RIP Chris Cornell: On Soundgarden’s Transcendent Love of Loud
Chris Cornell died last night of an apparent suicide by hanging. Out of basic decency, I’m not compelled to speculate on possible causes or “signs.” However, I am compelled to say that, within the context of the historic music scene his band sprung from (one that has suffered the loss of one icon after another over the period of the two and a half decades since it crashed the mainstream), his death is the most surprising. While always earnest and open in his lyrical prose, Cornell never wrestled mightily with public narcotics addictions like Alice in Chains’ once-mighty Layne Staley, nor was he at alleged personal odds with his persona projected skyward like the scene’s most canonized fatality, Kurt Cobain. Contrary to the more brooding tendencies of his contemporaries, Cornell was a rock star in the Robert Plant vain: a chiseled matinee idol with impossible lungs who treated the rock concert like high theater, commanding attention with self-caresses and swings of microphones. He adored theatrics in a way the arena rock monoliths of the previous decade did but, along with his bandmates, wielded his affinity with a down-to-earth punk rock edge reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s earliest and brightest days.
Cornell’s charismatic qualities as a performer helped catapult his band to the stratospheric charting heights they eventually achieved, but the actual music was what granted them an ascendance to the day’s rock and roll royalty. Soundgarden started out as a solid Melvins disciple, laying down thick and sludgy guitar lines over plodding grooves, but, true to their name, there were seeds in their sonic blueprint that soon came to full fruition. Soundgarden loved Black Sabbath’s heavy riffage, that much was clear, but they held equal admiration for The Beatles’ simple melodies, Led Zeppelin’s hard rock bravado, and Deep Purples flights into psychedelia. Impressively, it was their ever-expanding fame that allowed them further into their roots. Their highest-selling album, 1994’s sprawling 70 minute trip Superunknown is a voyage through a series of zonked-out time signatures, hare-brained alternative tunings, and grandiose psych-rock stomps ranging from depressive dirges (Mailmain, Fresh Tendrils), bursts of pop punk energy (Kickstand) and soaring radio anthems that never needed to sacrifice their more experimental qualities at the altar of catchiness (the ubiquitous Black Hole Sun, The Day I Tried to Live). It is, in both massive length and expanded artistic scope, grunge’s very own White Album.
On a personal level, Soundgarden was somewhat of a Rosetta Stone for me. For a 16 year-old who ate, drank, and breathed heavy metal, they introduced some variety into my diet. Through Soundgarden, I developed my affinity for stoner rock, psychedelic, blues, and proto-punk. I grew interests from some of the other Seattle bands as well, but whereas Alice in Chains and Nirvana drove me deeper into their respective spheres of doom metal and garage rock, Soundgarden’s diverse taxonomy, for lack of a better phrase, opened up a whole new world. Putting it another way, within a month of first hearing Superunknown, my listening habits included Wishbone Ash, Funkadelic, Uriah Heep, Nick Cave, and MC5. I can thank Chris Cornell for that much, as well as the hundreds of spins I’ve given his best work. And so it goes: onward into the Superunknown