Chris Cornell, pictured here wearing a Nirvana shirt. He looks sort of optimistic and hopeful here, I guess as hopeful as one could possibly be as nobility of grunge’s royal court. But then again, Cornell wasn’t so easily categorized.
I’m grabbing my phone to put on some morning music, and the first thing I see everywhere is the news that Chris Cornell, 52 years old, grunge icon, frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave, and an important member of grunge supergroup/experimental project Temple of the Dog, has passed away.
I can’t even believe it. I thought it was like, some sleep-dream. I have a lot of those.
But no, it was real. And I was quiet in the car on the way to work, and I was quiet when I got there early, and settled into a seat.
I put on my favorite Soundgarden song, at least my favorite off Superunknown right away. I told myself I’d start with this.
Chris and his soaring, searing voice slow-burned into my earlobes as I pondered all this, as I watched videos of his final performance at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, as I read reports from various music websites, and as I just thought of the man himself. How could this have happened? Why did it happen!?!
Soundgarden and I, Chris Cornell and I, we have quite the little history. As an angst ridden 13 year old ready to explore the world outside classic rock and 70s California pop, already having tried the gateway drug that is Nirvana and wanting more, more of grunge, but not really liking Pearl Jam (Don’t worry, I later came to appreciate Ten, just didn’t happen overnight), I stumbled upon an interview where Kurt Cobain was asked about his Seattle peers, and of course, mentions Soundgarden. Soundgarden got praise from this man who was screaming all these terribly immediate (to a 13 year old, anyway) rock and roll anthems in my ear, so I went to find Soundgarden, hoping that it would be another Nirvana.
It wasn’t. And Soundgarden was all the better for not being just like Nirvana. Of course, I loved it!
Soundgarden was a heady crazy cocktail of punk and metal and sludgy grunge and even a little psychedelia. A lot of people say they don’t see it, and the record company certainly didn’t (but do they ever really see anything more than dollar signs?), but I can see where, on certain parts of Superunknown, the boys in Soundgarden coaxed something a little trippy from thier guitars, while they sung about falling on black, depressive days and killing a bird just to put it out of its misery, disguising it cleverly in the lyrics as a girl who loved to death, literally. Any fucking band then or at any time in rock and roll, in MUSIC history, could have written about a woman. That’s basic. But Chris disguised a “murder” as a suicide, a murder of crows as a beautiful, tragic femme fatale. It oddly all went together. Even in thier earlier works, such as the recently remastered Ultramega OK and my personal favorite album of theirs, 1989’s Louder than Love, you see an influence that wasn’t of the same grunge tradition as bands like Nirvana, like Alice In Chains. Soundgarden was directly descended from down and dirty classic metal music, the very music most grunge bands didn’t want to be associated with, lest the kings and queens of the indie scene come chop off thier head.
Soundgarden was the first of the Seattle bands to sign to a major label, A&M Records. While Louder than Love, the first record they released through the label, wasn’t quite a breakthrough, 1991’s Badmotorfinger was breakthrough enough. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the rock and roll culture shattering shock release of the year, Nirvana’s ubiquitous Nevermind, Badmotorfinger would have surely been a bigger hit. At that time, they went on a (successful) tour with Guns N’ Roses (of all people!) and began a steady climb to the top of the rock charts.
Slow and steady wins the race…
With Chris Cornell, everything was steady. He wasn’t tragically bent on his own flamed up self destruction, like his friend Landrew the Lovechild, also known as Andrew Wood, was. He wasn’t the sad boy genius type that Kurt Cobain seemed to positively embody. He wasn’t overtly political, like his friend Eddie Vedder, who famously scrawled “PRO-CHOICE” on his arm and later aped Bush in concert (now, delightfully, he makes fun of Trump, which at least makes Vedder more rock’n’roll than Billy Corgan these days.)
He was mellow Cornell, who never cared about being a Rock Star, capital R-S, despite being the first of the Seattle scene to sign to a major. Somehow he managed to do that and stayed steadfastly himself, through years of the deaths of many major grunge figures, and what many could say the death of the grunge genre itself, where in the late 90s to early ’00s, second-and-third-rate grunge derivatives, Kid Rock, and Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters took over the rock torch for better, or for much, much worse. Through years of Pearl Jam’s light fading out, and the commodification of alternative rock into the bland “broternative” you hear in between decent Smashing Pumpkins songs on your local rock station today, Cornell stayed the same, stayed who he was. Nobody was asking him to carry the rock torch, yet he still lit a Roman candle, and held it in his hand.
Regardless of how he left our earth, he will be missed. Music, rock music or otherwise, will not be the same without him. Neither will I. I don’t know how he went, I’ve heard suicide, but nothing is sure. All I can do is offer him peace.
Say Hello 2 Heaven, Chris. Rest In Peace forever.