Remembering Chris Cornell
Chris Cornell put the full weight of his powers into a lyric, making sure all the emotional subtleties were right up front. We celebrate his music and its impact.May 19, 2017
When it comes to expressing passion, there’s a spectrum of shadings a singer can call upon. Chris Cornell, who committed suicide at the age of 52 on May 17 while touring with Soundgarden in Detroit, had complete control over such nuances. When he launched into a vocal – the cataclysmic roar of the band’s “Rusty Cage” or the elastic sigh of “Can’t Change Me” from his ‘Euphoria Morning’ solo album – he put the full weight of his powers into the lyric, making sure all the emotional subtleties were right up front. Since the early ‘80s, when he helped form the now-revered Seattle outfit, he always had a way of enriching the explosive riff-rock his bandmates were creating.
Seattle, of course, is the home of grunge, the blistering, sludgy and punishing genre that bubbled up in the city’s clubs during the mid-80s. Along with Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Nirvana, Soundgarden were one of the bands that not only forged its stormy and alienated character, but helped make it compelling enough to gain ground in mainstream America. Blending interests in punk and metal, Cornell, with guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Hiro Yamamoto and drummer Matt Cameron, developed steadily. The mayhem of their ‘Screaming Life’ EP and ‘Ultramega OK’ album marked their early work, and after some personnel changes (the arrival of bassist Ben Shepherd) and major label debut, ‘Louder Than Love,’ the music became more concise and piercing. A broad frenzy often marked the band’s approach, but refinement was always in the works.
“When Soundgarden formed we were post-punk – pretty quirky,” Cornell told The Guardian. “Then somehow we found this neo-Sabbath psychedelic rock that fitted well with who we were.”
Live shows were marked by the band’s intensity, but as a front man, Cornell was a focal point. His radically long hair was everywhere as he careened onstage. His performance’s inherent drama helped the band earn a rep as a must-see live experience, with many fans celebrating his operatic vocal capabilities. From terrifying falsetto to ominous bellow, he had an array of approaches to captivate a room.
“My voice has progressed over a long period of time, just through screaming,” he told me in the mid-90s. “We would write songs where it sounded like the singer should do something extreme. If I was singing in a higher range, I’d push my voice so it would break up because I like the way it sounded. After a while it didn’t break up, it went to the note – that’s basically how I got my range.”
In 1991, Cornell connected with pals from Pearl Jam for the one-off project Temple of the Dog, a nod to the Seattle’s proto-grunge band Mother Love Bone, but Soundgarden remained his main interest. They hit their zenith with 1994’s ‘Superunknown,’ a record that referenced everything from Cornell’s early Beatles obsession to Thayil’s love for earth-shaking metal. In “Fell on Black Days,” “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live,” they found a way to examine life’s bleaker moments with a new articulation, both lyrically and musically. It had overt strains of psychedelia running through it, and the band sounded fully in charge of its whirl of sound. The album topped the Billboard 200. In the next few years, the group began to dissolve.
In 2001, Cornell formed Audioslave with Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine after Zack de la Rocha left that band. Morello recalled the quartet’s first get-together for MTV: “[Chris] stepped to the microphone…and I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t just sound good. It didn’t sound great. It sounded transcendent. And…when there is an irreplaceable chemistry from the first moment, you can’t deny it.” Audioslave released three albums and, in 2005, were the first US rock band to perform in Cuba. Their “Like a Stone” video has become a classic, with 180M views.
Cornell was definitely into the visual aspects of music and performance. In the mid-90s I had a conversation with him about video directors and he was singing the praises of Mark Romanek and the way he shot En Vogue for the group’s classic “Free Your Mind” video. Several Soundgarden videos are just as memorable. From the bent focus and rapture scenario of “Black Hole Sun” to the saturated colors and abstracted images of “Jesus Christ Pose,” they demanded your full attention.
Though it didn’t resound like the work of Soundgarden and Audioslave, Cornell’s solo career was also dotted with strong music. He was always up for experimentation; the range of choices was telling. Anthemic bravado is what connects the dots between his James Bond theme “You Know My Name” and cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Both are part of 2007’s ‘Carry On’ album.
Reunited for the last several years, Soundgarden’s concerts were just as powerful as those of their early days, with finesse and fury in accord. Cornell was a musician who enjoyed improvising during a show, feeling all the particulars of a performance, regardless of where they led.
“The best thing about singing on stage is being able to be totally in the moment,” he has said. “In that moment a version of the song can be created but never exactly repeated.”
Fans who caught Cornell in any of his incarnations during his three-decade ride know that immediacy, and the truth that inevitably comes with it, was paramount.
“When I first started singing as a front man, I’d never done it before,” he told me in the mid-90s. “It wasn’t like I knew how, or wanted to do it. First time I sang for Soundgarden I had a fever of 103. I don’t even remember the show. I went crazy. I do remember not wanting a lukewarm response – either let them think it’s great or think it’s shit. Ever since then I’ve taken it the same way. I’d much rather be hated or loved than simply be okay.”