In a strange and poignant reminder of the ties that bind our musical heroes together, Chris Cornell’s funeral saw Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and within a month he too had taken his own life.
Cohen, Cornell, Bennington – all lost in the space of seven months.
A vocalist, guitarist (and one time drummer) with an unmistakable voice and formidable four octave range, Chris Cornell leaves behind a catalogue of some of the best rock music ever made.
His dabbling in drugs as an early teenager marked the beginning of an ongoing struggle with depression and substance abuse, Cornell’s searing vocals often betraying the pain and anger woven into such battles.
Although best known as lead singer of Seattle legends Soundgarden, Cornell had a quietly successful solo career and a number of highly credible side projects – all of which revealed his considerable talents as a rock singer and songwriter.
Blessed with the looks and voice any frontman would kill for, Cornell’s range and versatility could tear through lyrics with the ferocity of a dropped chainsaw (‘Black Rain’, ‘Outshined’) and yet express such tenderness when the need arose – a listen to tellingly vulnerable covers of ‘Imagine’ and ‘Billie Jean’ provide a taster.
Included in Rolling Stone’s top ten lead singers of all time and like those greats before him – Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers – he had the control, depth and mastery of the mic that would secure him as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true stand outs.
He was a pioneering figure in the grunge movement – a convenient music biz catch-all term for what was more like a disparate collection of bands including Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam – that emerged out of the USA’s Pacific Northwest in the mid to late 1980s. There were similarities linking them but each had a distinctive take on the sound.
And with Cornell at the helm, Soundgarden’s proved to be one of the most enduring.
It wasn’t punk – they were too musical for that. But it wasn’t heavy metal either.
Soundgarden hammered a wedge into the space between the two and developed a sound as technically brilliant as it was dirty. Sure, some of their influences were obvious – Sabbath, The Stooges, Killing Joke – but as with all pioneers, they forged their own sound.
Grunge compadre and Temple of the Dog bassist, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament testified to Cornell’s musicality. ‘Chris had the songwriting chops that we all sort of hope to get to… He had a way that he could wrap a melody around odd time signatures and weird parts and make them catchy. And he was a beautiful wordsmith.’
The breadth of Cornell’s songwriting and vocal ability can be found by delving into any point in his career.
From Soundgarden’s debut, Ultramega OK, to any track from the Grammy Award-winning Superunknown (The Day I tried to Live and Fell on Black Days are personal favourites) via its predecessor, Badmotorfinger, you’ll get a feel for the band’s growing virtuosity and Cornell’s astonishing vocal capacity. Soundgarden split in 1997, only to form again in 2010 and the resulting 2012 cut, King Animal, was seen by some as a tentative return to form.
Though generally dismissed by critics, a quirky solo departure from the hard stuff is 2009’s Scream (from the album of the same name), an upbeat collaboration with R&B producer Timbaland. Preaching The End of The World from his 1997 solo debut, the superb Euphoria Morning, includes a recurring nod to 60s psychedelic guitar sounds.
Other works of note would be You Know My Name composed for Casino Royal which perfectly supports the franchise’s reboot, whilst Songbook, a live, acoustic set realease in 2011 gives an intimate portrait of Cornell’s vocal style
Audioslave formed in 2001, featuring Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk – formerly of angst-heads Rage Against the Machine – with Cornell on vocals. They built an accessible hard rock sound but it lacked the vitriol that epitomised the bands from which Audioslave was formed. This was a more considered, more mature Cornell. The passionate vocals remained but the sharp edges had been dulled. However, with 8 million albums sold, they struck a chord with the die hards. Audioslave disbanded in 2007.
Devastatingly, Cornell took his own life while on tour with Soundgarden, the band with whom he produced his greatest work, the band who laid down the foundations for the most captivating musical shift since punk and whose influence has found its way into so many artists’ work.
But Cornell’s legacy wasn’t only musical. He was well aware of his influence and wealth, contributing to charitable causes such as climate change, music therapy and disaster recovery. ‘I’m in a fortunate position to use music to support important causes that help foster change.’ In 2012 he and his wife founded The Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation, designed to support and promote awareness of children suffering from abuse, poverty and neglect worldwide.
Chris Cornell ducked in and out of the shadows of addiction and depression and his legacy encompasses a dark, loud and complex body of work. But the most fascinating stars are defined by their contrast so it’s heartening to know that in amongst the torment, angst and vocal fury was one of the good guys. Elton John, perhaps an unlikely fan, described Cornell as ‘the loveliest man.’ While Bono referred to the singer as ‘a beautiful, sweet soul.’
The Chris & Vicky Cornell Foundation support the cause Chris loved most: helping vunerable children. For more information please visit www.chrisandvickycornellfoundation.org
Tribute by Kieran Fahy