“I never wanted to write these words down for you.” – “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” Temple Of The Dog
As with any shocking death, it still doesn’t feel real.
Singer and songwriter Chris Cornell was found dead in his hotel room following a Soundgarden performance in Detroit last week. He hanged himself. It was possibly related to an overdose of Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication which can impair judgement and cause suicidal thoughts. He leaves behind a wife and two kids. I can’t even imagine their devastation.
Cornell inarguably possessed one of the greatest voices ever in rock music. I won’t waste time convincing you of that and I’ll let the music he created speak for itself momentarily.
I had the privilege of seeing Cornell perform many times at various points in his career as a member of Audioslave, Soundgarden, and Temple Of The Dog as well as a solo performer in electric and acoustic settings.
I first saw Audioslave shortly after their debut in 2003 when they toured as one of the headliners of Lollapalooza. This was the first Lollapalooza since 1997 and the last time it was a touring festival, having since been permanently anchored in Chicago and a few locations abroad.
Audioslave was the penultimate band in the lineup, only followed by Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell‘s band, and a personal favorite of mine, Jane’s Addiction. Cornell came out belting his voice over an exceptionally thunderous band.
Audioslave was formed from the ashes of Rage Against The Machine and rumors had swirled that Cornell was singing with the band in the early 2000’s but it seemed as though the project would never come to fruition and no one would ever hear what the group created. Eventually, the issues behind the scenes were sorted out and they made their live debut atop the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in late 2002. They were added to the Lollapalooza festival and with that I first saw Cornell live. It was one of the few times that I have seen another band upstaged as the venue emptied once Jane’s Addiction took the stage. I was disappointed by that because of my love for Jane’s, but could tell that, as far as that evening was concerned, Audioslave had delivered a superior performance.
I neglected to see Audioslave again when they toured behind their second, less thrilling sophomore release, Out of Exile, only to be disappointed that the band had reneged on their declaration not to play Soundgarden or Rage Against The Machine tunes. Audioslave came to an abrupt end with the release of their third album, Revelations, and Cornell embarked on additional solo material.
I saw Cornell again after the release of his second solo album, Carry On, in Boston. The band was tight and they performed many songs not only Cornell’s solo material but drew heavily drew from Soundgarden and Audioslave’s catalog.
Then, taking a cue from his close friend Eddie Vedder, Cornell began to turn to acoustic performances accompanied by only an acoustic guitar (and for one beautiful track, “When I’m Down,” a vinyl recording). Again, he drew from his entire career and started incorporating several covers of musicians that clearly influenced him, including The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. I saw him at a small theater in CT with my girlfriend (now wife) and my mom.
Around the same time, Soundgarden had reunited.
While I appreciate much of Cornell’s material, it’s really Soundgarden that I love more than anything else he’s done. Soundgarden was unlike anything else on the alternative rock scene. While they found commercial success, they frequently wrote songs that featured odd tunings and strange time signatures. They typically had more in common with the metal genre than any of their contemporaries in the grunge scene. They were a loud and brutally awesome live band and, for the love of all that is holy, please don’t listen to their sole live release, Live On I-5. It was recorded during their Down On The Upside tour and is clearly a band that was a mess, on the verge of breaking up, and displaying few signs of the passion or musicianship that legitimately defines them. It’s a subpar example of their prowess as a live band and I don’t even know why it exists. I assume fulfillment of a contractual obligation is to blame.
I finally had a chance to see Soundgarden in Newark, NJ. Not sure why I went to that one, there must have been closer performances, but I think it was one of the best of that tour. The set and their performance was flawless. I went with a good friend of mine, we had floor tickets, and aside from wondering why Matt Cameron’s drums were not on a riser, we left there with no complaints and half-jokingly agreed to never see Soundgarden live again, for fear it might tarnish our perfect experience.
Cornell also sang for another band, Temple Of The Dog. Formed from members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, they recorded one album that paid tribute to a fallen icon of the Seattle music scene, Andrew Wood. Cornell and Wood had been friends and roommates. Wood’s friends and fellow musicians honored him with an album and finally, after a 25-year wait, a brief tour in 2016. I was fortunate to get tickets to their New York City show and never for a second did I think it would be the last time I’d see Cornell perform.
I don’t know what else to say except that I’m glad to have Cornell’s music and voice in my life and to have been able to see those various incarnations of him as a performer with different musicians along the way.
There is certainly no way to properly pay homage to a prolific career, but these are some highlights for me that deserve your ear, now more than ever:
With all the strings tuned to E and buried amongst some bigger and louder tracks in what I believe is Soundgarden’s best album, BADMOTORFINGER, “Mind Riot” exemplifies the experimental songwriting and dark poetry of Cornell:
Audioslave’s first album was their best and, given how high the expectations were, it delivered so well that I think it makes up for the rest of the mediocre things they did afterwards. With a rattling drop-B tuning, here’s “Bring ‘Em Back Alive”:
Accompanied by a piano and an electric guitar that harkens to The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling,” this is “When I’m Down” from Cornell’s solo debut, EUPHORIA MORNING (later retitled to EUPHORIA MOURNING upon it’s recent re-release):
“Preaching The End Of The World” is another track from EUPHORIA MORNING. Dark, brooding, and beautiful, it’s an ode to finding love and solace with another in the seemingly endless sadness and conflict that engulfs the planet:
One of the best theme songs combined with one of the best opening credit sequences in a solid Bond film and with that we have “You Know My Name”:
Appearing alongside “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell On Black Days,” and “My Wave” on the magnificent SUPERUNKNOWN lies the unsettled currents of “Limo Wreck”:
In light of things perhaps it’s insensitive to include, but “Like Suicide” perfectly illustrates the hypnotic pace that Cornell could set, even when tackling uncomfortable material, drawing you into unsettling proximity with those things we’d rather ignore. This is the acoustic version:
It’s unbelievable how well Cornell could write melodies that could fit the quick changes and general insanity that tends to define a lot of Soundgarden tracks. And for a guy who didn’t need a lot of polish on the vocals, the reverb on his voice in parts of “Rhinosaur” sound especially sweet:
While “Seasons” on the SINGLES soundtrack found itself included regularly in Cornell’s solo sets and even in the Temple Of The Dog tour, I always felt that “Sunshower” was an undeservedly ignored track. It conveys the bittersweet, one feeling that Cornell shared best with his lyrics and voice:
While I try to feature songs here that most listeners may miss, I can’t omit Temple Of The Dog’s “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” It’s a heartfelt homage:
Chris Cornell could sing anything and I’d always listen. Here’s an unexpected “Ave Maria”:
I couldn’t leave “Slaves & Bulldozers” off the list: