Kurt Cobain was the icon of the grunge era. Eddie Vedder was its rock star. Chris Cornell was its voice. You can have your Freddie Mercury and your Robert Plant and your Roger Daltry. For me, the best voice in rock history belonged to Chris Cornell.
He sounded like thunder. He sounded like an old black woman wailing in the church choir. He sounded like rock n’ roll.
The Soundgarden/Temple of the Dog/Audioslave frontman was found dead in his Detroit hotel room in the early hours of Thursday morning. Was it drug related? Was it an aneurysm? Billboard is reporting that Detroit police are investigating it as a possible suicide. At the time I am writing this, the cause of death is unknown.
What I do know is among rock stars, Chris Cornell was one of the more chill guys you could talk to and he was so engaging. He wasn’t particularly funny. He was just kind. He was interested in what you had to say and he always had a story to add to the discussion. How could he not, right? You’re you. He was Chris-freakin’-Cornell! If you told him a story about losing your keys he had one about leaving Paris on a private jet and realizing he left his keys in the limo from the night before. He wasn’t a one-upper. He just had cooler stories than you.
I met Chris only one time. When I was on 96 Rock, sometime in the late aughts, he came to town as part of whatever terrible music festival it was that Linkin Park founded. That year’s headliners, in addition to Linkin Park, were Papa Roach and Chris as a solo act. Chris came into the studio to promote the show and play some tracks from the dance rock album he was still mixing at the time. My boss Foster called dibs on the interview, as well he should have. He did the leg work to set the thing up after all.
I’m not going to lie though. I was jealous. We used to do this wacky rock radio bit every year around March Madness called March Bandness. Each week, listeners were asked to vote in a category as we built the ultimate rock band. One week it was drummers, then guitarists. You get the idea. The week that we had people voting on vocalist, I was shouting as loud as I could every morning that if Chris Cornell didn’t win, this whole damn thing was a waste of time! He didn’t win, but I know he finished in the top 3, beating Roger Daltry. That led one co-worker to complain that the vote was invalid.
Anyway, Chris Cornell is in the studio. Foster is having a great conversation with him on air and an even better one off air when we would go to commercial or play one of Cornell’s new songs. Both of them were cool enough to let those of us that had nothing to do with the interview hang out in the studio and watch. During breaks, my partner Salt talked to him about the restaurant in Paris Chris owned. I told Foster “If I remember right, all the guys in Soundgarden were big Seattle Supersonics fans. You should ask him about that.” Foster didn’t, so I did when the interview was over.
“You guys were all big Sonics fans, right? Do you watch the Thunder at all?”
“I always heard everyone in Soundgarden were big Sonics fans.”
“Like the basketball team?”
“Oh. Well, I liked them because they were the home town team, but I’m not really a basketball fan. I didn’t know much about them.”
“Oh. I guess I just was remembering when you guys were promoting Down on the Upside on SNL Matt Cameron had ‘Go Sonics’ pained on his bass drum.”
“Yeah. That’s right. They were in the Finals I think against the Bulls.”
“Yeah, well that’s about it. We wanted them to win. Detlef Shrempf and I play ping pong together sometimes.”
There’s a fun fact to drop in at the end of a conversation like it isn’t weird.
The Soundgarden era was amazing. I mean Badmotorfinger contains the best non-Nirvana song of the grunge era (“Outshined”). Superunknown is a modern rock classic. And then there’s Down on the Upside, the least appreciated of the band’s three album run may be my favorite with that strong “Pretty Noose”/”Rhinosaur”/”Zero Chance” start.
The Audioslave era was pretty amazing too, especially when you consider that at the time that music was released various forms of indie rock were taking over alternative radio at the time. Cornell teamed with the members of Rage Against the Machine to dominate those same radio stations with loud, testosterone driven rock. “Cochise,” “Original Fire,” and “Show Me How to Live” are in your face anthems that manage to still sound great ten to twelve years later when so many of the bands trying to do the same thing at the time are now punchlines in the rock world.
I think everyone thinks about “Hunger Strike” first when they think of Temple of the Dog’s one and only album. It is a great song, no doubt, but that is one of the few songs on the album that is lead by Eddie Vedder’s voice. If you want to hear Chris Cornell at his peak, listen to “Wooden Jesus.”
Whether you realize it or not, we lost a titan of rock today. It’s heartbreaking, not only because he leaves behind a wife and three kids, not only because he leaves behind millions of fans, but because he was one of the few that emerged healthy from a scene that lost so many to drug addiction. He started talking openly, after joining Audioslave, about how much fun it was to actually remember all of the cool stuff he did for a living.
Chris Cornell is dead, but we’re still waiting to find out how his story ends. No matter what is written, it will be tragic. 52 is way too young.