One of the grand architects of the grunge movement and premier shapeshifters of the 1990s was lost on May 18, 2017, when Chris Cornell died. He was best known as the lead singer for avant-garde Seattle ragers Soundgarden, who along with Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Nirvana were vanguards of the alternative “grunge” rock movement that shattered the deplorable headlock hair metal bands had on popular music entering the 1990s.
Formed in 1984, Soundgarden achieved its biggest success with the 1994 album Superunknown, which debuted at number one on the “Billboard 200” and yielded the Grammy Award-winning singles Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. The band broke up in 1997 due to internal strife over its creative direction.
In 2000, after Zack de la Rocha left as vocalist of Rage Against the Machine, the remaining members Tom Morello (lead guitar), Tim Commerford (bass/backing vocals), and Brad Wilk (drums) decided to remain together and sought a replacement. After trying out several prominent possibilities, there was no denying the instant chemistry that came when Chris Cornell stepped to the microphone with the remaining Rage members. This resulted in the formation of the rock supergroup Audioslave.
Through six years Audioslave released three albums and received three Grammy nominations. They also became the first American rock band to perform an open-air concert in Cuba.
I had the privilege of catching Audioslave at one of its tour warmup shows on March 7, 2003. It was a Friday night in Philadelphia at the Electric Factory. Myself and two buddies drove up from DC after Audioslave’s self-titled disc had dropped and curiosity was at a premium for the volatility that would be on display when combining Rage with Soundgarden.
Both these bands were use to playing before massive crowds of spectators. Turning them loose inside a 2,500 person venue was almost unfair. They exploded onto the stage with “Set It Off.” I vividly recall Chris Cornell stalking the stage. His intense eyes were piercing, as he scanned the crowd looking at them like prey. Many in attendance were not familiar with the new disc yet, but were fans of Rage and Soundgarden. None was disappointed as tunes from all were played. It was a sharp, tight set, full of energy as these titans of the rock world knew they were about to unleash a powerful musical presence, and they were amped to be in front of a crowd performing the new songs. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen in terms of presence and sheer energy.
Audioslave disbanded in 2007. This corresponded with Rage Against the Machine getting back together in 2007 for a reunion tour. Soundgarden regrouped in 2010 and released a new disc in 2012, King Animal. Soundgarden was playing together up until Cornell’s death.
On May 18, 2017, Cornell was found dead with a band around his neck in his hotel room at the MGM Grand in Detroit, after performing a show with Soundgarden. From the outset, the investigation into Cornell’s death was described as a possible suicide. Subsequently, the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of death as suicide by hanging. However, Cornell’s widow questioned whether he would deliberately end his own life, and said that the drug Ativan, which her husband was taking, might have led him to commit suicide. Cornell had a long history of substance abuse.
Cornell will be remembered for his extensive songwriting and nearly four-octave vocal range. His ability to maintain pitch and control while delivering his brand of powerful vocal belting is what set him apart. The man could shred.
Cornell was voted “Rock’s Greatest Singer” by readers of Guitar World, ranked 4th in the list of “Heavy Metal’s All-Time Top 100 Vocalists” by Hit Parader, 9th in the list of “Best Lead Singers of All Time” by Rolling Stone, and 12th in MTV’s “22 Greatest Voices in Music.”
According to Nielsen Music, across his entire catalog (Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple of the Dog and solo career), Cornell sold 14,865,000 albums, 8,808,000 digital downloads, and had 300,091,000 on-demand audio streams.
Admittedly Superunknown is the most accessible Soundgarden disc, but press play on Badmotorfinger to feel the full power of Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, and drummer Matt Cameron.
Cornell was a seeker and a story-teller, translating his experiences and mental anguish into a coiled fist of vocals, ready to punch to the face. His angry growl will be missed.