Chris Cornell: A Voice Silenced Too Soon
Whoever said you should never meet your heroes had obviously never crossed paths with Chris Cornell. In 2006, he was in the midst of a whirlwind press jaunt to promote You Know My Name, the theme song for Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond. In fact, so rammed was the singer’s schedule that he was 20 minutes late for our chat in a plush suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel, intensifying this writer’s nerves no end, given that it was only our second-ever interview with a bona fide rockstar.
That dissipated the second the man himself swept in with a suave air that could give 007 a run for his money – broad smile, unquantifiable charisma, and deeply apologetic for his tardiness. There’s no mistaking the presence of a rock God, especially one with impeccable manners, and the following 30 minutes in his personable, charming and surprisingly self-deprecating company did nothing to diminish his hero status. It only enhanced it.
Being a dream interviewee is just one of the many accolades you could attribute to Chris Cornell – alongside being a forefather of a musical movement that changed rock forever, a divinely talented singer, and the frontman of not one, but two of the greatest supergroups of all time. The man who could lay claim to collaborating with rapper Timbaland, and writing songs so timeless that Johnny Cash covered one (Rusty Cage), was many different things to many different people, meaning the news that the Soundgarden frontman had taken his own life at the age 52 – following a show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre – dealt a devastating blow across the music community, and beyond.
What’s important right now is to remember the imprint the man and his music made while he was alive. If you want the measure of respect for Chris Cornell, look no further than the giants lining up to extoll his many virtues. Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin – who recorded In My Time Of Dying, one of the final songs Chris ever played live – described him as “incredibly talented” and “incredibly missed”. Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi called him “one of my favourite singers”, and Elton John hailed him as: “A great singer, songwriter and the loveliest man.” Meanwhile, an emotional Chester Bennington penned a letter to his friend via Twitter.
“You have inspired me in many ways you could never have known,” wrote the late Linkin Park vocalist. “Your talent was pure and unrivalled. Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped up into one. I suppose that’s what we all are. You helped me understand that.”
Christopher John Boyle was born in Seattle, Washington on July 20, 1964. One of six children in an Irish Catholic household he’d confusingly describe as, “Urban but not really urban… suburban but not really suburban.” The divorce of his pharmacist father and accountant mother resulted in him taking the moniker the world would come to know him by – his mother’s maiden name, Cornell.
He gravitated towards music as a teen, playing drums in his first group, the Jones Street Band, named after the street he lived on. They’d perform covers that focused primarily on big, dynamic rock (AC/DC, Rush) and punk (Ramones, Sex Pistols); reflective of the fusion of styles later adopted by the band that introduced him to the world.
In his teens he showcased a rebellious streak, dropping out of high school at 15 in order to concentrate on his musical vocation. During this period he worked as a dishwasher, floor cleaner and cook in order to get by, while concentrating on assembling the band that would become Soundgarden – a feat he achieved in 1984. Chris’ continued love of the drums very nearly robbed us of one of the finest voices in rock, before the band’s lack of a singer forced him to switch roles, something he was initially nervous about.
“I didn’t really know what to do or how to do it,” he’d tell Rolling Stone, before revealing that the intensity of his performances was first informed by illness. “The first show I had a fever of 103 [degrees]. I somehow got sick so I was delirious. I don’t remember much of it, but I spent a lot of time crawling around on the stage and jumping on people.”
Soundgarden was initially Chris on vocals and rhythm guitar, Kim Thayil on lead guitar, Hiro Yamamoto on bass, and Matt Cameron on drums. They made their full-length debut with 1988’s Ultramega OK; introducing the world to a trademark sound blending punk-rock intensity, Beatles-esque melodies, and a heavy metal groove (Chris would conclude Soundgarden’s first-ever UK show, at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 1989, with the words, “We’re Black Sabbath. Goodnight!”). This heady cocktail was, of course, topped off with Chris’ multi-octave voice, which was by turns soulful and searing, but always seductive. The following year’s Louder Than Love saw Soundgarden make strides towards taking the Seattle scene to the mainstream by being the first grunge band to sign with a major label, A&M. The album was also the last they made with Hiro, who was replaced by former Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman, and later Ben Shepherd – solidifying the ‘classic’ line-up responsible for their subsequent four albums.
Even at this early stage, Chris would prove to be a prolific artist and collaborator, and juggling multiple projects would later become a trademark of his career. This began in 1990 with Temple Of The Dog, formed in tribute to the members’ friend Andrew Wood, the frontman of revered psychedelic rockers Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose aged 24. Chris, Andrew’s one-time roommate, conceived of the project, and was therefore instrumental in providing a platform for Andrew’s grieving bandmates (guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament) and introducing the wider world to the cream of the talent among his peers (their future Pearl Jam bandmates Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready also appeared).
It was his main band, though, that made Chris a star. With their unique sound, and Chris’ Adonis good looks, it’s easy to see why Soundgarden enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV around the release of 1991’s Badmotorfinger. It was around this time too that the band’s leader began to realise he was becoming famous, telling BBC Music about the surreal moment the butcher working in a grocery store at 4am recognised him. He realised, “This is going to change everything.”
That moment truly came with the release of 1994’s Superunknown, the band’s juggernaut breakthrough album, which would go on to sell nine-million copies, and can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. It spawned Grammy-winning singles Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. The genesis of the former provides a fascinating insight into Chris’ skill for conjuring surrealist imagery for his lyrics, mishearing a news anchor’s words and building a masterpiece from there. What he possessed in imagination, however, he clearly lacked by way of his ear for a successful song, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I didn’t think of it tempo-wise or lyrically as a hit.”
He never lost a sense of what Soundgarden should be about, though, even when they reconvened after a 12-year absence, having split in 1997 following the release of their excellent Down On The Upside album. Teasing their return Chris, a man with a flair for the dramatic, tweeted: “Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” The fact the band’s post-reformation album, 2012’s King Animal, continued on the path laid by its leftfield predecessor showcased their leader’s restless desire for experimentation, while its business-as-usual brilliance was testament to the innate chemistry he shared with his bandmates. Meanwhile, Kim Thayil updated Billboard prior to Chris’ death, saying some of the band’s new songs had been demoed to follow King Animal, and would make fans interested to hear Soundgarden’s next steps. They have, of course, already received a bittersweet posthumous gift in the form of never-before-heard music, as part of the 25th anniversary two-disc reissue of Singles, Cameron Crowe’s zeitgeist-capturing 1992 romantic comedy, of which Chris Cornell originally contributed music to the soundtrack.
In the intervening years during Soundgarden’s dormancy, Chris showed his flexibility as a creative force by embracing the new opportunities afforded to him by going it alone. And while his debut solo album, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, didn’t enjoy his former band’s commercial success, critics praised the blissful, sultry quality of songs that brought his writing to the fore. Never one to be predictable and settle on any one sound, in 2001 he returned to a big band dynamic by joining forces with Rage Against The Machine members Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk to form Audioslave (a name he suggested). During their six-year career, they would release three albums – 2002’s Audioslave, 2005’s Out Of Exile and 2006’s Revelations – and receive three Grammy nominations, while allowing him to enact his life-long love of Led Zeppelin in the process. Despite delivering some of the best vocal performances of his career in the likes of the thunderous Cochise and the brooding I Am The Highway, Chris’ problems with drink were apparently at their worst during the making of their self-titled debut. He’d always had an addictive personality, claiming to have been a “daily drug user” at aged 13, and suggesting that his use of PCP as a teenager had resulted in him developing agoraphobia. Keen to put his long-standing demons to rest, as well as to deal with a dependency that impeded his considerable songwriting abilities, he checked into rehab upon the album’s completion.
Though Chris left Audioslave in February 2007, citing “irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences”, it’s telling that he was able to set differences aside in the name of the right cause. In January 2017, Audioslave reformed for their first gig in 12 years at a show organised by Prophets Of Rage to protest the inauguration of newly-elected U.S. president, Donald Trump. Chris would later suggest further shows with the supergroup were “always a possibility” – a tantalising prospect we’ve been robbed of by his untimely passing.
Chris Cornell was always something of a mystery. One side of his character people may have been less familiar with is his philanthropy. He and his wife Vicky Karayiannis, who he married in 2004, formed The Chris & Vicky Cornell Foundation in 2012, providing aid to the most vulnerable children, something the couple had done in private for several years. And just when fans thought they had a handle on his diverse career, he surprised everyone by transcending the world of rock to join such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Paul McCartney and Tina Turner by lending his caramel croon to the theme for a Bond film. Upon hearing news of his death, the franchise’s producers, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, took to the official James Bond Twitter account to call him “a true artist”.
Chris was undoubtedly a resilient man, too. While recording his second solo album, Carry On, in LA, his motorcycle was hit by a truck. Despite sustaining injuries, however, he returned to work later that day. It was perhaps good practice for having to lick his wounds in the wake of the release of his Timbaland-produced third album Scream in 2009. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor was among its many detractors, taking to Twitter to label it “embarrassing”. The album’s author used the same platform to deliver a rather tongue-in-cheek reply, tweeting: “What do you think Jesus would Twitter? ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ or ‘Has anyone seen Judas? He was here a minute ago.’”
Chris remained philosophical too about his more experimental impulses, suggesting that the more pop-oriented rock album had arrived without precedent. “I don’t think there was any reference for [Scream] at the time… The response to the album didn’t surprise me. But I do think there is more context for it now.”
Despite his defence of this creative gamble, he returned to more organic terrain with 2011’s Songbook. Recorded during the acoustic tour of the same name that revisited the many touchstones of his career, it also found him tipping his hat to his heroes with songs by Led Zeppelin and John Lennon. His fourth and final solo album, Higher Truth, made with Soundgarden and Audioslave producer Brendan O’Brien, found Chris embracing less, shedding the sonics in favour of sharing something more intimate and personal with listeners.
Chris was no stranger to the idea of the legacy we leave behind. He exhibited his skill as a spellbinding re-interpreter of other people’s songs with his version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, and, in the wake of David Bowie’s passing, he had also written an article for Rolling Stone, where he commended the musical evolution Bowie had exhibited in what should have been his autumn years. “Because I want to be able to write music and create albums until I am dead.” Concluding the piece, he encouraged people to hold on to those who are important to them, heroes or otherwise, by suggesting, “You don’t know how important someone is to you until they’re gone.”
It’s a painful truth that Chris’ fans are still coming to terms with, in light of the silencing of one of rock’s greatest voices and the stilling of the pen of one of its finest writers. He will be missed.
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