Chris Cornell: the Greek god of grunge who blazed his own path
‘You don’t know how important someone is to you as an artistic influence until suddenly they’re gone’
The Chris Cornell I like to remember appears in the 1992 Seattle-set movie Singles. Just as Bridget Fonda’s aloof rocker boyfriend (played by Matt Dillon) cranks up the speakers he’s added to her modest car, the singer – who died on Wednesday night, aged 52 – materialises from a neighbouring apartment complex to hear the hard-as-hell grunge jam.
His hair is long and wavy. His scruffy outfit encapsulates the Seattle scene’s dirtbag sense of style. Cornell looks anything but one of rock’s greatest ever frontmen, but that he most certainly was.
Later, we see Cornell on stage, performing Soundgarden’s pummeling track Birth Ritual. Wearing just a pair of three-quarter lengths now, he punishes the mic stand by beating it across his knee before prowling the stage with the cool strut of a lynx. Like all great lead singers, Cornell’s stage presence felt almost spiritual. He was like a Greek god of grunge. More rock mythos than man – but with a taste for the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Cameron Crowe’s indie classic captured the height of the Seattle scene, as listless Generation Xers started a polyester plaid revolution and turned the US city into the musical centre of the world. The raw dynamism Cornell made him one of its most iconic figures.
In a DIY counterculture that played like a smack down to gaudy 1980s hair metal, expensively produced electro pop, and Gordon Gecko’s visions of a desolate capitalist regime, Cornell, with his long hair, bare torso and superhuman vocal cords, resembled a divine being. This was a hard-rock Hallelujah for anxious teens and lost twentysomethings.
Fifty-two is no age to go, and yet Cornell outlived so many of his grunge brethren, with Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and Mike Starr among those to fall far too young. The star’s creative fuel tank seemed far from dry, too. That he died with so many miles left to run is a tragedy that will crush for a long time to come.
Let’s go back to the start. A Seattle native, Cornell formed Soundgarden alongside guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto in 1984. The group crafted a sound built on slimy-grimy guitar riffs that slithered up your ear, tickling your brain’s pleasure centres.
Flying over top was Cornell’s distinct, booming voice. Half whiskey-soaked, half-operatic, he was the kind of singer that regardless of the song, you’d listen to just for the pleasure of hearing him croon.
Soundgarden were the first grunge band to sign to a major label. Penning a contract with A&M in 1988, it blazed a path for the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains to break out of Seattle and enter a more commercial space. The band dissolved in 1997, hastening grunge’s decline. Cornell was ready for a lane change.
Around the time of Singles is the era that will likely become fossilised in time. Five decades from now, images of Cornell from this period should be crookedly taped to the walls of college accommodation everywhere. But the star maintained relevancy over the past two decades by shuffling through many more stylistic cloaks.
The generation not quite of age when Soundgarden first hit are right now mourning the loss of the lead singer of Audioslave. Formed by Cornell and three ex-Rage Against the Machine members in 2001, the group put out three records that updated their 1990s sound with more slickly-produced components.
Cornell’s solo career saw him experiment with everything from a smooth, contemporary adult pop sound to disastrous collaborations with hip-hop super-producer Timbaland that saw the pair trade out the guitars for thumping drum machine beats. Results may have been spotty, but they highlighted Cornell’s willingness to take new risks as middle-age set in.
Better remembered is You Know My Name, the 2006 theme song to Casino Royale. That he became the first US male to sing a Bond tune felt fitting – his voice as timeless as anyone who has contributed to the spy movie’s musical canon.
Less than two years since his last solo record, and in the middle of a new Soundgarden tour, Cornell’s mic has been prematurely silenced.
Writing about the death of David Bowie for Rolling Stone last year, his words perhaps best encapsulate his own legacy – one that will smoulder with all the energy of his indomitable stage presence, with the reach of his rhapsodic voice box.
“You don’t know how important someone is to you as an artistic influence until suddenly they’re gone. I’ve certainly been having that experience,” Cornell wrote. “It’s kind of equal parts sad and celebratory to think, ‘Awesome. What an amazing career he had and what an amazing legacy he’s left for everybody.’”