At first it didn’t hit me why Chris Cornell’s name was one of the headlines in this morning’s New York Times Morning Briefing email. “Why is he listed, did he say something about Trump?” was my first thought. I just did not expect his name to be listed because the news was just breaking that he died overnight.
You can break down the 1990s Seattle bands a lot of ways. Nirvana had the biggest cultural impact, and Kurt Kobain’s suicide was a massive moment in our generation’s coming of age. Pearl Jam was the biggest, and always my favorite. Alice In Chains had the one big album, but never matched the other two bands’ success. And then Soundgarden was always kind of on their own. They were around, and known, long before the 1991 grunge explosion. Sure, they were from Seattle, but they had their own sound more rooted in heavy, dark metal than in either traditional alternative or classic rock.
No matter which band you liked the best, I don’t think there was ever any denying the Chris Cornell was the most rock ’n roll of all the lead singers of that era. He was striking in every way. His hair was somehow both metal and so pretty many women would have killed to have it. His voice was like no other, both in how he could hit those high, screaming notes and in its normal register. He could sing every kind of rock song you threw at him.
He also seemed the coolest of all the Seattle rockers. Kurt was only cool if you, too, were an outcast who enjoyed sarcastically cutting others down. Eddie Vedder was pretty damn cool, but it was understandable that some people grew weary of his anti-rock star persona. Lane Staley was cool if you were really into heroin, but otherwise scary to us mainstream kids.
Chris, though, just seemed loaded with rock star charisma and carried himself, publicly at least, in a manner that suggested he was totally comfortable with who he was and how his life turned out. There was no bigger cheerleader for the Seattle scene than him. I found it kind of amazing that he constantly helped and promoted Pearl Jam, and as that band moved into its third decade, no one spoke better of them than Cornell. He could have easily been jealous of their success, or undercut the band. Instead he seemed to take as much, if not more, pride in their success as Eddie and the rest of the band did. I always thought that showed great maturity and self confidence.
I’ve shared my “famous” Soundgarden story before, but here it is again: in the fall of 1989, my freshman year of college, I went to Streetside records in Lawrence, KS with a couple friends to go buy some music. Given the year, I was likely buying some poppy garbage I would be embarrassed to listen to today. When we walked in, there was a table set up and four long-haired dudes sitting there. They greeted us as friendly and warmly as you could possible greet some dumbass kids you’ve never met before. We totally blew them off. But the name of the band, which was taped to their table, stuck with me. And a couple years later, when Badmotorfinger started gaining traction on radio and MTV, I realized it was Soundgarden who I had breezed by and dismissed as heavy metal losers. It wasn’t too much later when I bought the first Pearl Jam album, I was soon listening to nothing but alt rock, and in the summer of 1994, like just about everyone else, I was blasting Superunkown.
Early indications are that Cornell’s death may have been suicide. His death is awful regardless of cause, but that makes it even worse for those around him who loved him.
In his memory, some Chris songs.
“Outshined” – You can argue a lot about the ultimate Soundgarden song. This is my nominee, so huge and undeniable that even folks who didn’t like their music dug this one.
“Superunknown” – This album was a clear move toward the middle. But the band did not leave their traditional heaviness behind. This song just beats up in the head for five delicious minutes.
“Seasons” – From the Singles soundtrack, I know most people had the same reaction when they first heard this: That’s the lead singer from Soundgarden?!?!?
“Hunger Strike” – Temple of the Dog. Written in tribute to Cornell’s former roommate, the late Andrew Wood, and recorded with two guys from Wood’s old band, Mother Love Bone. Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament brought along the guitar player from their new band, Mike McCready, and their brand-new lead singer, Eddie Vedder. It was recorded and released at the exact perfect moment. Now it is legendary.