The Soundgarden frontman who pioneered the grunge sound
Chris Cornell 1964–2017
Chris Cornell was one of alternative rock’s most captivating frontmen. Broodingly handsome and armed with a four-octave vocal range, the Soundgarden singer and guitarist could shift from a banshee-like wail to a gentle, soulful croon to a rumbling baritone. His voice elevated Soundgarden above its grunge rock roots and helped the band score hits with an eclectic array of singles—there was the metal attack of 1991’s “Jesus Christ Pose,” the melancholic grind of 1994’s “Fell on Black Days,” and the Beatles-y psychedelia of that year’s “Black Hole Sun.” But the introverted Cornell, who committed suicide last week at age 52, struggled with life in the spotlight. “If I didn’t do what I do, I think for the most part I would [be] a shut-in,” he said in 1991. “It’s sort of a battle between that person and then the guy that wants to just let it all out in front of 2,000 people and rant and scream.”
Born Christopher Boyle in Seattle, Cornell adopted his mother’s maiden name after his parents divorced. “A lonely, gangly teenager— he eventually grew to 6-foot-3—he was prone to bouts of anxiety and depression,” said The Times (U.K.). Cornell found solace in music and by his late teens was playing drums with a covers band. That group became Soundgarden in 1984, and Cornell switched to vocals and guitar, “as I was the only one who could sing.” The band fused punk and sludgy Black Sabbath–inspired riffs on their 1988 debut album, Ultramega OK, and together with other Seattle-area bands, including Nirvana and Pearl Jam, shaped the grunge sound. Soundgarden became the first grunge act to sign with a major label, and the band’s third album, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, went platinum, said AVClub.com. Its 1994 follow-up, Superunknown, was filled with tracks like “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live” that “balanced aggressiveness, anxiety, and alienation in incredibly catchy little packages.” The album was a global smash.
But Cornell was “beset by his own demons, primarily drug and alcohol abuse,” and Soundgarden disbanded in 1997, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). He went on to record a diverse set of solo albums—dabbling in acoustic folk and electropop—and after a stint in rehab, formed the rock supergroup Audioslave with members of Rage Against the Machine. Commercially successful but critically derided, Audioslave split in 2007, and Cornell reunited with Soundgarden three years later. He played a sold-out concert with the group in Detroit just hours before his death and had tweeted exuberantly earlier that day, “Finally back to Rock City!!!!”