Remembering the Life and Pondering the Death of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell

Jon Wiederhorn
Writer
Chris Cornell as he performed with Soundgarden in Detroit at the Fox Theatre on May 17th, 2017. Chris was found dead in his hotel room after the show due to an apparent suicide.
(Photo: Splash News)

There was no way anyone could possibly know that just hours after Soundgarden ended their last energetic, enthralling show in Detroit with a medley of “Slaves and Bulldozers” from 1991’s Badmotorfinger and the gospel song “In My Time of Dying” (made famous by Led Zeppelin), vocalist Chris Cornell would commit suicide by hanging himself at the MGM Grand hotel.

Soundgarden had played “In My Time of Dying” before, so perhaps it was just a tragic coincidence that it would be the last song Cornell would ever perform. Maybe even Cornell didn’t know his fate when he half-sang, half-pleaded, “In my time of dying I ain’t gonna cry, I ain’t gonna fall/All I need for you to do is drag my body home/Well, well, well, so I can die easy.”

But the day after, when officials confirmed that Cornell had killed himself, everyone who was at the final show probably felt a cold chill. Cornell was 52, not 27 (the age Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse were when they died). Years ago, Cornell had struggled through a divorce, and had been estranged by his oldest child, 16-year-old daughter Lillian Jean. However, he’d also taken the initiative to kick drugs and alcohol, and in 2017 seemed to have everything going for him.

He had said he was happily married to his second wife, Vicky Karayiannis, and he adored their two children, 12-year-old daughter Toni and 11-year-old son Christopher Nicholas. He didn’t seem melancholy in recent interviews, and while he was aware that he was susceptible to depression, he approached the condition with the confidence that an occasional case of the blues can be good for the soul — and that there’s always light at the end of a dark tunnel.

“I used to like to listen to early Gothic music that was very dark lyrically, because if you’re in those moods and then you listen to somebody singing about those moods, it makes you feel less lonely,” he once told me. “Depression is a natural human condition and it doesn’t necessarily need to be vaccinated against with medication. You can operate within that frame of mind and perspective, and get to the other side of it. And you can also, as time goes on, be more and more comfortable with the fact that it will happen to you, and not be afraid as much.”

In person, Cornell was soft-spoken but determined, and he possessed a subtle sense of humor. Mid-conversation, he’d say something offbeat and it would take a moment to realize he was joking. Sometimes the grin gave it away. Other times you had to really think about what he said. But he was usually open and revealing in interviews. He thought carefully about the questions he was asked and was articulate and thoughtful with his responses.

Even if Cornell’s personal life happened to not be as great as it seemed to be, his career was undeniably on full tilt prior to his death. Soundgarden — which Cornell co-formed with guitarist Kim Thayil and others in 1984 — were enjoying a renewed period of prosperity and were in the middle of a tour to continue to support their bracing 2012 comeback record, King Animal, which signaled the band’s rebirth after their breakup 15 years earlier.

And by all indications, the singer was genuinely excited to be back on the road with Soundgarden, which over the years had survived addiction, alcoholism, tour burnout, writer’s block, and internal friction, and was able to outlive most of their ‘90s peers and return as friends and business partners in an era that no longer saddled them with the grunge label.

In a review of the band’s May 17 final show in Detroit, Billboard writer Gary Graff commented, “Cornell was nothing less than ebullient through the night, in good voice — hitting all the expected screams — and fist-bumping with fans in the pit in front of the stage … Cornell and Soundgarden made his last performance one that will only embellish his legacy as one of rock’s truly great frontmen.”

During that gig, Cornell talked to the crowd about how much he loved playing Motor City, and even alluded to the group’s next concert — which will now never happen. “Detroit, you guys… show up!,” he said during the band’s encore. “I feel sorry for the next place we play… but we don’t have the same expectations [of having such a receptive crowd].”

At the time he chose to end his life, Cornell wasn’t just having success with Soundgarden. Last year, he embarked on a reunion to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the self-titled album by the supergroup Temple of the Dog, which featured Cornell’s friends and Seattle music stalwarts and Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Mike McCready (guitars), Jeff Ament (bass), and Matt Cameron (drums), who also played drums in Soundgarden.

And Cornell recently wrote an orchestral ballad for The Promise, a film about the Armenian Genocide, and performed it on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on April 19, accompanied by a string section and a full band. It’s not the only emotive soundtrack work Cornell wrote. He crafted the gritty James Bond theme for the film Casino Royale, “You Know My Name,” and penned songs for 12 Years a Slave and Great Expectations. He also released five solo albums between 1999 and 2015, most of which exhibited an introspective poignancy that was sometimes hidden in the brash riffs, throbbing basslines, and battering drums of Soundgarden.

Whether Cornell sang in a whisper or screamed with rage, his voice was graced with passion and burdened with vulnerability. Not only did he possess an exceptional vocal range and the ability to perform in a variety of music styles, he had the gift of making his words mean something, even when some of his lyrics meant nothing profound. The sound of his voice struck a chord that stirred the soul.

“I like to think of myself as an artist, and artists go there, and they go there without reservation,” he once told me. “The more you observe and experience in life, good or bad, the deeper you go, and the higher you get in terms of your emotional spectrum.”

Cornell’s first professional recording was “All Your Lies,” the Soundgarden song included on the 1986 CZ compilation Deep Six, one of the first releases to showcase the blaring, punk-fueled, guitar-heavy, metallic sound later called grunge. Soundgarden’s1987 EP Screaming Life and 1988’s EP Fopp were early templates of the style, as was their 1988 full-length Ultramega OK, which came out on SST after the band’s two-year relationship with Sub Pop, the label that proudly and sardonically cultivated the grunge genre.

“It really wasn’t until the Sub Pop years that you had people outside of the bands, like Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, come in to watch us play,” Cornell said in an unpublished interview for the book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. “They weren’t in bands, they were viewing it from another perspective. They were starting to say, ‘This is going to blow up.’ Bruce is the first person who sold me on the fact that it was going to blow up.”

Over the years, there have been various misconceptions about Cornell. While he has been referred to — and rightfully so — as one of the most entrancing frontman in rock, he didn’t start out that way. In Soundgarden’s early days, Cornell was painfully shy and extremely nervous when he performed, and when he flopped onto his back to sing — an early trademark move — he did so not to be dramatic, but so he didn’t have to see the crowd. He also sometimes sang from behind an amplifier or stood onstage with his back to the crowd. And in the beginning, the band wrote and played music simply for personal satisfaction; they never imagined they’d eventually shift millions of units or sell out arenas.

“It’s funny because when we first started out, very few people liked us,” Cornell told me. “We had elements of ‘70s rock music that couldn’t have been any less hip at the time. For a long time, it really felt like us against the world. A handful of people would show up at our gigs who sort of looked at us as a guilty pleasure.”

Whether Cornell was on the ground or diving into the crowd, he always sounded powerful, and the band’s consistency led to a major label deal with A&M records. What followed was Soundgarden’s dense, crushing, yet slightly unhinged 1989 major label debut Louder Than Love, which featured jawbreakers like the “Hands All Over” and “Loud Love” as well as the goofy cuts “Full on Kevin’s Mom” and “Big Dumb Sex.”

 

Eventually, Cornell got over his stage fright and Soundgarden played memorable shows throughout North America and Europe. At the same time as they were being marketed to the emerging “grunge” audience, Soundgarden were also being pushed to metal radio. In early 1991, at one of the more bizarre points in their career, they were the second of three bands on a bill that also included openers Faith No More and headliners Voivod. Soon after, they were playing shows with bands including Corrosion of Conformity, Danzig, and Warrior Soul.

“We first started having some minor success was at the end of the commercial metal era,” Cornell said. “And it was really strange because we had elements of aggressive music, and the only way you could attempt to sell Soundgarden to the masses at that point was via hard rock commercial radio and magazines. And it was a time of being very self-conscious. We were like, ‘Well, if we’re on the cover of this metal magazine or interviewed on this metal show, is that kind of putting us in the category with these other bands? Is that who we really are?’ And we would think, ‘Well, of course that’s not who we really are. We just have to stick to our guns.’”

Undaunted, Soundgarden soldiered on and by the time they released1991’s Badmotorfinger, which accompanied the band’s surging, downturned rhythms with a new degree of melody, the group was poised to explode. Singles including “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined,” and “Rusty Cage” became staples of their set and in addition to playing shows with Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, Soundgarden opened concerts for Guns N’ Roses.

 

It was a major turning point for Cornell and his bandmates, and Soundgarden simultaneously rode and bucked the wave of success by writing and releasing their most melodic and introspective release. The songs weren’t as loud, yet contained an undeniable groove reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, as well as a new psychedelic flourish in the arrangements, which were more spacious than much of the band’s back catalog. The lyrics of the record were dark and foreboding, touching on themes of drug abuse, murder, depression, and existential loneliness. The album was well-received and the band immediately received accolades for the off-kilter single “Spoonman,” as well as “Fell on Black Days.” But it was the surreal atmospheres and melancholy vocals of “Black Hole Sun” that became a staple on rock radio and launched the band to stardom That song and “Spoonman” both won Grammys and the album sold 5 million copies in the U.S., making it the group’s most popular album to date. The recognition that accompanied fame was neither anticipated nor thoroughly enjoyed. Cornell was especially ambivalent about the band’s new status as rock gods.

“It seemed like everyone suddenly wanted something from us,” he said. “The label wanted us to keep touring and making them money, but they also wanted us to go in right away and make another record that would be just as popular. We were being pulled in all these different directions. And I felt like we didn’t necessarily have to embrace the commercial culture of it. We didn’t have to play on 15 different TV shows or go give away awards on MTV or interview other rock stars on television. It’s not necessary. But we had a hard time with that stuff.”

Soundgarden’s next album, 1996’s more sedate Down on the Upside, went platinum, but failed to live up to the heightened expectations of the band’s label. The group supported the record with a slot on Lollapalooza, but by then the middle of the tour they were feeling the strain of road fatigue. The members flew in different planes to the shows and while they delivered onstage, they weren’t happy. Before the end of the tour, Soundgarden broke up.

While he was upset about the split, Cornell jumped right back into the fray and released his first solo album, the evocative, textured Euphoria Morning in 1999. Then in 2001, he formed the radio-ready hard rock band Audioslave with Rage Against the Machine members Tom Morello, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford. The same year they released their 2002 self-titled debut, Cornell split from his first wife Susan Silver; the divorce became official in 2005. Although he toured with Audioslave to support that and their second album, 2005’s Out of Exile, Cornell went through a dark period of drinking and pill-popping and ended up in rehab. Then he met his second wife, Karayiannis, who turned his life around.

“I started going on tour and I met my current wife, which was a huge life change to me in many, many ways,” he told me in 2005. “I was already trying to dig myself out of this hole, and then that relationship challenged me on every level, and all in positive ways.”

Cornell married Karayiannis in 2004 before his divorce with Silver was finalized. He released one more album with Audioslave, Revelations, in 2006 before the band broke up and he refocused on his solo career for almost four years. Then, on January 1, 2010, Cornell tweeted, “The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”

On April 17 of that year, Soundgarden played at the Showbox at the Market, their first show together since 1997. On Aug. 8 they headlined Lollapalooza, and then in February 2011 the band announced on its website that it had started recording a new album, which became King Animal.

Following a few years of touring, in August 2015 Cornell said that Soundgarden were writing material for their next record, and on July 16, 2016 bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron said the band had written “six solid tunes” and they expected to be done with the album by August.

At this point, there’s no way of knowing what made Cornell decide to wrap a noose around his neck and hang himself, especially after he’d already overcome so much trauma and seemed to be a clean, sober, happily married dad with plans to continue reaping the rewards from music he wrote with the band he helped build from scratch.

Fans can, and probably will, pontificate over the lyrics to King Animal and other songs Cornell wrote, such as Superunknown’s “Like Suicide,” which is actually about an injured bird that a was put out its misery with a brick. We can wonder what sort of internal torment could drive an affable, prolific rock star to end his life. Maybe in the days ahead there will be answers to the many questions currently plaguing family, friends and fans.

Regardless of his motivation, the rock world has lost one of its finest. As Jimmy Page put it, “RIP Chris Cornell. Incredibly Talented. Incredibly Young. Incredibly Missed.”


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