Article: Growing Up with Chris Cornell
Chris Cornell’s work has always been soaked in death. The first time I caught a glimpse of the guy, he was lurching around on a cloudy beach with Eddie Vedder in the video for Hunger Strike, the lead single off Temple of the Dog—a tribute album dedicated to the memory of Cornell’s friend and ex-roommate, Andrew Wood of the Seattle band Mother Love Bone. Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Temple of the Dog is essentially a Chris Cornell solo album with contributions from the bass and guitar players of what would become Pearl Jam, as well as trusty Soundgarden member, Matt Cameron on the drums. Only the first two songs are about Andrew, the rest of the album is Cornell showing off his versatility as a songwriter. It’s a solid record. It truly shows off his chops and displays the promise of what would become a brilliant career. It’s also forever associated with tragedy. It’s how many people of my generation first became acquainted with Chris Cornell.
I was having a conversation with a friend about my wild teenage years when she asked me how I was able to keep myself out of jail.
My answer was simply, “Soundgarden.”
They were my favorite band growing up. When I was twelve, I became obsessed with the song Outshined, off of 1991’s mighty Badmotorfinger. I rode my bike down to the record store and bought the album with money I had made mowing lawns. For weeks, I listened to nothing but that album. I couldn’t believe how good this music was. Every song had something unique to offer. Some of the lyrics seemed nonsensical, and some were so poignant, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I got to know every little riff, every little guitar part and drum fill. The inside jacket revealed a promo photo of the band. They looked like normal guys. They weren’t trying hard to look cool. I wanted to be like that.
I had already dabbled in heavy metal. The neighbor kids had older siblings. They would play me some Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer—bands like that. These were the cool bands to listen to. Tough kid bands. I liked the music at an instrumental level. The guitar work on any classic album by any one of those bands is going to be beautiful, you can count on that. The lyrics and vocals were a different story. The songwriting wasn’t particularly esoteric. The vocals always seemed as if they were being sung by a cartoon villain. I couldn’t get into it.
I didn’t know about grunge or what was happening in Seattle at the time. When I heard Soundgarden, I heard the holy grail—a smart, accessible heavy metal band. That spoke to me. They weren’t stupid or obnoxious. In their interviews, they always seemed quiet, reserved, a little aloof and mysterious. It was hard to get any information out of those guys, but it only served to create a mystique. Looking back, it’s clear now that they were uncomfortable with fame. As I crossed the threshold deeper into adolescence, I got more and more into the band. I bought up their entire back catalogue. Their songs became scripture in my life. They were tools that helped me cope with my tempestuous brain at such a volatile age.
I would go on hikes every weekend with my grandfather and a faithful copy of Louder Than Love, Ultramega OK, or Screaming Life/Fopp in my Discman. The mighty heavy metal wail of Chris Cornell’s voice blared out of my headphones over heavy, odd time sludgy riffs as we trudged over hills on sandy paths under tall pine trees. Kim Thayil’s Eastern-influenced, distortion-laden guitar riffs pounded in my skull at full volume as we traipsed through footpaths where ferns carpeted the forest floor. Ferns and of the smell of pine needles still come to mind when I think of songs like Little Joe or Hand of God. I wanted to be able to do what these guys were doing. I had to learn how to play guitar. I found an old twelve string acoustic in the shed in back of my house and set out on the arduous task of teaching myself how to play the damn thing.
MTV started making a big deal out of Nirvana. Pearl Jam soon became darlings as well. The word “grunge” was suddenly being tossed around a lot. Nobody liked that. Soundgarden was lumped in there, as were Alice in Chains. That didn’t make much sense. These bands were all pretty different. Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam were updated 1980s hard rock. Soundgarden was a metal band. It didn’t matter, they were all grunge now. They were from Seattle and Seattle was now a music genre. It all happened so fast. Before I knew it, other acts—lots of really good ones—started receiving mainstream airplay. I took the glut of great, accessible music for granted. It seemed as if it would never end. After all, how could it? When acts like Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Bjork, Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, even Danzig and Helmet, were seeing major audience growth, who would ever want to turn back from that? The 1980s were a dark time for mainstream rock. Why would anyone ever want to go back there?
Then came the spring of 1994. I had been hearing about Soundgarden’s new album, Superunkown, for months. They issued it on vinyl a few days before the CD release. I would go into the store and stare at the vinyl copy at it as it taunted me, studying the track list. Finally, the day came. I hurriedly unwrapped the cellophane of the CD packaging and crammed the thing into my Discman. I was thrilled straightaway when I was met with the heavy, brambling flourishes of the opening track, Let Me Drown. I knew immediately that this was an album I would be listening to for the rest of my life.
It was evident that great care had been put into the production of the record. They set out to record a breakout masterpiece and succeeded. It was glorious. You could hear it in the guitar layering, the polish of the songwriting, and the absolute precision of Chris Cornell’s voice. He made it sound easy, so natural, as if anyone could do it. It was a rare event if anyone could. There had been guys with that vocal style before, but never quite like this. It reminded me of David Coverdale from Deep Purple and Whitesnake, and of course there were the Robert Plant comparisons. Cornell took that influence, gave it more range, made it smarter and added some punk rock cool to it. It was musically formidable and it wasn’t your parents’ Zeppelin record. It took the rock n’ roll, guy-screaming-guitar-virtuoso-shreds formula, updated it and gave it some brains. I let myself latch an identity to it. Soundgarden was suddenly everywhere. The thrill of seeing my favorite band on TV was novel and exciting to me at the time. Those were my guys! Those guys were telling my story!
Kurt Cobain killed himself a month after Superunkown was released. Everything seemed to collapse in on itself after that. Any bands associated with Seattle became uncool overnight. Kurt’s death had expanded the audience so widely that it become completely engulfed by mainstream culture. I watched Soundgarden continue to grow more popular and more uncool among the other kids. You could always find a copy of Superunkown in your friend’s CD collection, but they never wanted to discuss it. I watched Soundgarden become a dirty word, especially as mainstream rock regressed into watered-down, paint by numbers alt-rock. The copy of a copy bands. Then pop music saw a big resurgence and guys started rapping in metal bands. The dream was over. I couldn’t identify with any of it. I didn’t know where I fit in anymore. I started my own band.
I traded in my old video game systems and their games for guitars and amplifiers. They weren’t particularly good guitars or amps. I had no idea what I was doing. I convinced my friend Josh to play drums in my band, which only consisted of him and I for the most part. Nobody wanted to be a part of that. We met in gym class, bonding over Soundgarden. We named our band Red Chris, as a joke, paying homage to Pink Floyd and Chris Cornell. We recorded ourselves playing in the shed in my backyard and sold the tapes at school to our friends. We were really bad, we couldn’t play. We knew that, but we didn’t really care. It kept me out of trouble. I had been dabbling in drugs and booze, hanging out with a delinquent crowd. I got into fights, watched kids get arrested, kids hit by cars. There was a future of trouble waiting for me. I put my energy into the band instead.
When Soundgarden released Down on the Upside in 1996, I was elated. I thought it was their best album. It was a departure from anything they had done before. After all, where else can you go after the wild mainstream success of an album like Superunkown? So they sprawled and experimented without sounding pretentious or unlistenable. It wasn’t stagnant. The songs were heartfelt and interesting. There were radio songs on there, but weird psychedelic-tinged punk and stoner metal also graced its halls. The influence of the Stooges was evident to me. Ben Shepherd, the bassist, finally spread his wings on that record, having written a large share of it.
I got the news that my favorite band broke up as I was leaving school one day. Josh pulled me aside as I was getting on the bus. He looked at me wide-eyed, “Soundgarden broke up.” That was all he said. I didn’t know how he found that out. I nodded in a state of disbelief. “Oh, really?” was just about all I could muster. I sat on the bus ride home in a daze. I lost my virginity later that day to a girl whose name I can’t remember. Some girl in foster care at the time. She was gone a week or two later. Life is transitory in nature. I learned that lesson long before all this happened. Still, I felt at a loss—abandoned in some way.
Josh and I broke up Red Chris soon after. I turned to punk rock. I went to shows, played in some bands and hung out with other kids more in line with that ethos. I identified with punk. There were lots of really smart people in that scene. I was blown away by the talent of the kids in the bands. It gave me the feeling that anything was possible, and it was fast, really fast. I loved that. Throughout all my punk years, I never let Soundgarden go. They were always the world’s greatest band, no matter how uncool they had become. By this time, being a Soundgarden fan was about as cool at being a Genesis fan in 1983. I dared not utter their name in the punk rock crowd.
Still, that band was always in my life. One summer morning, I rode forty miles on my bike out on the Massachusetts back roads with Josh. When we would stop somewhere to rest or swim, Soundgarden blared out of my portable speakers. When I made mixtapes for girls I was dating, Soundgarden was always on there. When I got my driver’s license and started cruising around, I was listening to Soundgarden most of the time. When I was learning how to play bass and guitar, I was really trying to learn Soundgarden songs. When I got my heart broken or felt betrayed, when I failed and when I was feeling lost, I would always reach for a Soundgarden record as medicine.
A couple people who were close to me died a few months apart from one another during a terrible year in my life. Chris Cornell released his solo album, Euphoria Mourning, in the midst of that time period. I clung to that record for dear life. Like so much of his work, it dealt in death and mourning, losing friends. I saw him perform in support of that record at a tiny club called Lupo’s in Providence, Rhode Island. This was the first time I’d ever got an inkling that there were some demons he was battling. He toured with Alain Johannes and Natasha Schneider of the criminally unknown LA band, Eleven. They picked up most of the musical slack. Chris wafted around on stage, almost in a daze. I’d seen him play with Soundgarden before. Watching him on stage those days was like witnessing Zeus rain down thunder from the heavens. There was nothing to do but stand in awe, jaw to the floor. This was different. He was like a ghost, thin and aloof with an ear piece just visible under his black hair. It didn’t matter much to me at the time. The sheer rush of being a mere ten feet away from my hero was enough.
Chris went on to join Audioslave and I lost interest in his musical career. Gone were his songwriting chops. Gone was that aura of cool he exerted. In its place was something that appeared to be an aging record exec’s wet dream. The music was bland, yet saleable. Promo photos of him at the time had him adopting a new Eurotrash-inspired look—distressed jeans, big sunglasses, frosted highlights. I read interviews where he stated that he was in recovery. It all made sense. I saw what rough shape he had been in during that the solo tour. I was glad he got help. I recalled an old Soundgarden bootleg where he was joking to the audience about killing himself. It made me wonder, but I chalked it up to him just fucking around and being dark. It makes me wonder even more now.
On the night Cornell died, Josh sent me a text telling me news. It woke me up. I couldn’t get back to sleep. My Facebook feed began to fill up with tributes to him. My eyes grew damp as I scrolled through old photos of the guy in all stages of his career—the young, long haired Seattle metalhead, the ‘90s alternative icon, the awkward, metrosexualized Audioslave days, and finally, the dignified aging rockstar. We’ve grown so numb to watching our heroes die. I was surprised by my lack of surprise. I went to the gym, came home and then I wept. I wept for hours. I bawled my eyes out. It was like I being hit by a bus. It was like losing a friend.
I have no idea why he killed himself. I’m not going to pretend I do. I’ve read a lot of think pieces recently trying to push whatever issue they’re horny for—depression, addiction, fame. But they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re only pandering. It may have been depression. It may have been a side effect of his medication. It may have been a combination of both or something we know absolutely nothing about. I’ve taken scary drugs in my younger days. The thought of hanging myself had come to mind a few times. I could see that kind of thing happening. Still, at the time I’m writing this, nobody knows. Nobody knows what they’re talking about.
Soundgarden’s music aged gracefully and never felt dated. When they reunited and put out a new album, they picked up where they left off. It’s one of the best late career albums in the annals of rock history. While some of their records are better than others, they never cut a bad one. Time will be kind to Soundgarden. The only silver lining I’m finding in Chris Cornell’s death is that it will finally give his work with Soundgarden the attention and reverence it deserves. It’s incredible music. It deserves to be given a harder look. It deserves to be taken seriously. They weren’t just some ‘90s grunge band. They weren’t some band who was third tier down from Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They were motherfucking Soundgarden. Let me say that again, they were motherfucking Soundgarden. They had motherfucking Chris Cornell on the vocals, I mean have you heard that stuff? It’s unbelievable. That’s all I can cling onto now, the hope that people will actually go and listen to that music, the hope that new people will discover it and let it grab a hold of their hearts the way it did mine. So much thought and care has been put into those records. So put a Soundgarden record on, any one of them, really. Turn the volume up and rock that thing. Do it regularly, in remembrance of the man and this great gift he gave to the world.
Thank you, Chris Cornell.
I put together this Spotify playlist of what I feel are the fifty best studio recordings Chris ever did. Crank it.