Chris Cornell: A retrospective of appreciation, 1989–2017
Chris Cornell was found dead yesterday. May his memory be eternal.
I first heard of Chris Cornell in December 1989, when I was thirteen years old and in the eighth grade. This was a time when my main music listening consisted of Prince’s Batman soundtrack, Oingo Boingo, Aerosmith, Joe Satriani, and mostly whatever my parents wanted to listen to, since they controlled the dial whenever we were all together. I was just discovering what was then called “classic rock” — I had found my mom’s old LP copies of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Golden Earring’s Moontan, which were entry points into that world; Led Zeppelin IV and Rush’s 2112 soon followed.
The Seattle Times, right before the New Year, ran an article on a Seattle band called Soundgarden who was predicted to be on the cusp of hitting the big time with their first major label release, Louder than Love. There was something in the piece, as I recall, about Soundgarden being voted in some music magazine as being simultaneously the worst Led Zeppelin ripoff band as well as the best Led Zeppelin ripoff artist, owing largely to Chris Cornell’s vocals. There was a young student teacher at my junior high school with whom I often talked about music; I asked him about Soundgarden, and he said, yeah, the guy’s basically an imitation artist. He thinks he’s Robert Plant.
I was intrigued, and I hunted down the tape (yeah, the tape — I didn’t have a CD player yet). In the process, I found out about Soundgarden’s previous album, Ultramega OK, getting nominated for a Grammy, and then I heard of all of these other Seattle bands that were emerging from the rainy morass of Seattle’s pre-technocratic, overgrown small-town, loser music scene and that everybody was predicting were on the verge of taking over the charts: Mother Love Bone, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney. I only had the pocket money for one every few weeks, so I bought Louder than Love and started listening to it. The chunky drums introducing the opening track, “Ugly Truth”, followed by what seemed to be deliberately non-melodic guitar strumming grabbed my attention, and other songs refused to let it go. The anthemic double entendre of “Hands All Over” was one I kept rewinding back to. (Remember rewinding?) The high-pitched harmonic guitar riff of “Loud Love” was initially hypnotic, but then Cornell’s crescendoing scream made me sit bolt upright. All in all, I got the Robert Plant comparison immediately, but this really was something… else. I found myself listening to the album compulsively.
The other major development this time was that my family got our first computer with a modem. Socially awkward kid that I was, I found keyboard community of sorts through the PC’s connectivity. I started spending a lot of after-school time on computer bulletin boards, the slow, decentralized, mostly text-based, punk rock-style forerunner to Facebook; there I found older teens and twentysomethings who were connected to “the Seattle scene”, and I got a personal window into some of these acts. For instance, there was a guitarist on one of these bulletin boards who claimed to be friends with a lot of the names associated with the bigger acts (and who also frequently took me to task for listening to the “bubblegum” Joe Satriani instead of his much, much, much more talented student, Steve Vai). When I had a little more cash on hand, I delved a bit deeper into Soundgarden with Ultramega OK (which, for better or for worse, lost out on the Grammy for Best Metal Performance to Metallica’s “One”).
Sometime around the middle of March 1990, the guitarist guy posted that there was terrible news about his friend, a guy named Andy Wood, who was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone. He had overdosed on heroin, and they weren’t sure if he was going to pull through. On March 19, Wood died, and now it seemed that there was a tragic shadow cast over this wave of Seattle bands who were poised on the edge of massive success. I could only experience it from a distance, but even from a distance it looked like there had a been a failure to launch. Mother Love Bone’s album Apple was eventually released, but the group seemed to dissipate. Queensrÿche and Alice In Chains had minor hits during my 1990–91 school year with “Silent Lucidity” and “Man in the Box” respectively (“Man in the Box” was the hard rock kids’ performance at my junior high’s talent show that year), but it wasn’t anything like the promise of that December 1989 Times article. And, no, Soundgarden’s Louder than Love didn’t really set the world on fire (although they did have a song on one of the great modern rock compilations of the day, the soundtrack album from the Christian Slater teen angst vehicle, Pump Up The Volume). Still, when I had to give a presentation to my ninth grade Honors English class about a local issue, it was a no-brainer for me; I presented on the Seattle bands I was listening to, with Soundgarden at the center. Everybody looked at me like I was creepy for talking about all of these groups nobody had ever heard of except losers like me. (My own family wasn’t much better: I remember playing a Soundgarden song for my dad, a sometime professional musician of sorts, who demanded I shut it off after five seconds, saying that “whoever that was who was singing” was “talentless” and how there was no way I’d remember that bozo at all in twenty years.)
Fall 1991 was when the dam broke open with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and suddenly everybody was talking about these groups, not just losers like me. In addition to the ubiquitous Nevermind, Mother Love Bone survivors Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard unveiled Pearl Jam’s Ten, their statement of purpose about their reinvention of themselves, now with new singer Eddie Vedder. It also turned out that protoslacker filmmaker Cameron Crowe, a friend of Andy Wood’s, had taken his front row seat to the grieving of the Seattle music community and used it as the inspiration for his romantic comedy Singles, complete with a soundtrack album that included the bright lights of the scene, like Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Soundgarden. And, yes, Soundgarden also released a new album in the midst of this wave, Badmotorfinger.
Now a sophomore in high school who didn’t yet drive, but who now owned a CD player, I was listening to all of this and more. The way I remember it, Nirvana absolutely owned “the Seattle scene” in the public eye from the moment “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves, and Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were so overshadowed initially that Seattle’s own rock newspaper The Rocket ran an article that fall asking, why is Nirvana connecting with mass audiences and why are Soundgarden and Pearl Jam flopping?
By late October, though, “Outshined” was getting rotation on MTV, and “Evenflow” was getting noticed, too. Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”, a duet between Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder, also started to get major airplay, and by the time ’91 turned into ’92, the “Seattle scene” was legitimately far more than just “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Summer 1992 even saw Soundgarden and Pearl Jam added to the bill of Lollapalooza, Perry Farrell’s touring festival of “alternative” rock and the strange and unusual.
For me, during this heady period of ‘91-’94, this was largely about the novelty of seeing artists I had enjoyed before they were popular now gracing the covers of magazines like TIME. Even so, my experience of “the scene” didn’t necessarily reflect the massive popular reception of Pearl Jam and Nirvana; I didn’t buy another studio Nirvana album, and I didn’t buy another Pearl Jam disc until Yield in 1998. My favorite Seattle band, period, was Hammerbox, one of the never-quite-made-it acts, but of the major groups, Soundgarden was always the band I found most consistently interesting. Typically my favorite songs on their albums were the ones that weren’t popular; “Slaves and Bulldozers” was easily the best song on Badmotorfinger in my estimation. I eagerly looked forward to Superunknown’s ’94 release, but when it came out I was mystified at the near-universal popularity of “Black Hole Sun”, easily one of the lesser lights on the disc. “The Day I Tried To Live” was much more my speed. Still, there was never anything boring about any of the songs; the rhythms, the lyrics, Kim Thayil’s guitar antihero (as opposed to Johnny Marr’s anti-guitar hero) riffing, the different colors and contours Chris Cornell brought to his voice, Matt Cameron’s rock solid support on drums — they were, somehow, the intellectual, dare I say it, spiritual Seattle band. And when all of the pieces came together, there was an alchemy that transmuted all of the parts into pure gold.
The era had been ushered in by the tragedy of Andy Wood’s death, and it was ushered out by the tragedy of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in ’94. It was no longer that “the scene” was merely tinged by the spectre of heroin abuse; now the sun was completely blotted out by it. The worst-kept secret about the cost of Seattle’s musical success was now out in the open. Pearl Jam kept making music, sure, and other bands came along like Sunny Day Real Estate, but the ride was over.
Soundgarden had one album left in them, Down on the Upside in ’96. It was an album I never quite connected with, even if “Pretty Noose” stood out. Shortly thereafter they called it a day. The band I had “discovered” for my skeptical friends in eighth grade fell apart my junior year of college.
It was a bookend, to be sure; the heroes of my adolescence were finding they needed to change at the same time I was having to transition into something vaguely resembling adulthood. What was great about this, though, was that Chris Cornell was starting to come into his own as a solo artist just as I was hitting various adult benchmarks — getting a real job, getting married, finishing college — so in a way I felt like I was getting to mature with him as a listener in parallel with him as the artist. And, well, if I could never quite go there when he was part of Audioslave, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it, exactly, it just wasn’t where I was at that point. Carry On, with my favorite James Bond credits song of all time, “You Know My Name” from Daniel Craig’s debut in 2006, Casino Royale, was much more inline with who I was as a 30 year old.
Still, when a new frickin’ Soundgarden song was announced for the soundtrack of The Avengers in 2012, I was giddy. Maybe you can go home again, I thought to myself. I’m still not sure about that. King Animal was a good album, and the band chemistry sounded like everything was firing on all cylinders just as it had been 18 years previous at their peak, but it sort of seemed like the musical equivalent of the town of Brigadoon, like the exercise of reviving Soundgarden and was more along the lines of stepping into a time machine and going back rather than bringing what those guys were forward to today. At all events, I was aware of having moved on, and it didn’t really feel like as an ensemble they had.
I never got that impression with Chris Cornell’s solo material, though; it seemed like as a solo singer/songwriter, he felt freer to change, to mature, to ignore whatever fixed set of expectations there might have been. I loved Higher Truth, both for what it seemed to signify for him as a person and for what it signaled for him as a musician; now he was embracing the sense of the spiritual that always struck me as lurking by the corners in his songwriting, and the way he articulated it was damn good. His voice actually seemed to be getting better with age, and overall my impression was that he was looking forward, artistically and spiritually, as Chris Cornell — not Chris Cornell the Robert Plant imitator, not Chris Cornell the former Soundgarden singer, not Chris Cornell the Zack de la Rocha replacement, but Chris Cornell the fully mature artist and person.
I never met him, but something that I am given to understand we had in common was conversion to Greek Orthodox Christianity. His way there was much different from mine — he married a Greek woman; I, well, didn’t — but one day my Facebook feed was circulating pictures of him standing godfather to a baby in a Greek Orthodox baptism, and apparently chanting with his wife. I don’t really have anything to go on in terms of what this meant for him beyond the raw data of the pictures and the open, raw spirituality of Higher Truth, obviously, so I don’t wish to presume that I know what this meant for him personally. Still, as somebody who feeds my family as a fundraiser for a Greek Orthodox nonprofit, when I became aware that he and his wife had a foundation, I tried to send him a CD of Byzantine chant and a handwritten card saying, essentially, I think if nothing else you’d enjoy this music just as a singer, and I’d love to talk to you about it some more if you ever have the chance. I sent it to his representation, and, alas, they returned the mailer unopened.
I really wish I could have seen the Temple of the Dog tour last year, but maybe it was a sign of trouble that he agreed to do it, an indicator that he was looking back in ways that were detrimental. I don’t know.
I don’t have any kind of eloquent closure here for this navel-gazing, so I can only end this awkwardly. The death of a man I never met is serving as a tragic marker of the passage of time in my life, but above all, I feel for his wife and children; θέρμες συλλυπητήριες, Κυρία Καραγιάννη — ζωή σε σας. If I can offer any comfort, it is only in the common greeting during Eastertide (which we’re still in for another week): Χριστός ανέστη! Christ is risen! We sing that he has trampled down death by means of death, and granted life to those in the tombs. I hope with all sincerity that this is true.
Maybe I can end by saying this: I keep thinking back to the things I was told all those years ago — “He’s basically an imitation artist.” “In twenty years you won’t remember who this talentless bozo is.” I take it as a given that there are singers now who get described as Chris Cornell imitators, and after twenty-seven years, there have been an abundance of reasons why I have continued to remember who he is and to appreciate his great talent. May his memory be eternal, and may his family be comforted. Christ is risen!