Chris Cornell was a lion of a rock and roll frontman. Blessed with the voice of a cyclone and the raw masculinity of an action movie hero, he was the Robert Plant of his generation, at once a rock god and a sex symbol. This morning, we all awoke to the news of his passing. Found on the floor of his room at the MGM Grand in Detroit hours after performing with Soundgarden, Cornell was only 52 years old.
His career began in the mid-80s with Soundgarden, one of the earliest exports of Pacific Northwest grunge, who contrasted with their more punk-influenced contemporaries like Mudhoney by creating a heavier, more psychedelic style. They were well-known entities in their local scene throughout the latter half of the decade, but broke out nationally with their third studio album, 1991’s alt-metal opus Badmotorfinger.
The band’s commercial and critical peak would come three years later, when they slightly softened their approach while remaining darkly intriguing on Superunknown. The album debuted at #1, was nominated for three Grammys (winning two), and has been certified five times platinum, making it arguably the second most successful grunge album after Nirvana’s Nevermind. Especially on the single “Black Hole Sun,” the band achieved Led Zeppelin-style grandiosity never matched, or even attempted, by their peers.
Throughout the early ‘90s, Cornell was also involved in other projects, including grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog, Screaming Trees’ 1991 album, Uncle Anesthesia, and solo material that he composed for Cameron Crowe’s film Singles. After Soundgarden’s disappointing fifth album, Down on the Upside, the band broke up in 1997, eventually reuniting in 2010 for several tours.
Cornell’s second great stint as a frontman came via Audioslave, the band he founded with 3/4ths of Rage Against The Machine after vocalist Zach de la Rocha left the band. Introduced to each other by rock guru Rick Rubin, the supergroup formed in 2001 and had a self-titled debut out by the next year, the singles from which would rule alt rock radio for years to come. As a kid riding the bus to school, I’d hear “Cochise” and “Like A Stone” right next to “Black Hole Sun” on Seattle station 107.7 The End, and despite the fact that “Rage Against The Garden” (as Audioslave was often called) never achieved the legendary status of either of its predecessors.
After Audioslave’s 2007 breakup, Cornell got back to his solo career, releasing a much-maligned collaborative album with Timbaland, but also recording the best James Bond theme of the Daniel Craig era for Casino Royale. Even compared to his work with Soundgarden, “You Know My Name” is one of the finest tracks of his career.
As of last night, Cornell had been touring with Soundgarden off-and-on since 2010, and the band was scheduled to perform at the Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio this weekend. They concluded their show last night with a version of Badmotorfinger’s “Slaves & Bulldozers” that segued into Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying,” a curtain call that now feels eerily on-the-nose.
Along with the passing of Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland last year, Cornell’s death marks a trend of grunge frontmen dying far too young, with Kurt Cobain, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, and Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood being the earliest casualties. Just 25 years after the genre’s peak, Eddie Vedder, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, and Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan are about all who remain of the genre’s OG singers. Protect them at all costs.