I WAS NOT AROUND for Seattle’s famous grunge rock phase in the 1990s. Sure, I was alive and on Earth during that time, but I was too young and sheltered to have any concept about the music or what was going on. As it was, I didn’t seriously start to discover music for myself until junior high in 1999. The Seattle grunge wave had petered out by then, so everything I experienced was secondhand and after the fact.
At the time, radio was one of the only ways to learn about music, especially for someone not living in a big city. There was no YouTube. No social media. No music streaming. There was radio, MTV, friends, record stores and magazines. That was about it. The one local rock station always kept a heavy dose of Seattle rock in rotation. Soundgarden was one of its staples.
I remember being annoyed by how often “Black Hole Sun” would play, but it didn’t take long until I fell in love. And that voice. That voice was simply not of this world. The four-octave range that never lost power, no matter how soft or loud, with melodies and flickers of weirdness that always kept the listener hypnotized. From a pure talent level, Chris Cornell and Jeff Buckley were arguably the most versatile male vocalists to come out of their era. Cornell’s grave marker reads, “Voice of our generation and an artist for all time.” He would be a constant in my life from that point on.
AUDIOSLAVE DEBUTED IN 2002 with high expectations in the middle of my high school tenure and I ate it up. As a huge Rage Against the Machine fan, they were one of the few supergroups that I thought justified the billing, and Cornell became one of the rare breeds who saw rock stardom with two different groups. Audioslave developed into a popular punch line in the years after their breakup in 2007, yet I will defend their music until the day I die. Over time I got deeper into Temple of the Dog and Cornell’s solo material, which never was a big hit commercially, although he was the first American to sing a James Bond theme. I enjoyed everything except for his Scream collaboration with Timbaland, naturally, and was always excited to hear his latest projects.
I saw Cornell perform three times. The first was with his solo band in 2008 on Linkin Park’s Projekt Revolution Tour. The other two were with Soundgarden, in 2011 on their big national reunion tour and again in 2014 with Nine Inch Nails. They were all fine shows from what I recall but the last stuck out the most, as fierce as any rock band half their age. Cornell might not have been able to hit every note perfectly 100 percent of the time anymore, probably due to what he had put his body through over the years as much as age, but he surely hit more than he missed. Soundgarden remained a live band in their musical prime until the end.
The other memory I have of the singer was at Linkin Park’s rehearsal space in 2008. He was supposed to do a duet of “Hunger Strike” with Chester Bennington as part of the tour announcement, which for whatever reason was scrapped, so he was left standing at the back of the room. At 6-foot-2, he towered over everyone nearby, even though in my mind’s eye he was only wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans that day. There was an air about him, like you were in the presence of royalty, and it’s an image that’s always stuck.
In the days since Cornell’s passing, I keep returning to that Seattle music scene, as I have often done in my adult life, and its Big Four—Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Much of my musical Bible stems from those bands and their legacies, whether directly or from the artists they influenced. The four combined have sold nearly 200 million albums worldwide. My story isn’t unique in this regard, but their impact is easy to take for granted.
I’VE PERSONALLY NEVER BATTLED against depression but for whatever reason have always been attracted to angst in music. Maybe because it resonates more genuinely than singing about girls or being happy, I don’t know, but few have been more true-to-life in their presentation. The guitars and lyrics both were relentlessly messy, unafraid to plumb the depths of the lowest of lows, while all four frontmen could pierce to your very core when they sang. It probably makes me sound old, but music like that just isn’t made anymore.
Cornell suffered from depression and substance abuse problems since his early teens, although reportedly had been clean in the decade leading up to his death. It was a core component in his music, even if he appeared more comfortable in the limelight than the other Big Four frontmen, and a subject he freely talked about in interviews. “I’ve always liked depressing music because a lot of times listening to it when you’re down can actually make you feel less depressed,” he told Guitar.com in 1999. “You can actually be kind of comfortable in that space because you know how to operate within it.
“The problem is, no one really knows what run-of-the-mill depression is. You’ll think somebody has run-of-the-mill depression, and then the next thing you know, they’re hanging from a rope. It’s hard to tell the difference. But I do feel that depression can be useful. Sometimes it’s just chemical. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. And whenever I’ve been in any kind of depression, I’ve over the years tried to not only imagine what it feels like to not be there, but try to remind myself that I could just wake up the next day and it could be gone because that happens, and not to worry about it.
“And at the same time, when I’m feeling great, I remember the depression and think about the differences in what I’m feeling and why I would feel that way, and not be reactionary one way or the other. You just have to realize that these are patterns of life and you just go through them.”
Following Soundgarden’s reforming in 2010, Cornell seemed the most at peace he’d been in his professional life, at least on the outside. Alcohol was notably absent in the band now, and the cloud that remained a part of him and written about was no longer seen as in control. He focused on raising his three kids and started a foundation with his wife that worked with homeless and abused children. He and close friend Eddie Vedder were aging gracefully as elder rock statesmen, which for Vedder included things like partying with the Cubs after winning the World Series. Cornell’s last song was “The Promise,” written for the film of the same name set during the Armenian genocide, with all proceeds donated to the International Rescue Committee.
Soundgarden was the eponymous Seattle band, a city that’s occupied a place in my heart since I visited on a family vacation in 1994. Unlike Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden was bred in Seattle proper. Cornell was born in Seattle. He went to elementary and high school in Seattle. He lived most of his life in Seattle, although in recent years split his time between homes in New York and Florida. The band even derived their name from Seattle’s Sound Garden public art park and wrote songs like “Spoonman,” about a street performer in Pike Place Market.
They were also survivors, almost like overcoming death was built into Soundgarden’s DNA. Temple of the Dog was famously started as a tribute to Cornell’s roommate Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Other close friends of the band, including Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and Jeff Buckley, would meet untimely ends as well. The Seattle Times called Soundgarden “the dark knight of the grunge-music scene” in their eulogy to Cornell, and it’s a fitting ode to how resiliency kept them going. It makes the circumstances surrounding his death all the more shocking.
There are conflicting accounts over what Soundgarden’s final show felt like, but the details from the police report and the last conversation with his wife paint a grim picture. We’ll never know what was going on in Cornell’s head in those moments or how intentional his last act was. The toxicology will provide some insight if Ativan or another drug may have factored, but ultimately, as is often the case with the loss of life, we’re left with more questions than answers.
EVEN BEFORE THE ‘90s, Seattle was marked by death and what ifs. The city’s most famous export, Jimi Hendrix, died at the age of 27 at the height of his career in 1970, no stranger to his own set of skeletons and abuse problems. It often reached the point that when discussing the city, tragedy came first, followed by the bastardized commercialization the Seattle scene spawned. The actual music was almost a postscript.
For the current generation, though, it felt like things were in the process of turning back around. Sobering reminders persisted, like the potent documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, but it seemed like we were beginning to evaluate and appreciate the music again on its own terms. After what has happened with Cornell, making three of the Big Four ending in suicide, that hope has all but assuredly evaporated.
It’s sad, too, because Cornell was still relatively young at 52. Obviously, your sympathy goes out to the family and friends he left behind. The goodbye letter his wife wrote will break your heart. Descriptions of his memorial service, like how Temple of the Dog’s “All Night Thing” played during the procession, are also sobering reads. But I selfishly was most looking forward to future music.
I was greatly anticipating the next Soundgarden album he was in the middle of making, convinced comeback King Animal had only stoked the coals for things to come. Audioslave took the stage for the first time this decade in January and I was optimistic a reunion was imminent in the coming years. His last solo album, 2015’s Higher Truth, didn’t get the credit it deserved, and I was excited about the directions he was pursuing there. Instead all we’re left with is unfinished music sitting on hard drives and old interviews, online posts and lyrics to pour over in the fractured light.
I’ve always been able to keep art and real life relatively separate on that front. When a popular musician dies, like David Bowie or Prince or Scott Weiland or Leonard Cohen, I’m not one to go back and decontextualize the music. But I also feel like I have more of a relationship to Cornell than I do to most artists, and it’s left me thinking more than any celebrity’s death has since Philip Seymour Hoffman three years ago. It’s all a very odd thing to talk about, because it’s not like I know any of these people personally, whether my view of his legacy will change over time or the grunge curse will be mythologized further. Either way, songs like “Pretty Noose” and “Like Suicide” carry more sinister undertones now.
Eerily, the Tampa Bay Times asked him about this exact subject last year. “What ends up happening with musicians and actors is, they’re famous, so when somebody has an issue, it’s something that gets talked about,” he said. “People die of drug overdoses every day that nobody talks about. It’s a shame that famous people get all the focus, because it then gets glorified a little bit, like, ‘This person was too sensitive for the world,’ and, ‘A light twice as bright lives half as long,’ and all that. Which is all bullshit. It’s not true.”
ON THE AFTERNOON CORNELL DIED, I threw together a quick tribute mix and played it over the loudspeakers at work. Two hours later I was having a 20-minute conversation with an elderly lady who was moved by the gesture. She walked with a cane. I likely have little in common with her, and she with me. Under ordinary circumstances, we would have exchanged simple pleasantries and nothing else. But we ended up talking about the impact this one man from Seattle has had on our lives. It was a conversation I will never forget.
She had seen Soundgarden once in the ‘90s and regretfully had been unable to attend any of their recent tours. I regretted never seeing him with Audioslave or a solo acoustic show. She said she didn’t know anyone around her anymore that shared a love for this style of music, and we bonded over our memories and experiences. She hadn’t yet heard the details of how he passed, so I had to break the news he had hanged himself. She nearly broke down in the middle of the aisle.
It was an emotional reminder that music has power. It’s a phrase that gets casually tossed around all the time, “the power of music,” but it is real. Chris Cornell might no longer be here, but his music still has the ability to bring two people with a 40-year-age gap together and forge a connection. Seattle and Soundgarden and Cornell will always be stained by tragedy and sadness, but let us never lose that beauty.
Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist