Pained yet poised. Cracked yet composed. Forceful yet never forced. For many people of my age, we can remember the first time we heard the voice of Chris Cornell, coming from our radios sounding like nothing else. Ultimately: Stunning.
But even that was not as stunning as the news this morning that the former Soundgarden lead singer, a man who helped change the face and tone of music, is dead at a young 52.
David Bowie and Prince were huge losses to the musical, and mainstream, world. But the death of Chris Cornell feels like losing a friend who helped you through some low times.
Often I would crank up Soundgarden’s Down on the Upside (my personal fave) and let their modern rock that channeled classic blues drown out whatever inadequacies I felt at the time. The lyrics from “Burden in My Hand” — “fear is strong and love’s for everyone who isn’t me” — was a signature lament during about a decade of young adulthood as I struggled with self-loathing and anxiety. In Chris, I had a channel for the thoughts I could not formulate, a partner to help me collect myself to overcome.
David Bowie and Prince were superstars, celebrities on another plane. Chris was somebody who could walk into your corner bar and throw back a few drinks as unobtrusively as his quick background “Singles” cameo.
After Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a smash hit, Soundgarden could have just recorded a love ballad or two, or a safe pop record, and cruised into retirement with enough money to spend freely … and to also buy the Sonics and bring them back to Seattle. They had hit albums, singles that sold well enough (without selling out their sound) and millions of fans. And inspired dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other bands.
And then they broke up 20 years ago, the creative tensions that helped forge such heavy and edgy music too much to stay together. My brother used to live in Seattle and said it was huge news there at the time, even as so much of the world had moved on to whatever new sound was the flavor of the month.
The man voted Guitar World’s “Greatest Rock Singer” kept on creating, singing and playing — first solo, then bringing together Audioslave for a good run, then eventually reconciling with Soundgarden, even if their 2012 album King Animal seems more like a footnote compared to the sweep of their work two decades earlier.
But his work from the brief 1991 collective Temple of the Dog, honoring former roommate and Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, is what stays with me as a fitting epitaph:
I never wanted
To write these words down for you
With the pages of phrases
Of things we’ll never do
So I blow out the candle, and
I put you to bed
Since you can’t say to me
Now how the dogs broke your bone
There’s just one thing left to be said
Say hello to heaven