Last thoughts on Chris Cornell

This one hurt. It still hurts.

You have to wonder if it surprised him, that voice, the first time he stepped to a live mic, filled his lungs, threw back his mass of black curls and just let go.

Though he stood well over six feet tall, Chris Cornell often appeared overly-thin, frail even. But within that wail, that terrifying, rabid hellhound shriek, well, whole universes were born and died in there.

It damn sure surprised me. I’m almost certain my introduction to Soundgarden was “Loud Love” the first single from the band’s major label debut album. Musically, it had not a damn thing in common with the bloated hair metal dreck that even in 1989 seemed sadly dated. It wasn’t thrash or punk or anything else, exactly. This was heavy music, to be sure, but with meaner, smarter DNA than anything played during waking hours on MTV.

But as fascinating as the music was, that voice, rising out of a swirl of buzzing notes and angular feedback, is what truly astonished. Stunning, I think, is an appropriate word for that sound, its effect not unlike that of a fire alarm going off inches from your head.

Baffling, grating, thrilling — Cornell’s’ singing seemed barely human at times. But it was undoubtedly the perfect sonic and spiritual familiar to the jagged, molten-thick 21st century blues he and his bandmates perfected. And like blues singers of every era, Cornell dug deep into the abyss of human hurt, rage, and loneliness, emerging with lyrical snapshots of lives caught between a kind of blighted hope and outright annihilation.

Soundgarden’s second major label album, 1991’s “Badmotorfinger” is where that vision matured into an art of devastating noise and precision. On an album of coruscating industrial psychedelia, Cornell proved himself the equal of any rock singer before or since. For the first time the listener gets a sense that this is a man who appreciated avant garde punk, 70s metal and greasy southern soul in equal measure, a man whose vinyl collection encompassed Led Zeppelin and the Meat Puppets as well as Al Green and Aretha Franklin.

Listen to the bluesy slide of the verses on “Slaves and Bulldozers,” and how his voice builds to a scalding, unearthly screech on the choruses:

”Now I know why you’ve been shaking

Now I know why you’ve been shaking

So bleed your heart out

There’s no more rides for free

Though none other than heavy metal god Ronnie James Dio singled out Cornell as among his favorite singers, there was simply no other metal vocalist of the day who could have navigated the soulful, mid-tempo “Searching with My Good Eye Closed” on the same album as the tribal, maniacal groove of “Jesus Christ Pose.”

I saw Soundgarden in concert on the Lollapalooza tour shortly after the release of “Badmotorfinger,” in the summer of 92. The band’s set was bedeviled by equipment snafus, the sound dropping out for minutes at a time. But there were moments, when the wind was just right, that voice and music would cut through the technical glitches and the haze of heat and alcohol, and it was like another dimension had briefly made itself visible, one of titanic violence and seething, grim intelligence.

That universe expanded considerably on Soundgarden’s penultimate album “Superunknown” and “Down on the Upside,” a still underrated work that would be the band’s last for 16 years. On these albums Cornell proved that, for all the terrible power and delicate soul of his voice, he was an equally moving lyricist and composer. Those gifts would be highlighted during his future work with Audioslave and on the three solo albums he released before his death.

Unfortunately, a number of hardcore Soundgarden fans refused to give Cornell’s singer/songwriter efforts the time of day. That’s their loss. As demonstrated across several live albums and a wealth of concert videos, his acoustic performances showcased a voice of far more subtlety, depth, and just plain damn gutbucket soul than the freakishly pitched, blues-scalded wail found on the studio albums.

Listen to any track on his “Songbook” solo acoustic release. Call up YouTube and search for Cornell’s stunning covers of “Billie Jean,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” or “No Woman, No Cry.” Or better yet, watch his acoustic performances with Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd from 2013. It’s worth it just to see Shepherd smile and nod his head when Cornell hits the high notes.

He was still finding new ways to use that voice, that savage, delicate instrument, when he died on May 18 in a Detroit hotel room. In the end, his music, his family and friends simply weren’t enough to hold him to this world. I feel certain that whatever stalked the man — depression, psychosis, whatever you choose to call it — was always there, probably from birth. That thing that can turn an ordinary day black, for no discernible reason: maybe it’s the way light falls on a stand of trees, or shadows on a field. A call not answered.

“Whatsoever I feared has

Come to life

Whatsoever I’ve fought off

Became my life”

It was there in the lyrics, for anyone who bothered to listen. Maybe he just got caught in a moment; maybe he planned it all carefully. Maybe he was just tired of fighting. If you’ve been there, you understand. If you haven’t, no explanation could suffice.

“I’m a search light soul, they say

But I can’t see it in the night”

Shortly after the death of Kurt Cobain, Cornell spoke about the personal and artistic loss he felt. …”It broadened my mental picture of what the world at large was creatively,” he said of Cobain’s music, “and suddenly a big chunk of it fell off.”

Like Cobain, Chris Cornell was part of a seismic shift in music, a cleansing wave that was as unexpected as it was welcome. With their passing, the possibilities once suggested, and in some cases realized, by both men’s work have grown significantly smaller, the wave breaking and receding like that other creative high-water mark, the 1960s, that Hunter Thompson once wrote so eloquently about.

As another of the world’s great singers, George Jones, once realized, when a talent like Cornell’s is snuffed out, it’s gone forever, no one’s “gonna fill their shoes.” But that talent, and the man’s generous, troubled spirit, can still be honored. Listen to the albums, read the interviews, watch the raw and raging live clips.

But most importantly, whatever it is that makes you feel the most alive, do it, as often as possible, with grace and heart and utter devotion.

Until his dying day, that’s exactly what Chris Cornell did.


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