIV/AIDS, and trickle down economics that failed so completely all impacted people in my generation and in my little area of the world. We saw house prices double and double again within a decade, pricing many of us out of the area we grew up in – so it was no surprise when the bubble burst in 2008. A house is simply not the same retirement investment it once was for previous generations – there is not much more growth the housing market can make until real wages grow – it has topped out.
I tend to mark events in my life or history by music. The fluffy songs of the 50s mark a mythical idealism that existed for some but not all. The protest and socially woke music of the 60s spoke to the Civil Rights Movement, Free Speech Movement, and Vietnam war protests of the era. Disco in the 1970s and the growth of rock-n-roll (and really the birth of heavy metal and punk) illuminate the growing disinterest in matters of the world and a growing dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement with larger social issues. Hair band rock of the 80s indicate a burgeoning distraction with looks – physical looks, outward appearances, and the inanity of romantic relationships. By the 1990s a growing unrest was ballooning amongst the youth – dissatisfaction, foreclosed opportunity, and fewer avenues of opportunity available to us – I guess it is all lost opportunities. And that is what grunge captured for many of us and for the musicians making the music of the era.
The iconic bands of the 90s came out of the Seattle area – Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Candlebox – and it was electric. As these bands were on the rise, they might appear in a local bar or nightclub to rock our faces off. Music was everywhere. Bands were developing their sounds, digging into a heartbeat that was very PNW – dark, foggy, rainy, heavy, hard, eerie, and almost prophetic. I am not going to analyze or dig into the depths of the lyrics or musical stylings – that has been covered in many different venues. I want to share a bit of what else was going on in the region in the early 90s. Just before these bands hit it big, Seattle and towns up and down the I-5 corridor were alive with music at festivals, in bars, at house parties. Music was everywhere. At the same time, more and more drugs were flowing through sleepy little hamlets and the youth were growing more restless. The music spoke to much of that. As has been documented elsewhere Kurt Cobain, Lane Staley, and others developed heroin addictions. And as unusual as that seems, it was also becoming more and more usual/common.
Perhaps the drug addiction from my generation was an outgrowth from the 60s drug experimenting, the 70s recreational cocaine usage, and the 80s crack scene. Actually, it was and that has been documented elsewhere. I wish that I could capture the emotion of the times and the many traumas kids from my generation experienced from my little area of the world because I have learned my experience is very unusual. I don’t claim to know what Kurt, Lane, or now Chris experienced in their youth (although a lot has been written about Kurt and his depression) but I do know that many of the people I knew had emotional scars (myself included) and suffered from depression – mostly undiagnosed. We were really just learning about depression and addiction in those days. The PNW is known for dark, stormy, rainy days, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and depression – possibly due to the lack of sunshine.
I don’t know the pain or trauma that Kurt, Lane, or Chris experienced or the circumstances surrounding their depression. I do know that by my freshman year in high school, I had already lost 4 or 5 friends or kids I had gone to school with (Tony, Mitch, Keith, and Scott) and a couple of my friends lost parents to murder or suicide. By my early 20s, I had lost several more very close friends (Larry Troy, Roy, Jeff) and family (Russ and Scott). In my 30s, I lost my son’s father (Rick) to suicide and more friends (Stretch and others). And there are more friends I have almost lost to addiction or addiction related complications. And some friends were lost in other ways, a drunk driving car accident left one friend incapacitated, yet alive for his parents to care for him like a small child. Another kid I went to high school with killed his brother in a drunk driving accident. Now, in my 40s it seems more people from my generation and neck of the woods drop dead each year. Sometimes when I run into old friends that I haven’t talked to in a while, it is about catching up over who has left this Earth and who remains.
My little town that I grew up in from 10-15 years old was a town that had weird little things happen all the time. People went missing, just for the body to wash up on a nearby San Juan island or to never be found. Obvious murders went unresolved. The police were being investigated by the FBI for corruption. And I personally know people who bought their way out of DWIs (now DUIs) with offering the officer cocaine. My friend who was stabbed 17 times in the middle of the night while sleeping – his case went unresolved. The police knew who did it, knew the motive, had the evidence (the bloody weapon and blood soaked clothing) but because of unlawful entry and collection of evidence, the case was thrown out. Last I spoke with him, he still did not know who stabbed him but the police did. I’ve seen families shaped, changed, and destroyed through these things. I have friends still fighting the addiction demon, friends struggling with depression that has probably affected them much of their life. And really, when a person lives through these things, they’re changed in lasting ways.
So when I learned yesterday of Chris Cornell’s suicide, my heart was heavy. I didn’t know him except through his music and his voice, through the memories his music conjures. I imagine him as one of the many people I grew up with, hung around, or knew that are now gone, too soon. He may not have struggled with the same demons as my friends and I or he may have had similar demons. Given that he was a recovering drug addict, I suspect he had similar demons. My heart is heavy for his wife, kids, mom, and family. I know too well how painful this kind of loss is; it isn’t something that is ever gone. We carry these losses with us for life, remembering some part of that person every day. And too many of the Seattle grunge icons who spoke to my disenfranchised, restless, frustrated generation are gone, lost to many of the same maladies that have taken so many people from my generation, from my youth, from my little area of the world.
We were the kids of the 80s.