Music

Remembering Soundgarden's Dark Knight of the Grunge Music Scene, Chris Cornell

Nicole Brodeur
The Seattle Times (TNS)

That voice. It demanded that you listen, no matter where you were. In an airport, a crowded bar or a sold-out theater.

SEATTLE — That voice.

It demanded that you listen, no matter where you were. In an airport, a crowded bar or a sold-out theater.

It was low and smooth, rising from under a drape of curls, or a bare-throated, roof-scraping howl. It could effortlessly ride a churning, thundering wave of sound that rose and fell, but never broke.

Chris Cornell sang for the last time Wednesday night in Detroit. Hours later, the Soundgarden frontman was found dead in the bathroom of his hotel room. A medical examiner said he died by hanging. Suicide. He was just 52.

It is an awful refrain in this city of music, something we thought we had lived through and grown away from after the untimely losses of homegrown Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.

But no.

And so we hold onto each other and talk about what Cornell meant to our city, our sound, ourselves.

“Chris Cornell painted in song the darkness and beauty of life in Seattle,” said Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.

Cornell could do that because he was born here, one of six children whose parents divorced when he was young. He attended Christ the King Catholic elementary school and Shorewood High School.

In a 2013 interview with The Seattle Times in advance of a solo acoustic show at Benaroya Hall, Cornell spoke of feeling “super disenfranchised” as a teenager and being a “super emotionally intense kid with bouts of depression and anxiety. And that would be my reaction. To close down.”

Cornell started listening to the Beatles after finding a stash of records in a neighbor’s basement.

“That sort of fostered me,” he said in the interview. “I wasn’t good in school. I didn’t do sports. I sat in the bedroom and listened to records. Because the Beatles did whatever they wanted to, I took that as a kid and said, ‘That’s what rock is.’”

Still, he described himself as a “highly functional, depressed kid” who grew up and moved out, working at R&R Seafood as a wholesaler and a cook at Ray’s Boathouse.

At the time of the interview, Cornell had been living in New York City for several years, and described coming back to Seattle as “a little strange at first.”

“It always takes me a minute because it has changed a lot. But it is a place I know better than any other place in the world.

“Part of my creative life is there.”

Cornell’s near-four-octave range helped him make his mark immediately in the Seattle music scene. He put together Soundgarden in 1984 and, after a few years and a few changes, settled into a longtime quartet of guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, drummer Matt Cameron and Cornell out front. (Initially, he played drums and sang, but wanted to focus on songwriting).

The band signed to Sub Pop in 1987, and released two EPs: “Screaming Life” and “Fopp” the following year.

(The label posted this statement on its website Thursday under the headline, “RIP Chris”: “We’re shocked and heartbroken at the news about Chris Cornell. Our thoughts are with his family and the Soundgarden team.”)

Soundgarden became the first so-called “grunge” band to sign with a major label, A&M, which released the second album, “Louder Than Love.”

The 1991 release of “Badmotorfinger” brought Soundgarden three hit singles (“Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage”) and a controversial video for “Jesus Christ Pose” that raised their profile further. Even Johnny Cash did a cover of “Rusty Cage.”

After the overdose death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood, Cornell formed Temple of the Dog as a tribute and invited McCready to join.

“Chris means a lot to me today, as he trusted me to play on Temple,” McCready said Thursday. “He handed me a dream in getting to actually play on beautiful songs. Informed how I would play on Pearl Jam records in the future, I believe. Gave me the break into the music business I’d wanted since I was 11.

“He was a friend I will miss. I miss you, brother.”

On Thursday afternoon, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron posted on Facebook a photo of a flier from a long-ago show at The Ditto featuring Soundgarden, Skin Yard and Vexed.

“My dark knight is gone,” he wrote. “Thank you for the incredible outpouring of kindness and love.”

Author and critic Charles R. Cross had interviewed Cornell many times as the editor of the late music publication, The Rocket.

“Cornell is the dot that is the start to it all,” Cross said. “He’s the guy. It’s Soundgarden and then everybody else. This is Seattle as Seattle music gets.”

Cross said their conversations often dwelled on the themes of death and loss—especially after Wood’s death.

“It’s not overstating it that the death of Andy affected every aspect of Chris’ life,” Cross said. “His music, his darkness and his entire relationship with fame. It’s shocking how much of the conversations with Chris were about darkness in some degree, whether they were musical or personal.”

And while he may have been haunted, Cornell was deeply loved by the Seattle music community, in part because he was there from the start.

Indeed, when a singer named Eddie Vedder came to Seattle to join a band made up of the former members of Mother Love Bone in 1990, it was Cornell who took him under his wing, taking him out in the city and schooling him about what the job entailed.

Cornell then invited Vedder to join him on the Temple song, “Hunger Strike.” The act captured the Seattle music community’s one-for-all-and-all-for-one sensibility.

And in 2011, when Pearl Jam celebrated its 20th anniversary with a weekend festival in East Troy, Wisconsin, Cornell joined the band onstage for a Mother Love Bone/Temple of the Dog reunion, singing not only “Hunger Strike,” but “Say Hello 2 Heaven” “Call Me a Dog” and “Reach Down.”

Cross, too, marveled at Cornell’s voice, and said it still sounded good when Temple of the Dog played two shows at the Paramount Theater this past November, marking the 25th anniversary of the release of their only album.

“He is not a musician who lost his pipes,” Cross said. “His voice almost got better with age.”

Cornell was also “unbelievably handsome,” Cross said, “and he had the certain something that was stardom. You could see that all those years ago at the Ditto Tavern.”

Musician and comedian Reggie Watts (now the musical director for “The Late Late Show With James Corden”) recalled the first time he heard Cornell’s voice, when a friend’s little sister played Soundgarden’s “Big Dumb Sex” for him in her car.

“Is there a screaming banshee in the room? Is someone casting a spell from hell?” he remembered thinking. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’”

After high school in Montana, Watts moved to Seattle: “Soundgarden was kind of the catalyst,” he said.

He only saw them twice, but still remembers Cornell’s voice.

“His range was insane,” Watt said. “He was singing in the screaming. That blew me away. You can count on one hand the number of singers who can do that.”

Cornell has three children: Lily, 16, by his first wife, Susan Silver; and a daughter, Toni, 12, and son, Christopher, 11, by his second wife, Vicky Karayiannis.

Writer-director Megan Griffiths posted to Facebook on Thursday a story about working at Nordstrom as a Santa photographer, and seeing Cornell in the crowd.

“I thought to myself, ‘Whoa, who’s that hot dad?’ As he got closer, I realized the hot dad was Chris Cornell,” she wrote, “a man I’d seen in stadiums several times, who I fought my way up in a very intense Spokane mosh pit to get closer to, whose band was one of the reasons I initially fell in love with Seattle, now standing in the long-ass line at the Santa Castle with all the other schmoes, waiting to get his kid’s picture taken with the biggest celebrity in her life, Santa.

“Thoughts to that little girl and the rest of his family on this difficult day.”

Clothing designer Carole McClellan, who has made costumes for Heart’s Ann Wilson and actress Toni Collette, remembered fitting Cornell in the ‘90s and how he was respectful and patient.

“I almost passed out when I measured him,” she said, “But he wasn’t one of those ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ guys. He would show up for fittings on time and not talk about vapid music stuff, but things about the world.

“He was a smart, intense guy, really on it,” she said. “I still have the tape measure I measured him with. It’s picked up great energy, and it’s just a comfort piece for me.

“It makes me feel,” she said, then paused. “It’s all just very sad.”


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