Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell’s death last night came as a shock, as untimely deaths do. It wasn’t just because he had just performed a sold-out show in Detroit, or because early reports had it being investigated as a suicide, which an autopsy confirmed. It was the age more than anything; at just 52, we simply weren’t prepared. Rock and roll will never die, but those who perform it generally seem to either die young (Kurt Cobain), die old (Chuck Berry) or never die at all (Keith Richards). Middle age seemed safe—once you made it to 50 you were, for all practical purposes, an immortal. Then we lost Prince. And now, another.
Chris Cornell and his band were in the first wave of “grunge” bands that swept aside glam metal and other lesser forms of music in the early ‘90s, but they were the band who owed the most to the bands they were usurping. Cornell, with his long hair and soaring range, was a classic rock frontman in the Robert Plant mode, right down to his propensity for forgetting to wear shirts. Soundgarden at their best mined Sabbath riffs and Led Zeppelin guitar wizardry, melding the low-end grind of ‘70s proto-metal and the urgency of ‘80s punk into something else entirely. Even 26 years later, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, their major-label debut, remains an intensely powerful record.
While history will draw a clear line of demarcation between the rise of alternative and the decline of dinosaur metal, reality was not so simple. In the summer of 1991, Soundgarden opened for Guns N’ Roses, on the latter’s Use Your Illusion tour, when they were hitting the peak of their popularity. Sold-out arenas received Soundgarden politely enough but crowds there to see Axl and company were not particularly well-versed in the Seattle band’s deep cuts, or prepared for their minimalistic version of showmanship. And while the band was specifically selected for the slot by GN’R, the lead single from Badmotorfinger, “Jesus Christ Pose,” featured lyrics of “Arms held out, in your Jesus Christ pose/Thorns and shroud/Like it's the coming of the Lord” which could have easily applied to G N’ R’s enigmatic frontman. When Soundgarden’s set was over, guitarist Kim Thayil coaxed screeching feedback out of his guitar before setting in its stand, leaving it to shriek as they all left the stage. Guns N’ Roses, those prima donnas, didn’t go on for hours, and Thayil’s guitar echoed through the arena until it was drowned out by cheers when women in the audience began exposing themselves on the Jumbotron. Ah, ’90s rock shows.
As the other Seattle bands (outside of Pearl Jam) collapsed under their own weight, whether due to drugs, infighting, or changing tastes—or some combination of the three—Soundgarden thrived and evolved. They released Superunknown in 1994, shedding the grunge label they likely never deserved in the first place, and expanded and polished their sound to arena-headlining levels. But 1996’s Down on the Upside would be their last release before they re-formed in 2011.
Seattle born and raised, Cornell flew the flannel flag proudly. Soundgarden formed in 1984, their first recordings appeared on seminal compilation Deep Six, they signed to Sub Pop, the Seattle indie label. They were also the first major Seattle band to sign with a major label, A&M, when they left Sub Pop in 1988. Cornell had a short but brilliant cameo in Cameron Crowe’s 1991 movie Singles—as much a showcase for Seattle’s music and the city as any of the actors—and contributed two songs to the soundtrack, one with Soundgarden and the other a solo track. He also co-fronted, along with soon-to-be Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Temple of the Dog, a group formed from the remnants of Seattle rock pioneers Mother Love Bone in tribute to their vocalist Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. He was 24.
With Soundgarden over, Cornell released solo projects—including one with Timbaland in 2009—and fronted supergroup Audioslave with former members of Rage Against the Machine. Soundgarden re-formed in 2010, releasing the live album Live on I-5 in 2011and King Animal, their first studio album in 16 years, in 2012.
Cornell reportedly suffered from severe depression as a teen, and maybe it was something he never quite got over. He struggled with drugs as a teenager, then again after Soundgarden broke up, to the point where he reportedly entered rehab. The darkness in his life was reflected in his songs. Superunknown featured both “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell on Black Days,” which opens with the lines “Whatsoever I've feared has come to life/Whatsoever I've fought off became my life.” The album ends with a hauntingly echoing track called “Like Suicide.” But there were bright moments in his lyrics too. And while Soundgarden never received the mainstream idolatry of Pearl Jam or Nirvana—both of whom were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility—and broke up the first time due to creative differences, Cornell never seemed to suffer for his art the way Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley or Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland did. Cornell appeared, from the distant vantage of a fan anyway, content.
But we can never really know. Which is why his death, his suicide, hits so hard. It seemed, again, from the outside, that he’d fought his demons and won. Soundgarden reformed was not the Soundgarden of old—outside of Cornell, Thayil was the only original member remaining—and the movement they helped spearhead never fully ousted the previous generation. The dinosaurs never went extinct. But as recently as last night Soundgarden proved they could still tear down a venue, could still move a sold-out crowd. Grunge was dead, but Soundgarden was very much gloriously alive. That was yesterday. Today is a little bit quieter.