Nail in my hand, from my creator. You gave me life, now show me how to live.
Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell has passed away suddenly at the very young age of just 52 mere hours after stomping through a massive two hour show with Soundgarden at Detroit’s Fox Theatre venue on May 17th.
Like many I’m sure, I first heard of Cornell through an audio cassette that had passed through the hands of many of my school friends before being shoved firmly in mine: “You have to listen to this!” I was told. I don’t think that tape was ever passed on again but rather was worn out as I dissected the songs and tried to comprehend which members of Soundgarden were singing which part because, clearly, no one person could be singing parts so low and so high. But I was wrong, Cornell’s now famed near four-octave vocal range was one of the elements that made Soundgarden stand out from the wave of so-called ‘grunge’ acts emerging from the Pacific Northwest rock scene, alongside contemporaries Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and Nirvana.
Formed in 1984 with guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto, it wasn’t until 1988’s Ultramega OK that Soundgarden began to make waves on the scene, with Matt Cameron joining the troupe on drums, the sticksman later moving to Pearl Jam following Soundgarden’s disbanding and going on to play across both groups from 2010. But it was 1991’s Badmotorfinger with major label A&M and new bass guitarist Ben Shepherd that shifted the group into high gear with singles Jesus Christ Pose, Outshined and Rusty Cage making the UK singles chart, the latter cut famously later covered by Country music legend Johnny Cash.
Breakthrough 1994 album Superunknown fed the growing hunger for raw, alternative rock music, landing the Seattle-based outsiders well and truly in the worldwide mainstream following huge hit singles Black Hole Sun and Fell On Black Days and going on to be certified five times Platinum in the U.S., a success which ultimately led to the disintegration of the group following creative differences during the production of 1996 album Down On The Upside.
Cornell returned in 1999 with his first solo effort Euphoria Morning, featuring massive lead single Can’t Change Me, before going on to lead Audioslave with Rage Against The Machine band members Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk, a brainchild of producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin. The politically-charged rock ‘supergroup’ went on to produce three massive albums as well as becoming the first western rock group to play a huge free outdoor concert in Cuba.
Once again, ‘creative differences’ split Cornell from his bandmates, the frontman later going on to say that his battles with prescription drug addiction and alcoholism contributed to issues within the band as he cleaned himself up and had remained so since 2003.
2006 saw Cornell becoming the first American male to both write and perform a James Bond film theme, his song You Know My Name for film Casino Royale charting well outside the U.S. and kicking off Daniel’s Craig’s blockbusting residency in the famous British spy’s shoes.
He branched out musically with 2009’s Timbaland-produced R&B-infused record Scream next for which he was lambasted, the album ultimately tanking following poor critical reception while demonstrating Cornell’s openness to varying musical styles.
Cornell, Thayil, Shepherd and Cameron reunited Soundgarden in 2010, a line-up that has continued touring since, the group not resting on their legacy but instead producing new music. Their fresh-sounding sixth album King Animal was released in 2012 with a show at West London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a venue they had opened back up as a live music venue some 20 years before, a show I was lucky enough to attend.
The Seattle-native also countered his heavy rock band outings with solo acoustic shows (and I mean one man and a guitar!), showcasing his incredibly sophisticated song-writing talents across his extensive catalogue while putting his unique vocals front and centre, with stripped-back acoustic renditions of Soundgarden and Audioslave classics mixed in with solo cuts played between intimate and grand theatre venues, his latest European ‘Songbook’ tour schedule specifically planned to ensure he could play London’s famous Royal Albert Hall in May 2016 in what turned out to be his final UK appearance. Indeed Cornell at that show paid tribute to the recently passed Prince, another musical hero taken away too soon, with a haunting acoustic rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U.
He was also never one to shy away from the wider music world, lending his signature voice to Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash’s debut solo effort on breakout tune Promise Me as well as branching out into Country music, appearing on Zac Brown Band’s Heavy Is The Head, the group’s second single from fourth studio album Jekyll + Hyde.
His first ‘supergroup’ was, of course, Temple Of The Dog, a collaboration between Cornell and friends who would later become Pearl Jam in memoriam of late friend Andrew Wood of bands Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone who died aged just 24 in 1990.
Outside of his musical work, Cornell pursued many philanthropic engagements, going on to form the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation with his wife in 2012 to support some of society’s most vulnerable children, the two having two children of their own with Cornell also having a daughter with former wife Susan Silver.
Chris Cornell was a one of a kind rock star, an enigmatic yet flawed man who recognised his shortcomings and challenged his demons while also acknowledging how privileged he was, doing his best to help those less fortunate. It was always magical to watch him perform live as he enchanted us with his voice and incredible guitar skills, whether with Soundgarden or at one of his solo acoustic shows, I was always floored by his deep words transmitted by that awe-inspiring vocal range.
He was also a funny man, often self-deprecating, but a kind personality that appreciated what his talent had afforded him in his audience. I always looked forward to his next show and dreamed of the possibility of catching a reformed Audioslave play once again someday.
Today I am heartbroken and feel as though I’ve had a kick to the gut once more as yet another of my musical heroes is taken away far too soon. But this, of course, must pale in comparison to what those who knew him must be feeling.
Safe travels Chris, you will be truly missed the world over.
Heaven send hell away, no one sings like you anymore – Black Hole Sun