Grunge was the last great analogue movement of 20th century music (Britpop apologists can line up to the left; I’ll fight you in a minute), and Chris Cornell and his band, Soundgarden, were the best thing to come out of that movement. Nirvana made a bigger impact, there’s no debate to be had, but where Cobain was a blunt instrument swung by corporate muscle that never really understood him, Cornell was a diamond-tipped drill wielded by seemingly no one, a powerful force of emotive precision that was as potent as it was unknowable. His multi-octave banshee howl whirred like an engine full of wasps, and his opaque songwriting was full of evocative imagery meant for no one but himself. Despite his impenetrable personal fog, Cornell, with help from Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, Hiro Yamamoto, Scott Sundquist and Ben Shepherd, took an explicitly anti-pop hybrid of punk and metal and found success. Money rolled in, tours rolled out, and the group produced some of the loudest noise popular music has ever heard.
They were always a serious band. When they toured with Guns ‘n’ Roses right when Badmotorfinger came out, the Gunners called them “frowngarden”. Grunge was built around an anti-personality agenda, so hair-metal acts like GnR were anathema to Chris and his crew. That didn’t mean that grunge rockers were mopey, self-serious and blank – quite the opposite. To the outside world, they were fringe-dwelling losers that sought solace in music, which is not far from the truth. In reality they were just kids that welded their personalities to their guitars and their drum kits rather than create elaborate identities out of costumes and ego. They hid their insecurities behind feedback and substance abuse, keeping warm using flannel shirts found in abundance in Seattle thrift stores. The scene was essentially comprised of a large network of friends and associates that needed an out. They were bored, idle and talented. Some more than most. Enter: Chris Cornell.
Chris was initially a drummer. Driving to a gig with his friends, Scott McCullum (Skinyard) and Eric Garcia (his future assistant), Chris told them he was serious about singing. After first seeing Matt Cameron play with a band called Feedback, he knew definitively that his place was in front of the kit, not behind it. He watched Matt play from the sidewalk, Cameron’s back to the street behind glass, and decided that that was what a drummer was supposed to sound like. His own talents lay elsewhere.
Pick up any record and play any song from their impressive catalogue: what the fuck else was Chris ever going to do? His voice was one in a million. He had the preternaturally androgynous range of hair metal heroes like Axl Rose, Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson, and the throaty, fine-grained, sandpaper-like texture of a guy used to hanging out in bars all his life (adult and otherwise). In short, he had talent, and the credibility of a “working class” rocker that others in the North West were drawn to.
Chris lived with Hiro Yamamoto, a base player Kim Thayil played with in a band called the Shemps, as well as a long forgotten group called the Altered. They bounced around together until the three of them planted the seeds of what was to grow into Soundgarden. What was different from the very beginning was that they all got along. Chris was quiet and considered when he wasn’t behind the mic, and an unselfish performer that thrived in the communal atmosphere of a band blazing with optimism and potential. Club shows came and went, and inevitably a record deal was thrown at them. The rest you can do your own homework for.
For me, my first taste came via a mix tape from a friend in early high school. Somewhere in the middle, 4th of July was on there, a heaving, sluggish monster from their colossal fourth album, Superunknown. Its chugging down-tuned menace rolled its way through my skull, and the snarling blues lick it hinges on dug its hooks in deep. It has as much to do with Thayil and Cameron as it does Cornell, but he was the guy up front. His was the voice that seemed to contain the chaos, keeping it on a tight leash. Superunknown is full of songs like that. It’s unstoppable. They recorded the maximum amount of music capable of storing on a CD without making it a double album (something the Pumpkins couldn’t resist). It’s loud and angry, a snarling frothing beast all jacked up and glistening with sweat. It’s also incredibly well produced. A healthy amount of cash courtesy of A&M gave them everything they needed to do what they wanted. The return on investment was solid: 9 million copies and counting.
As for me, Superunknown became a keystone album. Cornell’s wailing on songs like 4th of July and Let Me Drown was like no one else. It was elemental. He could level trees with the higher registers and melt butter with the lower. He was at home on songs like the proto grunge kicker Hands All Over as he was on epic metal ballads like Like Suicide. Where bands like Nirvana sounded like something you could achieve yourself with enough spare time (that was where they got their power – their relatability), Chris made Soundgarden seem like the end point, the apex of musical expression, something unachievable without some freakish God-given talent. That made him, and his band, something better than us, something that made you feel powerful somehow. By listening to them, and by forming a relationship with them, their power was your power. They sounded fearless and strong, and Chris was the guy that seemed to physically manifest everything they sounded like.
He was not without his demons. The way he told it, he had abused drugs in some form since his early teens. The scene itself was rife with heroin abuse. Not that that was his drug of choice, but the forces that drove others to it must have been felt by him as well. Andy Wood, a guy key to grunge’s inception, was one of the scene’s first high profile deaths related to substance abuse. The Mother Love Bone front man was a close friend of Chris. Later, when others fell (Kurt Cobain among them), Chris simply moved onwards and upwards. Soundgarden burned out after Down On The Upside, and Chris moved on to Audioslave, an alt rock supergroup. In time, that ran its course too. He continued to make music, eventually reforming Soundgarden, picking up the pieces and putting them back together, shouting down the naysayers in the process.
Through all this though, he retained everything. Rather than lose himself to tasteless histrionics and shitty behaviour, he always let his voice carry the weight. It was more than enough. You could hear everything in that voice. It was furious, the way a volcano is furious. Not in a human way that’s directed at others, but a natural force of power and momentum. It was seductive, in a way that something nebulous and primal can be seductive when it glides up the right nerves in your brain.
And now it is gone.
I’m sorry you felt you needed to leave, Chris. You’ve given us so much. We have no way of repaying you. I’ll put on Superunknown tonight for the thousandth time. It’s a start.