The names Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell bring up mixed emotions. They remind me of immense talent, the ability to impact people’s lives through art, and of missed opportunities and wasted lives.

They also remind of my mother: Rosalyn Barnes.

Cobain was a myth – when an electrician found him dead in his house the day after my 13th birthday, I was too young to have been part of the wave of grunge that had overtaken the cultural landscape. No, I was still listening to my older sister’s favourites like Billy Joel and rocking out to oldies radio.

My mother was brilliant, erudite, compelling, dishonest, sneaky, creative, loving and hateful all at once. And then one day, like Cobain so many years ago or like Cornell just recently, she was gone, with a life unfulfilled.

It was a few years later when I really began to understand and appreciate his music.

Cornell was more of a spirit on Earth than a simple musician to me. The video for Black Hole Sun scarred my brain and touched my soul, and he was at the centre of that universe. Cornell’s voice was haunting, layered, and most of all meaningful.

That’s the thing with the grunge and alt-rock scene of the early 90s that I find most people miss out on when they look back: The meaningfulness of it all.

When Cobain looked into the crowd or camera with his pale blue eyes, wearing a ratty sweater and screaming “where did you sleep last night” on MTV’s Unplugged in New York, you could actually feel his pain. Not hear it. Not imagine it. But feel it.

When Cornell sang “feel the rhythm with your hands, feel the rhythm while you can” on Spoonman, the message I heard was to grab every ounce of feeling from every moment because it’s all so fleeting. I still live by that statement to this day.

It was the mid-90s, I was a teenager, and all this was landing for me just as I was really starting to understand just how mentally and emotionally damaged my mother was and how it was affecting my life.

I had a quick temper when I was a kid, but mostly I just wanted to play sports, listen to music, and be left alone. I was looking for steadiness and found it in the rhythm of the drums, the wail of the guitar and the pain in the voices of these guys who I’d never know, but who knew me perfectly.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned how to find peace.

I certainly didn’t get that skill from my mother.

I didn’t learn how to be calm under pressure when I was 11 and she came after me physically. I didn’t find peace in escaping from her abuse in defending myself by throwing her off me into a door and running out of the house. I certainly didn’t find solace coming home hours later to a house that was calm only because she was stoned.

But I did have peace in the drum kit in my room. And I had it when I’d play Smashing Pumpkins or Green Day in my headphones so loud that no one else could get in.

That’s why I connected with these guys. Cobain is one of rock history’s most conflicted and painful personalities. He sang the most beautiful songs, but was so miserable. The only place he had peace was in his music.

Music was ironically also where my mother and I finally had common ground. She was the person who introduced me to Muddy Waters and quietly encouraged me to discover new music and would fall asleep to classical and would wake me up to the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones.

For the short time we lived together just the two of us before I moved into my father and sister’s sanctuary when I was 12 and began to have a normal childhood, she had bands jamming in our basement most nights of the week and often had musicians around whose conversations were riveting – even if I didn’t realize at the time how inappropriate they were.

Years later, I had to create distance between us as her mental illness and drug abuse became worse. It wasn’t until we were protected by a restraining order that anyone in my family felt safe, but the forced distance never sat right. There’s no doubt we needed it for our safety and sanity, but it left me feeling like there was a masterpiece that would never get finished.

My mother was brilliant, erudite, compelling, dishonest, sneaky, creative, loving and hateful all at once. And then one day, like Cobain so many years ago or like Cornell just recently, she was gone, with a life unfulfilled.

She never met her daughter-in-law. She never met her grandchildren. She never took joy in watching her kids grow a business together. She was never there to be a mother to my sister when my sister needed her most.

So, like the millions of people who were touched by all-too-short lives that burned very bright like Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell, when I think of my mother, I think of a life story of missed opportunity. When she was on her feet, there was grace and beauty – she just didn’t spend enough time upright for anyone else to be able to hold on and enjoy it with her.

Cornell and Cobain ended their lives in a single act by their own hands. Rosalyn Barnes ended her life last December at the age of 66 not in a single act, but by a lifetime of flying too close to the sun.

“She lived like a murder
How she’d fly so sweetly
She lived like a murder
But she died just like suicide”

  • Chris Cornell, from the song “Like Suicide”
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