I couldn’t throw away the phone bill showing the time and duration of my last call with a friend after she died suddenly in 1995 at age 28. I was in California on vacation and had called her for some silly best-friend reason, and we chatted maybe 5 or 10 minutes. I don’t remember now what we said. I had no idea we’d never speak again.
Chris Cornell fans grasped for similar last artifacts when news of the Soundgarden founder’s death hit Thursday. Only this time, they turned to social media. The night before Cornell died at 52, he tweeted a photo of the Fox Theatre in Detroit before playing his final concert there: “#Detroit finally back to Rock City!!!!”
The enthusiastic tweet clashed with news that Cornell’s death Wednesday night had been ruled a suicide by hanging. While a Detroit Free Press writer noted that in retrospect Cornell seemed “not mentally present” for the performance — which he ended with a song about death — his few words on Twitter seemed to convey a different state than one that would lead to suicide.
“Last tweet Chris made. He was clearly in a good place,” wrote a fan.
Maybe he was in a good place. More likely he wasn’t. Fans, however, knew the place they wanted to be after hearing the sad news: Facebook. And Twitter. And YouTube, where many were watching videos of Cornell’s performances, particularly those that isolated his vocals from his hit songs, demonstrating how strong his now-stilled voice really was.
It’s easy to blast social media these days. It spreads fake news. It provides a place for cyberbullies to ply their hate. It can be shallow and juvenile and make people feel inferior as they compare their lives to those portrayed in the curated snapshots that run through their feeds.
But when someone dies, whether they were famous or a childhood friend, social media lets us hold their last thoughts in our hands in a way we couldn’t in ages past.
Cornell’s last tweet quickly became something fans could touch, if only through their screens. But it also became a global gathering place, a digital gravestone where fans are laying virtual flowers and commiserating about what Cornell and his music meant to them.
“Shattered. Rest easy,” one fan wrote.
Wrote another, “Wish this was just a bad dream. The world is a lesser place without you.”
Fans also turned to Cornell’s final Facebook post, where he quoted Soundgarden lyrics that seem wrenching in light of his death: “I’m the shape of the hole/Inside your heart.”
Wrote Alexander Pfaff: “Say Hello 2 Heaven Chris. 52 is NOT an age to get off that stage. Thanks for being a big part of the soundtrack of my life.”
Cornell probably never knew how many people tie their silly, crazy, poignant or sad memories to his music, and no doubt few fans ever got to meet the man himself. But there’s something about the way people are reaching out to touch Cornell’s final social media footprints — and those of other beloved artists who’ve died — that remind us that even in a world of bits and bytes, the personal still can shine through.
We float through life seldom noticing when important phases begin or end, and here in black and white were the final thoughts of a man we felt we knew. Like that long-ago phone bill, it’s an unusual parting gift.
Logging Out: A look at death in the digital age.
Star Wars at 40: Join us in celebrating the many ways the sci-fi saga has impacted our lives.