Chris Cornell: The Dark Knight of Grunge
Chris Cornell, 52, died on May 18, 2017 after he was discovered to have committed suicide in his hotel room following a gig with his band, Soundgarden, in Detroit.
Cornell sang in various bands over the course of a 30+ career which included Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, and Audioslave. Cornell also released three solo albums and contributed to various motion picture soundtracks.
Cornell’s main band, Soundgarden, formed in 1984 and a little known fact about them is that they were the very first Seattle based grunge band to have signed for a major label—even before Nirvana.
The band released six studio albums and their biggest hit was 1994’s hard rock monolith “Superunknown.”
Soundgarden had a penchant for oddball guitar tunings, like open C, and atypical time signatures, such as 7/4 or 9/8. It seemed like the band liked to indiscriminately tune the machine heads on their guitars with absolute reckless abandon, but that form of blind-sightedness helped them to develop their trademark sound.
With the exception of “Black Hole Sun,“ it can be argued that they never had that many radio hits due to the inaccessibility of these preternatural sounding tunings. The listener embarked on a musical journey that often left them wading through what sounded like, at times, a mathematical sea of sludge, and Cornell’s colossal vocal delivery was the perfect antithesis to the gravel pit of guitar sounds which accompanied it.
Make no mistake about it: just like Alice Cooper recently suggested, Cornell was known in rock circles as “The Voice.” Cornell was the human embodiment of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream“. His four octave vocal range gave rise to a primal scream that could split the sky into thousands of fragmented little pieces.
His meat and potatoes style vocal delivery was perhaps the finest in heavy rock music and was probably only ever rivalled by Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant or AC/DC’s original singer Bon Scott.
Singers like Chris Cornell arrive on the scene every few decades. Today, Myles Kennedy is arguably his closest rival but outright comparisons are highly subjective.
Soundgarden split up in 1997, and in later years Cornell developed a syruplike and raspy blues sounding lower register. In reality, it was driven more out of necessity than choice as it was not possible to sustain that kind of vocal delivery tour after tour simply due to the wear and tear and natural erosion that accompanies vocal cord nodules.
During Soundgardens first run, Cornell also formed a one-off side project with members of Pearl Jam back in 1990 called Temple of the Dog. Contrasted with Soundgarden’s brand of heavy detuned bludgeon, Temple of the Dog were a more blues driven affair which showcased whirling guitar licks that sounded like they were cut from the mold of Jimi Hendrix. The album featured the song “Hunger Strike” with a debuting Eddie Vedder on board.
Following the release of his first solo outing- the excellent “Euphoria Morning” in 1999- Cornell found himself fronting Audioslave with three quarters of the former members of Rage Against the Machine during the years 2001-2007, releasing three albums in the process. Audioslave were a commercial success and 2003’s mournful pop/rock requiem “Like a Stone” is undoubtedly Cornell’s finest piece of work with the band.
Cornell entered rarefied air when he became the first American male artist to write and perform a theme song for the James Bond movie franchise in 2006. The fast-paced, “You Know My Name”, from the movie “Casino Royale“, helped to usher in the Daniel Craig era of bond movies.
Following the release of two more solo albums including the much maligned Timbaland produced “Scream” in 2009, Cornell reformed Soundgarden in 2010 and came full circle two years later with the release of the well-received “King Animal” album. His final solo offering, “Higher Truth” was released in 2014.
Cornell hailed from Seattle and he was one of the only few grunge front men who was actually born and raised there. It is often argued that Seattle is the kind of place that gave rise to the musical hotbed of creativity that it is known for as a result of an overabundance of negative ions in the air. This kind of environment helped local artists and musicians to express themselves out of necessity and without restraint. Seattle also has a reputation for being wet and gloomy and this backdrop wouldn’t have aided Cornell’s innate feelings of depression.
Grunge rock seemed to be circumscribed within themes of depression, apathy, alienation, drug use, unemployment, and a lack of faith in the American political system. Kurt Cobain did originally want to call Nirvana’s third album “I hate myself and I want to die”, afterall.
Grunge music has a casualty list of epic proportions: Andy Wood, Shannon Hoon, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and now Chris Cornell have all succumbed to the sound of the genres death knell.
The premature loss of a musical or cultural idol is a harrowing experience and the despair of it all is magnified tenfold when the realization is made that very few are left. The real sense of both a looming and foreboding existential crisis sets in, and the emptiness of it all is so tangible that it feels like it can be physically touched with an outstretched arm.
Cornell’s bandmate in Audioslave, Tom Morello, recently the Press Association that: “Chris had a great voice, he was super handsome, he was a very sweet guy, but his brilliance lay in the shadow prince part”.
“He’s been writing about how dark it is inside for him. And that’s one of the reasons he connected with millions of people, he was a voice for people that feel like there’s something just not right within themselves.” “Yet he rode that, he rode the part that was tearing apart his whole life to make some of the greatest rock and roll music of all time”.
Cornell once stated that: “I was depressed for a long time. If you’re depressed long enough, it’s almost a comfort, a state of mind that you’ve made peace with because you’ve been in it so long. It’s a very selfish world,”
Actors like Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman; poets such as Sylvia Plath; artists like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Ian Curtis and Chris Cornell metaphorically lived their creative lives seemingly balancing on the edges of razorblades or perhaps dangling from the precipices of cliff faces. They always seemed to be tethering on the brink of disaster. Their ability to evoke heightened levels of emotion using their wizardry and artistry is their special gift to us. We live vicariously through them, and through their art and music we become transformed into emotional lighting rods by harnessing either their sense of vitality or feelings of suffering.
In the end, Chris was unable to fend off his black dog of depression. It was a constant presence in his life snarling away at him. In his mind, he had reached a point where he could no longer use his music as an outlet to slay and repel his demons. Paradoxically, he saw suicide as the ultimate form of victory.
It’s such a shame for his fans that Chris met a devastatingly sad end, but maybe his ex-bandmate Tom Morello was right when he suggested that we are blessed that he left us with such a large body of work for us to appreciate.
RIP Chris Cornell. 1964-2017.