TO SPEND TIME TALKING to Chris Cornell about music was to enjoy a conversation with a man whose passions ran deep and whose awareness and enthusiasm reflected his own desire to push himself further in his own endeavours.
Seattle-born Cornell’s formative musical experience began at the age of nine when he reportedly discovered a cache of Beatles albums in the basement of an abandoned house. Graduating to punk rock in his teenage years, he emerged as a drummer and “played in several awful bands” before forming Soundgarden with guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto in 1984, eventually assuming the role of frontman.
It was Soundgarden who introduced local DJ Jonathan Poneman to their friend Bruce Pavitt. The pair launched the Sub Pop label and duly signed the band, releasing their debut EP, Screaming Life, in 1987, thereby fertilising the scene that, two years later, would wage war against MTV-friendly hair metal under the media-invented banner of grunge.
“Soundgarden just started with three guys that wanted to write the songs and make the music that we wanted to hear,” remembered Cornell, years later. “But we worried about a lot of things all the time. First of all, we were anxious about putting a record out. Then, after Screaming Life came out, I was worried that no one would like what we did and that I’d never be able to release another record as long as I lived!”
Describing himself as “awkward-in-public”, Cornell became “absurdly extrovert” as he grew used to performing. And yet, initially, it was not something that he warmed to. “I struggled hard to find out who I was onstage,” he told me during one of our encounters. However, despite his insecurities, Cornell soon fashioned his own distinct image, emerging as the Seattle scene’s unlikely, long-haired poster boy.
“I actually grew my hair long because of a picture of Henry Rollins that I saw in Options magazine,” he admitted. “A punk rock guy with long hair, I thought no one had done that for a while.”
“I was trying to reach out and grab something that I could really call mine.”
In his music, Cornell developed a distinctive, rich melodic style and a way with words that in places was almost impressionistic, all delivered with his remarkable vocal range. “I was trying to reach out and grab something that I could really call mine,” he recalled. “That’s what kept me working in my basement on songs day after day.”
Armed with a DIY work ethic, Soundgarden were smart enough to negotiate their own record deals, first with Sub Pop, then SST (who released 1988’s recently reissued Ultramega OK album), before the major labels came calling and the band signed to A&M in ’89. During the next seven years Soundgarden – alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam – would help define the grunge aesthetic and drag it into the mainstream via four albums: Louder Than Love (1989), the landmark three-million selling Badmotorfinger (1991), the crowning US Number 1 album, Superunknown (1994, seven million copies sold), and Down On The Upside (1996). The latter shifted 200,000 copies in its first week and confirmed the band’s superstar status. Tensions, however, saw them split a year later, as they struggled to deal with the mantle of fame.
“The punk rock guilt thing affected every Seattle band pretty dramatically,” Cornell told me in 2007. “But it’s hard to complain about success while you’re doing everything that you’re supposed to do to have it. Kurt [Cobain] wore a shirt that said Corporate Magazines Still Suck on the cover of Rolling Stone… but guess what? He still showed up for the photo shoot to be on the cover of the magazine.
“The punk rock guilt thing affected every Seattle band dramatically.”
“Soundgarden was a band that didn’t feel comfortable dealing with things like that,” he continued. “In 1990 and 1991, we were suddenly in a world of major labels where they didn’t know what to do with us. They put us in magazines where at the end of the Soundgarden piece it would say: ‘Now turn the page whatever to get fashion tips from Poison’s Bret Michaels…’ So we had to go through this whole existential dilemma about whether that made me Bret Michaels.”
Following Soundgarden’s collapse, Cornell embarked on a solo career, releasing his solo debut, Euphoria Morning, in 1999, which featured Wave Goodbye, a touching tribute to his friend Jeff Buckley.
From 2001 onwards, Cornell also fronted Audioslave, the hard rock outfit starring former Rage Against The Machine members Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford. During that time, the singer also battled with addiction and alcohol dependency, checking himself into rehab as the band prepared to release their debut album, taking a day pass to shoot the video for lead-off single Cochise.
“I was the quintessential pitiful rock star,” he admitted candidly in 2007. “Sleeping in this little cot with all these other people that are all wealthy in rehab. They came and got me, put me in a van and they had a certain amount of time to get me to the shoot and then get me back. They put me with a guy to make sure that no one gave me anything. While I’m driving to the shoot someone was doing my hair and make-up. When I get there it’s a video with a budget of $850,000. The shoot’s over, I’m back in the van, the gate opens, they kick me out of the van and I’m back in rehab. The only difference was that I was the only one awake at that point going, ‘What happened?’ Rehab was never part of the rock culture before. All you had to do was die. Now you have to go to rehab or you’re not a real rock star.”
Honest enough to discuss his travails openly, Cornell would record two more albums with Audioslave prior to the band’s split in 2007. Meanwhile, he collaborated with composer David Arnold on You Know My Name, the Grammy-nominated theme to Casino Royale, the first James Bond film to star Daniel Craig.
“What I look forward to the most… is the camaraderie.”
Chris Cornell on Soundgarden
In 2006, newly stable, Cornell bought a second home in Paris with his second wife, Vicky, and opened a club-cum-restaurant in the French Capital called Black Calvados. His second solo album, the mature Carry On, emerged in the summer of 2007 and featured a startling cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Less well received was Cornell’s 2009 collaboration with hip-hop producer Timbaland which yielded Scream – an album that reflected the singer’s love of R&B, particularly his affection for Prince, whom he would eulogise in MOJO following the Minneapolitan maverick’s passing in 2016.
In the last decade Cornell had managed to enjoy a career that encompassed (from 2010) a return to Soundgarden, the resurrection of “grunge supergroup” Temple Of The Dog, and, earlier this year, a one-off performance with Audioslave, as well as continuing a successful solo career which yielded 2015’s questing effort, Higher Truth.
As they prepared a new album, Soundgarden embarked on a US tour on April 28. “What I look forward to the most… is the camaraderie. It’s what we missed when we weren’t a band,” wrote Cornell on Twitter on Monday May 16. On Tuesday night Chris and his bandmates – Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron – played the Fox Theatre in Detroit in what would tragically prove to be his last show…
At the time of writing – and, as we extend our condolences to Kim, Ben and Matt, and to Vicky, Toni, Christopher and the entire Cornell family – the news of Chris’s passing still seems utterly incomprehensible. To those of us who had the pleasure of his company, he was a gentlemanly, charismatic presence armed with a self-deprecating sense of humour, and a keen sense of observation. A rare individual.
PHOTO: SUB POP