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Chris Cornell Was a Rock Star for the Ages

Remembering the majestic, magnetic frontman for Soundgarden and Audioslave

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Chris Cornell, frontman for Soundgarden and Audioslave, died Wednesday night in Detroit, a few hours after a Soundgarden show. He was 52. He died by suicide, a medical examiner determined. Cornell was one of the giants of his time. You knew it from the first time you laid ears or eyes on him.

He would’ve been a rock star no matter where he’d been born, or when. He’d have been a rock star during the Industrial Revolution; he’d have been a rock star on Neptune. That he first ascended to howling greatness in Seattle in the early ’90s is just coincidence. It meant he had company. Contemporaries. Friendly rivals. Which is to say, a bunch of other brooding dudes with leonine hair and tornado-siren voices who tried to look the part, and act the part, and sound the part. Most of those dudes had maybe half as much pure magnetism and feral power, at best, and they all got to be rock stars, too. Which gives you some idea of what a majestic beast Cornell was.

Look at this guy. Listen to this guy.

Soundgarden formed in Seattle in the mid-’80s and blew up with their third record, 1991’s Badmotorfinger. The first thing you notice about the video for “Jesus Christ Pose” is how messianic, how literally Christlike the band’s frontman looks, and acts, and sounds. Cornell is shirtless and wearing giant black shorts and combat boots, which was a thing at the time for some reason. Hair flowing, eyes burning. He is — and this was a fun thing to force everyone to contend with, amid grunge’s colossal machismo — beautiful. It barely registers that there are nearly two full minutes of dense, pummeling, gleefully inhospitable hard rock before he even opens his mouth. How is anyone supposed to sing over this, you catch yourself thinking, and then Cornell starts righteously howling, and the question becomes How is anyone supposed to play music behind this.

Of course, 1991 was also the year of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. The grunge / alt-rock / Buzz Bin revolution was on, and Soundgarden immediately felt like both forward-thinking innovators and monolithic throwbacks, like a sturdy bridge to the armadillos-in-our-trousers virility and prog-like sonic density of the ’70s giants Seattle was supposed to render obsolete. Cornell — and a lot of the time, Cornell alone — made clear that this hot new sound sweeping the nation was a logical evolution, not an assassination of the staid old rock gods who’d already come and gone. He was a dinosaur in the best sense, highly evolved and thrillingly lethal and seemingly indestructible.

Fame-averse self-loathing, drugs, and death haunted this universe from the onset: Another huge band in 1991 was Temple of the Dog, a Pearl Jam–Soundgarden supergroup convened in tribute to Seattle hero and Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood, who’d died the year before. Cornell and Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder duet tenderly on “Hunger Strike,” a majestic grunge power ballad and instant karaoke classic — Cornell’s part is way harder than Vedder’s, a pained and precise screech, a howl that negates the void. Cornell gets the spotlight to himself on the aching eulogy “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” and commands it.

Soundgarden’s next two records, 1994’s Superunknown and 1996’s Down on the Upside, were ungodly huge, with a pulverizing swagger and a menacing sensuality that dominated alt-rock radio and MTV alike. Few songs of that decade were more ubiquitous, more enthusiastically overplayed than the brooding anti-prom theme “Black Hole Sun” — it was hard not to get sick of it, but impossible to ever truly hate it. The other radio hits you undoubtedly remember — “Spoonman,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” “Fell on Black Days” — hold up splendidly, but pick any random track on either record and you’ll come away startled by both the power and the eerie grace. My favorite song on Superunknown is “Mailman,” a crunching bruiser that Cornell invests with an Oscar-worthy quantity of gravitas, fury, and pure evil. “Hello, don’t you know me? / I’m the dirt beneath your feeeeeeeeeeeet.”

After Upside, Soundgarden wouldn’t put out another record until 2012’s King Animal; Cornell spent most of the aughts vacillating between a solo career and Audioslave, a supergroup with the non–Zack de La Rocha members of Rage Against the Machine, battling the preening nü-metal doofishness of the era without ever quite giving in. Their debut single, 2002’s “Cochise,” is a slightly corny but thoroughly excellent pop-minded headbanger, and broke enough ground to lay the foundation for a three-album mini-career that tarnished neither Soundgarden’s nor RATM’s towering legacies. It was both soothing and reinvigorating, as both the world and the very notion of rock ’n’ roll seemed to be going to shit, to still regularly hear that voice and see that face. Cornell was capably carrying multiple torches now, including a few he’d lit himself.

His solo records were broader, odder, more ambitious — high risk, high upside. His first effort, the reliably tough but contemplative Euphoria Morning, came out in 1999; his most memorable record, 2009’s Scream, was a very brave and very strange quasi-pop collaboration with Timbaland, of all people. It was an uncomfortable fit. But you couldn’t deny that Cornell was the only rock star of his era who’d even think to attempt a reinvention that absolute, and the only one with anywhere near enough of that fundamental timeless rock-star quality to make it work. It didn’t. But he’d made clear that he’d never be satisfied with simply mining nostalgia.

Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t willing to play the old hits, so long as he could breathe new life into them. Soundgarden were scheduled to play the three-day Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio, this Friday night, and I personally was extremely excited. Moreover, I fully expected them to be both the best and, their age notwithstanding, the most forward-looking band on the bill, a wild mixture of fellow ’90s giants and much younger contenders. From the first glimpse, from the first sound out of Cornell’s mouth, he evoked the best parts of rock ’n’ roll’s past and made you optimistic for rock ’n’ roll’s future, no matter how dark and desolate his songs got. Listening to those darker songs today is not a very pleasant experience. It hurts. But it’s also the only thing that helps.

This story has been updated to reflect new reporting about the cause of Cornell’s death.