There Was No One Else on Earth Like Chris Cornell
The Soundgarden vocalist was an icon with one of the greatest voices we'll ever hear. He'll live on Grunge Rushmore for eternity.
Gie Knaeps / Getty Images
Grunge was a perfectly named genre. In one syllable, it conjured a lightless constellation of filth. Sludgy guitars, primal howls, and second-hand flannel. Opiated Seattle art goons gloomily monopolizing American teen angst for a half-generation—inspiring 100,000 regrettable tattoos and threatening to put the nation's barbers out of business.
All genres are partial fictions, but some seem truer than others. And Soundgarden was platonic grunge—head banging, mythic, and absorbent of those violent tantrums of adolescent frustration. In 1991, their lead singer Chris Cornell, then 27, claimed that there wasn't a day where he wasn't angry. He died two days ago, now 52, having tragically discovered only temporary respites in the intervening decades.
Rimbaud's narcissistic myth of compulsory derangement has been invalidated too often to appear remotely sound. But occasionally you're forced to consider a particularly tenebrous force like Chris Cornell, found with a noose around his neck in a Detroit hotel room. A fracturing punctuation to a brilliant career—a paralyzingly sad end that re-contextualizes the source of the subterranean depths and supernatural highs that his voice channeled.
Forget sepulchral anthems like "The Day I Tried to Live," "Like Suicide," "Fell on Black Days," or "Pretty Noose." You can listen to an underrated folk ballad like "Seasons" from Cameron Crowe's Singles soundtrack to hear the forlorn sensitivity underneath the sex-god posturing, that desolate Puget Sound loneliness, those always lurking demons so artfully concealed.
Guru was right: it's mostly the voice. Cornell was capable of an alternately seraphic or satanic croon, which could make mercury freeze or boil depending on his whim. He uncoiled neck-snapping roller coaster octaves that could plummet from a manic winged falsetto to a scabrous baptized-in-hell blues cover of Howlin Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning." Robert Plant and AC/DC were the obvious analogues, but Cornell had no country for elves-in-the-forest mysticism or skintight metaphor. There was pain, opacity, and unreconstructed agony. Grunge not glam.
Being raised in the 90s with Cornell omnipresent on MTV meant automatically inheriting the notion of what a rock star should be. What was grunge if not classic rock reconstructed with punk rawness and speed-metal power? What was grunge without Cornell? Soundgarden was the second band to ever release an album on Sub Pop. Kurt Cobain allegedly said they were the initial reason that he opted to work with the iconic Seattle imprint. Even Axl called them his favorite young band and took them on the Use Your Illusion Tour.
Did anyone ever look cooler? In those early videos Cornell looked like Clark Gable playing grunge Jesus—or maybe Captain Jack Sparrow inhabiting Johnny Depp's real-life fantasies. Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites copied his style. Jordan Catalano might have covered Violent Femmes and Ramones songs, but deep down, I suspect that he wanted to be in Soundgarden .
Cornell never met a shirt he couldn't rip off or at least slash at the sleeves— constantly writhing in agony, shredding the guitar on his knees, flashing masterful Mr. Steal Your Girl stares. He must've influenced more bad goatees than anyone since Abe Lincoln. One of those dudes so effortlessly stylish that he could rock a beret and make you consider investing in vintage French haberdashery. And to quote Lucille Bluth: "oh, that hair." Dude had a transcendent coif in that rarified rock star realm alongside Bryan Ferry, Keith Richards, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Plant.
Grunge eventually became ripe for satire. The pinnacle was The Ben Stiller Show's "The Grungies," which parodied both The Monkees and the contemporary Seattle scene. Ben Stiller starred as the frontman, a dead ringer for Cornell. Yet the latter was always more self-aware and intelligent than he often got credit. His "Jesus Christ Pose" lampooned the absurd self-deification of the Perry Ferrell's of the world, but was still subtle enough to earn Soundgarden a spot on Lollapalooza '92; while his "Big Dumb Sex" ethered cock rock bravado.
Never afraid to fire direct shots, Cornell once told Spin that "Stone Temple Pilots, Bush and Silverchair [took] the simplest elements of Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam and melded them into one homogenous thing." He added, "Alice in Chains were little kids that sounded like Ratt, and all of a sudden they saw what was going on and incorporated it. They were truly inspired by [grunge], which was cool, but it wasn't the same thing." Cornell was a real one.
Maybe there was something proprietary in him being the only actual Seattle native on the Grunge Rushmore. Cobain hailed from Aberdeen. Eddie Vedder from San Diego-via-Chicago. Layne Staley was from the suburbs. And Scott Weiland merely sounded like he'd put in heavy hours at the Pike Street Fish Market.
Meanwhile, Cornell grew up the youngest son of two alcoholic parents (an accountant and pharmacist), in a rain-slicked depressive city that bears little resemblance to the gentrified Amazonian vortex of 2017. His musical obsession began upon discovering a stack of abandoned and warped Beatles records in a neighbor's basement. The block was lower middle-class, a place where everyone either did or sold drugs by 12. A bad PCP trip at 14 led him to quit drugs, become agoraphobic and lose all friends during that crucial developmental epoch.
"Up till then life was pretty great," Cornell once said. "The world was big and I felt I could do anything I wanted. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn't do anything. But in the isolation, my imagination really had time to run."
In those early videos Cornell looked like Clark Gable playing grunge Jesus—or maybe Captain Jack Sparrow inhabiting Johnny Depp's real-life fantasies.
Briefly attending an alternative high school, Cornell dropped out, took up the drums, and began toiling at an interminable series of kitchen jobs. The high water mark was working as a sous chef at Ray's Kitchen. He assumed that he'd get good enough at the drums and back-up singing that some great band would want him. It didn't happen. So by 21, Cornell had the epiphany that if he was going to play music that he liked, he'd have to create it himself.
Naming themselves after a sonic art installation on the shores of Lake Washington, Soundgarden officially formed in 1984. An initial bond developed over The Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers, Wire, and Joy Division. They appreciated Black Sabbath, but lead guitarist Kim Thayil once described their mission as "trying to make Black Sabbath songs without the parts that suck."
Beyond Cornell's incomparable voice, the band's chief innovation might've been to discover the northwest passage connecting The Beatles, Sabbath, heavy metal, and experimental 80s punk rock (or at least find a slightly different route than Nirvana). After all, they were among the first bands to appear on both Headbangers Ball and 120 Minutes.
The early Soundgarden records aren't without glimpses of genius, but the band and Cornell's reputation will ultimately rest on the parenthesis of black light that shone between 1991 and 1994. The twin masterpieces: Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. You have to give credit to Mudhoney, Green River, The Melvins, The U-Men, and Screaming Trees. Nirvana and Pearl Jam, obviously. But those Soundgarden classics unmistakably sculpted the tropes and sounds that we think about when we memorialize the grunge era.
Watch the "Rusty Cage" video (later brilliantly covered by Johnny Cash). It opens with a photo negative-tinted voodoo forest, featuring stark naked trees and a man wielding an axe and sprinting towards the camera. There's a brutal guitar riff. You see an abandoned cabin in the middle of rustic dump-the-body nowhere. There is long hair. There is shredding. Or "Outshined" where Cornell is "looking California, feeling Minnesota," while pulverizing his guitar shirtless against a chain link fence. It later appeared on the True Romance soundtrack, and presumably in a Doc Martens commercial of your imagination.
At 12 years old, I automatically assumed that every song on Superunknown was about heroin. According to Cornell, this was incorrect. His drug habits didn't really start until his late 20s. The drinking led to prescription pills then to everything else. Depression was a constant. But he readily admitted that the band's masterpiece was a stoner record, and arguably the only stoner rock classic that grunge produced.
It might be a basic assessment, but to me, "Black Hole Sun," the biggest hit, remains the band's greatest moment. If the Led Zeppelin comparisons were partially valid, that's when Soundgarden became entirely singular. If you saw the video in '94, it's indelibly seared until the end of your days. It was The Beatles run through sludge, grunge chopped and screwed with Cornell hitting hard with fatalistic one-liners like "times are gone for honest men." There are images of lunar hills, rubber faced ghouls chopping flopping fish with cleavers, falling skies intimating Babylonian demise, biblical plagues of bats, and beautiful bikini girls with lizard tongues. Fear and Loathing in the Emerald City.
After that, it all started to dissipate. Soundgarden split up in '97. Cornell dropped the underrated Euphoria Morning in '99 before forming Audioslave with the members of Rage Against The Machine. I saw them once and I don't regret it. No one on earth should've been able to convincingly pull off both Soundgarden and Rage songs in concert, but Cornell was like no one else on earth.
We could spend all day discussing the last two decades of Cornell's career. They deserve more than the short shrift they're receiving in this eulogy, but consider this my way of eliding over that solo album with Timbaland. All you need to know can be found by watching Cornell's cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 You" that will wind up the last song to reach the Billboard charts during his lifetime. It's a reminder of the beauty, power, and versatility of his voice—an instrument that deserves a spot in the pantheon alongside his close friend, Jeff Buckley. A reminder that Cornell left this earth still in possession of his extraterrestrial rare gift.
Several years ago, Cornell was asked about all the casualties of Seattle, the misfortunes that plagued grunge to its grave. In typical fashion, he refused tedious cliché or cheap existentialism. He uttered a simple but profound statement that offers a modicum of solace to anyone struggling to understand how and why this happened, and what to take from it. It's evidence of what he did best: find meaning from the meaningless.
"It's not something that you get over. I don't believe there's a healing process. In what way can you stop and say, "Well, it's god's will." I always thought that line I've heard a million times — twice as bright but half as long — is bullshit. It's tragedy," Cornell said. "I just carry all of that with me all the time. All I can do, if anything, out of respect for my friends that are no longer here, is to do my best to lead a good life and take advantage of the fact that I'm still around, take the opportunities I have that they should've had."
Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.