Editor’s Note: Our recurring “Portrait of the Artist” playlist series pays homage to the artists responsible for the most inspired and indispensable discographies of all time. We hope you enjoy these tributes, and stay tuned for many more to come.
[LISTEN to our ‘Portrait of the Artist Volume 17 – Chris Cornell’ playlist below or here.]
It’s not supposed to go like this.
Rock stars are either supposed to die young, as in around 27, or old like Chuck Berry and whatever age Keith Richards will be, when he and cockroaches eventually depart the earth.
It’s hard to know what to say when a seemingly fit rock star in his fifties passes away, suddenly and shockingly, under the shroud of something you either didn’t know they were struggling with or perhaps thought they’d long since overcome.
This brings us to the tragically curious case of Chris Cornell, while invoking the painful example of Prince a year earlier. Despite being artists from disparate eras and backgrounds, they became linked when Cornell’s cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” went viral in early 2016, while Prince was still with us. A couple months after Prince passed, Cornell said in an interview with 93XRT in Chicago, “…the idea that he had a problem, was so hard to come to grips with, particularly if you ever saw him perform...he just seemed so in control of every aspect of his persona and his life…he was somebody I was going to spend the rest of my life marveling at…so it just kind of blindsided us.” Sadly, they now become further connected via death, one year, one month and five years in age apart.
“Blindsided” is a good way to describe the feeling fans had, upon finding out that Chris Cornell hung himself in a hotel bathroom last week, just hours after a Soundgarden show in Detroit. Sure, you can go back and point to many of the darker lyrics he penned, site the list of casualties among “the Seattle scene,” beginning with Cornell’s old roommate and former Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood in 1990. You can even point to Cornell’s own publicly acknowledged struggles with alcohol and prescription pills in the late-‘90s/early-‘00s, following the dissolution of Soundgarden. Some would consider the closing encore of “Slaves & Bulldozers,” with an additional refrain from Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying,” to be an ominous sign. Who knows, perhaps there’s some degree of truth to any or all of that. Still, this just feels different.
By almost any account you can find, Cornell had been sober since 2002. He was in good spirits in recent interviews. He still looked and sounded great onstage. The band he helped make famous was back together, touring and working on new material. He spent Mother’s Day and a touring off-day with his family, leaving for that fateful trip to Detroit just hours before the show. Dark, moody introspective lyricism was as much a staple of the rock scene Soundgarden birthed as violence was to the gangsta-rap of that same time period. But Chris Cornell never felt like the ticking time-bomb that Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur or Layne Staley did. He was a reliably proficient performer during Soundgarden’s initial run, from ’84 to ’97. He continued to crank out work at a pace equal to or beyond most peers, with three Audioslave and four solo albums to follow. That “In My Time of Dying” tease in the encore was something Soundgarden had done twice before on this 2017 tour.
"There’s something about losing friends, particularly young people, where it’s not something that you get over," Cornell told Vulture in 2012. "I don’t believe there's a healing process. How do you, really? In what way can you stop and say, 'Well, it's god's will.' I always thought that line I've heard a million times—twice as bright but half as long—is bullshit. It's tragedy. I just carry all of that with me all the time. All I can do, if anything, out of respect for my friends that are no longer here, is to do my best to lead a good life and take advantage of the fact that I'm still around, take the opportunities I have that they should've had."
Fans, along with friends and family even more so, will now be left with questions as to what happened. The theory posited by Cornell’s wife Vicky—that his suicide was precipitated by a possible side-effect of the anxiety medication Ativan he was prescribed—seems as plausible an explanation as any offered thus far. While he left us with questions, he also gifted us with a wide-ranging catalog of music, which is how those of us who didn’t know Chris Cornell personally can and should choose to remember him.
With the curse of hindsight, it’s fairly easy to point to some of the darker themes of Cornell’s lyrics informing the narrative of a man struggling with depression, lending words a new gravitas we may have previously glossed over. On Audioslave’s 2002 hit single “Like a Stone”: “On my deathbed, I will pray / To the gods and the angels / Like a pagan to anyone / Who will take me to heaven.” On Soundgarden’s moody chestnut “Fell on Black Days” from 1994: “Whomsoever I've cured, I've sickened now / And whomsoever I've cradled, I've put you down / I'm a search light soul they say / But I can't see it in the night / I'm only faking when I get it right.” The band’s final live encore of the band’s career, “Slaves & Bulldozers” from 1991’s Badmotorfinger: “Every word I said is what I mean / Everything I gave is what I need / Everything I've held is what I've freed / Everything I've shown is what I feel.”
Even some song titles can now read as warning signs, “Like Suicide” and “Pretty Noose” in particular. But “Like Suicide” was a literal tale of a robin who flew directly into Cornell’s window and broke its neck during the recording of it. While he’s previously described “Pretty Noose” as being an “attractively packaged bad idea...something that seems great at first and then comes back to bite you."
It’s tough to say. It’s also a bit rough to admit that despite being a fan since 1991, I may be among those who took for granted how gifted an all-around artist Chris Cornell was. Maybe because he made it all look too easy. The so-called “grunge rocker” with a full-boar classic-rock roar, plus a four-octave range that could sing at least as many musical styles. Tall, dark, sinewy Greek God levels of gorgeous. As a teen, that presentation didn’t quite scratch the itch in my adolescent soul the way Cobain’s did. Soundgarden also wasn’t as easily palatable, to a child raised on classic rock, as Pearl Jam was. They weren’t even the doomed but digestible, dope-sick metal that Alice In Chains was. Yet make no mistake, in circling back, it becomes clear we’ve lost a true rock icon that had more to give. And the list of how many of those are left is reaching endangered species status.
The first time I saw Soundgarden live was December 1991 at the Philadelphia Spectrum, opening for Guns N’ Roses on their Use Your Illusion tour. As a 14-year-old at the time, it was one of the few concerts I’d been to in my life up to that point. The main thing I recall is how LOUD this band was. They still may be one of, if not the, loudest band I’ve ever experienced in a live setting. The other thing I remember was the singer wailing like a banshee in a “Jesus Christ Pose.”
The memories may be hazy but these songs are crystalline. So despite, or perhaps because of, these tragic circumstances, let’s do ourselves a favor. Take time to reinvest time, experiencing the unique musical talents and songwriting mind of Chris Cornell. Go for a ride on “My Wave” and cry if you wanna cry, if it helps you see, if it clears your eyes. Double-back to EPs like Screaming Life and Fopp, to hear the sound that launched the legendary indie-label Sub Pop. Turn your headphones or your stereo up Louder Than Love, keep blasting it while having “Big Dumb Sex.” Take a trip inside your mind and “Blow Up the Outside World.” Peep how Cornell flips his pitch, by slapping his throat, as Tom Morello savagely riffs, on “Show Me How to Live.” Go on YouTube to watch Chris on acoustic, do Led Zeppelin better than Led Zeppelin, to say “Thank You.” Hell, maybe even go on Spotify to play that Timbaland album (2009’s Scream), and see if it sucked as bad as critics said it did, or if they simply lacked his unashamed sense of risk and forward vision.
One week after his death, Cornell has already “Been Away Too Long.” It’s sad to be reminded of how we don’t always appreciate what we’ve got, until its gone. Rest in Peacefulness, Chris. Many Thanks. You will be sorely missed.
There’s just one thing left to be said, “Say Hello 2 Heaven.”
[LISTEN to our ‘Portrait of the Artist Volume 17 – Chris Cornell’ playlist below or here.]
The following was penned with poetic love by my friend Jennifer Stoeck, who knew Chris and whom I met in L.A. fifteen years ago and dubbed “The Texas Tornado,” as she became my road-dawg at every L.A. rock show coming to town since, from Jane’s Addiction to the Melvins, the Donnas, My Morning Jacket, Lucinda Williams, Faith No More, Dinosaur Jr. and of course, Soundgarden.
Grief is loneliness at its primal level.
To think about my experience with Chris is pouring through my veins like lava. I keep seeing him.
Hearing his voice and the tears coming out of my eyes feel like that Jesus Christ Pose I can’t deny.
Him. He was profound. His presence was massive. One of the calmest intensities I’ve experienced. It was the moment I became awake…meeting him.
I was a high school runaway. I left my house at 16 due to a shitty living situation.
I was working at a funeral home at the time.
I went to a club one night as I did. I went to the ladies’ room and ended up ratting out Kim Thayil for pissing in the girl’s room while I waited. He liked that, went and got Matt Cameron. They piled in my ‘81 Ford Granada, matted with my Soundgarden sticker on back. We all get in. The cassette in the deck was Jane’s Addiction Triple X. We sparked up a joint and got baked discussing philosophies.
In turn, we became fast friends. Went on tour with them a stretch, from Texas to Louisiana. It was fun. It was spiritual. It was lovely calling into the funeral home to take leave in my Granada. It was a great honor and a beautiful sensation to be graced with the person who has touched my soul so many times musically, so deep and so in my being. And to be able tell him.
I keep replaying talking to Chris about koi fish while on a bridge in San Antonio.
Much Love to that dear soul. May he be at peace.