CHRIS CORNELL 1964 – 2017
We woke this morning to the shocking and sad news that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died in Detroit. He was only 52 years old.
The first time I ever saw Soundgarden was way back in 1989. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and they came through to play the “Foundations Forum” convention in Burbank. Me and my crew only knew them as a new band on SST Records, but they came highly recommended by some folks we trusted, so off we went.
For some context, remember that this was LA in the late ’80s. The insipid “hair metal” scene on the Sunset Strip was still in full effect, but an alternative scene had been brewing for a few years. Those of us who found the whole Spandex poseur scene unfathomably lame were hungry for something raw and real. We never expected it to come from the land of incessant rain and Sasquatch.
I couldn’t believe the noise that came out of his face. It was as if Ronnie James Dio’s record collection consisted exclusively of the Stooges and the Pixies
Soundgarden took the stage with a detuned, slowed-down sludge version of “Come Together”. Here were four tattered and disheveled young dudes grinding out the loudest, dirtiest and heaviest version of the song imaginable. It was like manna from heaven for those of us craving real rock power in the age of Warrant. I was smitten from the first note.
And then Chris Cornell opened his mouth.
I couldn’t believe the noise that came out of his face. It was as if Ronnie James Dio’s record collection consisted exclusively of the Stooges and the Pixies. Powerful, operatic, emotive and downright mean, Cornell’s voice was miles beyond anything we’d ever heard in an LA club. It was an undeniable, supernatural force that left no doubt the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe had already shifted north 1,100 miles to Seattle – we just hadn’t realized it yet. For once, Los Angeles was embarrassingly out of the loop on a new rock movement. This was the real thing; in an instant, the overhyped LA rock scene seemed pretentious and stupid. Don’t give Cobain all the credit for that one – give a lot to Cornell.
Soundgarden proceeded to physically pin us to the wall for 45 straight minutes. The set reached its apex with an insane version of “Beyond the Wheel”. Here’s some live video of the song shot a few months after the Burbank gig:
I left that show with no doubt that Soundgarden was going to be absolutely huge. There was no way a frontman like Chris Cornell would be a niche artist. This was a world-class talent and the world would soon take notice. Two months later they were already doing a multi-night headlining gig at the Whisky A Go Go. It happened in a flash. Within 18 months, they had released Badmotorfinger and were the toast of the rock world.
The next few years found Soundgarden at the absolute top of the rock mountain. Platinum albums were followed by sold-out arena tours and their craft just kept getting more finely honed. Amazingly, Chris Cornell just seemed to get better and better. He added “seriously badass guitarist” to his bag of tricks (try to play “Rusty Cage” on the guitar and sing it at the same time – good luck with that) and became a full-blown grunge icon. Make no mistake – Chris Cornell will be remembered as one of the all-time great frontmen. He’s in the same rarified air as Freddie Mercury, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop… you get the idea.
A few years later, I had the good fortune of running into him when Soundgarden rehearsed at a studio where I was working. Chris struck me as a soft-spoken and charming guy; refreshingly devoid of the insufferable attitude so many freshly-minted rock stars had back then. My pal and coworker, record producer Phil Stevenson, had this to say about him:
“No one was nicer than Cornell. He would literally walk over and bring you into a conversation just so you wouldn’t feel left out. I found them all to be really normal and seemingly unaffected by fame.”
It really came full circle for me when Soundgarden headlined the annual ‘Hard Rock Calling’ festival in London in 2012. This was nearly 25 years after first seeing them in a dingy Burbank club. Here’s their full set:
And now he’s gone to the Great Gig in the Sky. I just can’t believe it. Chris Cornell died alone in a Detroit hotel room mere hours after Soundgarden blew the roof off a sold-out Fox Theater. Initial reports are suggesting suicide. Every cell in my body wants that to be inaccurate. It’s simply too depressing to consider.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how he died. How he lived is what counts.
He is survived by his wife Vicky, two daughters and a son.