This isn’t a Chris Cornell obituary – just me trying to work out why, when I heard about his sad, sad death a couple of days ago it felt like such a kick in the teeth.
I’ve been listening to his music for more than 25 years. With Soundgarden he’s been responsible for some of my most listened-to songs of all time. Yet when I’ve been asked what sort of music I like and dutifully reeled off a list of band names, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned Soundgarden. They’ve been an ever-present, but never an obsession.
1990 was when it started. Someone lent me the Louder Than Love album with its iconic Charles Peterson photograph of a hair-flailing, bare-chested Chris Cornell on the cover. At that time my main jam was baggy, indie pop and Soundgarden just sounded like metal; which it pretty much was. Guitarist Kim Thayil described the sound they were aiming for as ‘Black Sabbath without the parts that suck’. Steady on there, Kim, that’s Sabbath you’re talking about!
The sound grew on me, as of course it did with a lot people at that time. Mudhoney’s garage fuzz was my main route into grunge, but 1991’s Badmotorfinger, and more specifically its three outstanding singles, Jesus Christ Pose, Outshined and Rusty Cage, got me properly interested in Soundgarden for the first time.
Outshined included Cornell’s brilliant lyric, ‘I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota’. In interviews, the frontman with the Hollywood looks often alluded to the crippling agoraphobia and depression that he’d suffered as a teenager. Though music had been his saviour, this line showed that despite his growing success, he never felt that his problems were behind him.
I loved the Temple of the Dog album that came about after the death of Cornell’s close friend Andrew Wood. The Mother Love Bone singer ‘s overdose was an epochal event for Cornell and, despite it prompting a dive into serious drug and alcohol dependency, he formed the side-project band as a tribute. The album featured the grunge classics Say Hello 2 Heaven, Hunger Strike and Pushin Forward Back. It was about this time that I started to notice that Chris Cornell could really fucking sing. Strangely, it was his backing singing to Eddie Vedder’s lead on Hunger Strike that particularly brought this fact home for me.
As Soundgarden became more popular than ever in the mid ’90s – despite the demise of grunge following Kurt’s death – I’d tune in to them from time to time. They were the kind of band whose CDs I’d buy in the HMV sale. Black Hole Sun is now being put forward as their masterpiece, but I think they did better stuff in this period; The Day I Tried To Live, Burden In My Hand and Pretty Noose, the title of which has now taken on a tragic new context.
After Soundgarden, Chris Cornell seemed to become more active than ever with Audioslave, solo work and various collaborations. He married, had children and began a charitable foundation. He got himself clean and apparently remained so. When Soundgarden reformed in 2010 and started putting out new material it was heartwarming – a major band from the dominant and most exciting music scene of my teenage years was up and running again, and the singer barely looked a day older, despite the passing of two decades.
On Thursday, when Soundgarden were trending on Twitter and I clicked the hashtag, I was expecting to maybe see a UK tour announcement. ‘Chris Cornell dead aged 52’. Fucking what? Fucking WHAT? Another link to my youth, gone. And this was someone who’d negotiated addictions and a notoriously morbid music scene, apparently unscathed. He’d grown up, become a family man, gained huge respect as an artist, was clean, sober and busier than ever. Surely he was out of danger? People speculated that maybe it was a heart attack – a consequence of those years of addiction, maybe? Later came the suicide confirmation.
Tragically, 25 years on, Chris Cornell was looking California and still feeling Minnesota.
There can’t be many better illustrations of how devastating mental illness can be than this. If Chris Cornell, a lavishly talented, impossibly good-looking, artistically respected, incredibly successful rock superstar with a loving family can’t cope with life, what chance does anyone else have?
I’ve lost other friends to suicide. I know how senseless and devastating it is and how any apparent positives don’t seem to count for anything. It might be that that’s the aspect of Chris Cornell’s death that’s hit me so hard. It’s such a waste.