I didn’t go to bed last night thinking about writing a tribute piece. But I woke up this morning to the news of the passing of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell at the relatively young age of 52. And just like that, the die was cast.
I was a fan of Cornell’s, albeit not an avid one. I’m not going to pretend I was on the Soundgarden bandwagon from the get-go. I was introduced to the band by way of our new “Alternative” station in 1993. They were playing tracks from the band’s latest record, called BadMotorFinger. I was struck by the power of Cornell’s voice. Soundgarden was officially on my musical radar, even though I didn’t race to buy the album. That happened the following year, when the band released Superunknown, an album I deem to be absolutely perfect.
I didn’t care for the Glam Rock of the late-’80s. The hair, the outfits, the good-time party anthems … none of it did anything for me. Guns ‘n Roses appeared to be headed in the right direction with Appetite for Destruction, but honestly, the best thing that album ever did for me was keep me awake long enough to cram for a Physics exam. I lost interest relatively quickly. When Grunge arrived in the ’90s, the “hair metal” fans were beside themselves. That alone told me I needed to pay attention to what was going on. Soundgarden wasted no time grabbing me by the musical throat.
I found myself asking the key question I ask anytime a new piece of music kicks me in the backside: “What the hell was that?” I had barely recovered from that blow when this was dropped into my lap:
Talk about getting your cage rattled. Damn!
I came to enjoy the music being released by Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, among others. But song for song, Soundgarden’s Superunknown is my favorite album of the ’90s, hands down. It truly is flawless. There isn’t a bad song to be found! And it still stands up after two decades.
The primary reason for this success was clearly Cornell’s voice. It was guttural and melodic at the same time, which is not easy to do. Soundgarden’s vocalist was digging deep into that well where the best tones are located, and making those tones work for each and every song. I remember being in my favorite guitar shop one day, listening to the album with my friend Jimmy Griffin (a talented singer/songwriter in his own right). When “My Wave” started playing, Jimmy got the oddest smile on his face. When I asked him what was up, he said, “If I could put that voice onto my music, I’d have a million dollars.”
I love it when I find my favorite musicians and I are listening to and enjoying the same music. Guitarist Steve Vai was a big fan of Superunknown as well. I remember reading a magazine where he was quoted as saying, “Whenever ‘Black Hole Sun’ comes on, everything around me comes to a stop.” I know exactly what he meant. I remember responding to a relatively minor call for service in my patrol car one spring day. As I pulled up to the address, “Black Hole Sun” came on the radio. I refused to get out of the car until it was over. That was the power for Chris Cornell.
I only got to see Cornell in concert once, and not with Soundgarden. By then, he had moved on to Audioslave, where he was now backed by the instrumental portion of Rage Against the Machine. When I first heard about this new band, I was certain that no one could take the place of Zach de la Rocha at the front of Rage. You know what? I was wrong. The band’s self-titled album — particularly the opening single — absolutely knocked my socks off.
The best part of the Audioslave show was the venue. I got to see them in a club, with the band less than 50 feet away. During that period, I was also fixated with the music of Funkadelic. So imagine my joy when I heard Cornell say during Audioslave’s show, “Here’s a really cool song from a bunch of high motherfuckers!” With that, the band launched into “Super Stupid,” a Funkadelic classic from my favorite album, Maggot Brain.
I didn’t explore much of Cornell’s solo material. To be honest, what I heard didn’t do a lot for me, other than “You Know My Name,” the theme from the Bond movie Casino Royale. And there were times when I saw him perform live on television, and didn’t feel like he was giving 100 percent effort on the vocals. Now that I have learned his death may have been a suicide, those “off” days make a lot more sense to me. When you’re depressed, you simply can’t give things your all, no matter how passionate you may be about them. I wish I could’ve been there to put an arm around his shoulder and ask, “Hey, buddy, you doing ok? Do you need to talk for a while?” I know nothing of the people around him, so I’ll never know if anyone was able to do that. But if it never happened, that is truly sad.
Soundgarden was scheduled to play in my hometown this weekend as the headliners of my alternative station’s annual music festival. I wasn’t going, because I don’t care for the venue. It was just nice to know that Soundgarden was still out there, making it happen on stage. And rumor had it that a new album was set to drop this fall. Now the festival has been cancelled, and only the band and their people know what will happen with the new record. I can’t help but believe that fans of Chris Cornell and Soundgarden are missing out in a big way.
The music world has lost another powerful voice. I know I’ll miss that “million dollar” sound. But like so many others I mourn, I’m glad to know I’ll always have the music. That may be the greatest legacy of all.
Rest in peace, brother.