It’s been a week to the day since I woke up to the news that Chris Cornell had unexpectedly died.
After a week of listening to Audioslave – Soundgarden – Cornell – Temple of the Dog, I’d like to celebrate the life of this most talented of artists.
I remember being about 13 years old and sat at our single family desktop computer in our spacious living-cum-dining room, in one of those now commonplace black swivelling office-like chairs. Responsible and conscious teenager that I was, I opted to not blast out the rock music I was about to play from the high-grade speakers we didn’t have but instead chose the premium super-headphones that probably came with the desktop years before.
Not that I was audibly-proficient enough to notice, but sound quality did not bother me back then and would not even have mattered a jot anyhow because what I was listening to transcended mere sound quality and its own excellency shone through and seeped from my eardrums through my brain and right to the very core of my soul or whatever part it is in your being and essence that makes the hair rise on your arms and your body tingle.
I remember wondering how music, mere sound waves, could give such physical and tangible pleasure; wondering where it all came from, how it came to be and I remember most of all the clear and precise purpose it instilled within me: to be able to give and create such a wonderful feeling in other people.
Is it irony or fate (urgh) that the very title of the song to have set the future course of my life from then on was “Show Me How to Live”? Probably just random chance but that’s exactly what Chris Cornell’s baritone voice did to me that very day during the first verse of my favourite song – a verse I’ve tried to replicate countless times since – up until the explosive chorus kicked in. I could go on about that specific song with its deep humming intro groove, the phased-out and fluttering wah wah and tremolo solo by Tom Morello or the staccato-like outro cry by Cornell (or the awesome car-chase music video!) but I digress from the topic at hand, namely: a eulogy to mine and many more people’s favourite singer, songwriter and frontman.
To me, Chris Cornell has always meant first and foremost Audioslave. Often referred to as RATM + Chris Cornell (or the three instrumentalists from Rage with the singer dude from Soundgarden) for their first album, they were nonetheless well-received and liked by fans and critics who noted how well the musicians blended and how they fit and stood out in the rock and alternative scene at the time. Many people’s favourite songs will probably be found on their self-titled and debut album with its heavy hitting blazers like the aforementioned “Show Me How to Live”, opener “Cochise” (with Morello’s random and innovative use of a pencil to make a helicopter sound, as you do) or “Shadow on the Sun” and its mellower and softer “ballads” (if you can call them such) “Like a Stone”, “What You Are” or “I Am the Highway”.
But if that album does somewhat feel like an amalgamation of the members’ previous bands – in absolutely no way whatsoever is that a bad by the way in my humble opinion – their second album Out of Exile did find them with a style and feel of their own. It still possesses the heavy hitters, the crunchy riffs and the guttural Cornell screams but it’s a lot more balanced out with a softer, more varied and alternative sound. Perhaps a fair way to put it might be that the songs are generally less one-dimensional and that as a whole album, it flows together more effortlessly, mirroring their gelling as a fully-fledged band. Opener “Your Time Has Come” is just as visceral as previous songs but with a lighter groove but is then followed up by the marching drums of eponymous “Out of Exile”, the wah-wah-heavy solo from “Be Yourself” and the absolutely smouldering and blistering one from easy-going “Doesn’t Remind Me”; you’ve got the lilting arpeggios of the sweet “Heaven’s Dead”, the futuristic loopy bass intro to “Yesterday to Tomorrow”, the poppy and self-descriptively-sounding “Dandelion” and album closers “#1 Zero” and “The Curse” which sound more like what Audioslave should sound like than any other songs.
Third album Revelations has its strong moments like the title track or first single “Original Fire” but is generally more lacking in oomph and guile and tended to be a bit too repetitive, especially in songs like “Somedays” or “Jewel of the Summertime”. But again there was some evolution and they were definitely developing the “Audioslave sound” with songs like “One & the Same”, “Sound of a Gun” and another great closer in “Moth”. The album does have a certain cohesion and overall funkiness to it though and one can just wonder what would have come of future albums or a reunion.
Audioslave is the perfect showcase of Cornell’s talent and evolution as an artist as it not only shows his heavier past with his deep voice, lengthy screams and explosive vocal strength but also the softer side with his low baritone, falsetto backed by acoustic guitar or even piano. But it’s not enough to truly appreciate his influence and range as an artist.
Cornell rose to fame with the previously mentioned Soundgarden, part of the so-called “Big 4” of grunge along with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Although Nirvana’s Nevermind was undoubtedly the album to have launched grunge into the mainstream stratosphere, Soundgarden are often regarded as the first band to bring recognition to the genre. They released 5 albums during their first stint with third album Badmotorfinger, released in 1991, the same year as Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s debut Ten, garnering praise with songs such as “Jesus Christ Pose” (with its intense drumming and awesome gloomy riff), “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” (whose unexpectedly shiny and contrasting chorus shall forever surprise me). It prepared the terrain for their breakthrough album Superunknown which featured their biggest hit, the haunting “Black Hole Sun”, along with “Fell on Black Days” and the groovy “Spoonman”. Their next album Down on the Upside continued the trend of critical and commercial success with “Pretty Noose” and “Blow up the Outside World” proving popular picks. Amongst those bands, Soundgarden were noted for their heavier, at times even sludgier, sound and especially their weird time signatures in many of their songs (take “Rusty Cage” for example which switches from 4/4 to 7/4 to 9/8 to 19/8…) which also often featured alternative tunings. Cornell became famous for his huge vocal range which he was able to let loose on many of Soundgarden’s songs that often stretched further than 5 minutes, from quiet to loud and back again like “Slaves & Bulldozers” or “Like Suicide” or in the short punkish songs like “Face Pollution” or “An Unkind”. They were definitely the most experimental band of those famous during that era and pushed the boundaries with their eclecticism but as tensions in the band grew, they disbanded in 1997 and Cornell went on to pursue other endeavours.
They did reunite in 2010 though and released a new album called King Animal and I had the opportunity to see them perform live in Paris in 2012. Aside from some technical difficulties (bassist Ben Shepherd was fuming and quite close to walking off…) and generally pretty bad sound, it was both heavy and intense and fun and breezy. Each band member had their very own stage presence, their aura or character shining through with Ben Shepherd, giant of a man, with his very low-hanging bass stalking around the stage, Kim Thayil a wise immovable object doing the weird stuff he does so exquisitely, Matt Cameron with his friendly face all smiling throughout just getting on with his awsome drumming and Mr. Cornell wailing and hitting those high notes and amicably chatting to us between songs.
Chris Cornell gave off an impression of pure humble friendliness, of being an earnest person as well as performer, sincere in manner and words. What he may lack in charismatic and entertaining stage persona, he more than makes up for in genuine grace and kindness, casually addressing the audience and breaking the physical and intangible barrier between artist and fan.
Temple of the Dog
An important moment in Chris’ life and grunge’s as well was the death of his good friend and roommate Andrew Wood, who was the charismatic frontman of wave-making band Mother Love Bone. His untimely death by overdose just days before the release of their debut album shook many of the musicians of the scene at the time and Cornell decided to approach two of the members of the band, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, to record some songs he’d written for Andrew. The project quickly grew and a few songs became a whole album: a tribute to Andrew Wood called Temple of the Dog from lyrics in one of Andrew’s songs.
Additional members Matt Cameron and Mike McCready were brought on as well as guest vocalist Eddie Vedder and in one fell swoop, Cornell was responsible for the future creation of Pearl Jam. Together they recorded an amazing and worthy album, softer than Soundgarden and showcasing the balance Cornell would come to achieve later, that stood the test of time and is now considered amongst his best work. It opens with the elegiac centrepiece “Say Hello to Heaven”, in memory of his late friend, but also the 11 minute monster “Reach Down” and the graceful “Call me a Dog” or “All Night Thing”.
Another perfect introduction to the talent that is Chris Cornell.
Between leaving Soundgarden and joining Audioslave, and vice versa, Chris Cornell released a few solo albums, from 1999’s Euphoria Morning, to 2007’s Carry On before what many consider his biggest mistake with the Timbaland-produced Scream in 2009 and culminating in 2015’s Higher Truth. If we can divide his career in three stages, we’d have the heavy experimental side first with Soundgarden and his debut Euphoria Morning, spectral grower of an album that would please most of the old crew with its unusual chord sequences and changes, dreaminess and ethereal feel.
Second album Carry On corresponds nicely to his more straightforward alternative rock period with Audioslave, containing the hallmarks of a solid rock effort, albeit with Cornell’s unique ethos permeating it. His solo records really do not sound like anything else out there. One might be tempted to point to Jeff Buckley (to whom he dedicated “Wave Goodbye”, on his first, after his death) or possibly Nick Drake with his latest record but it’s difficult to categorise him.
Chris’ solo career has been solid if unspectacular and many would point, rightly so, to 2009’s Timbaland-produced Scream as his lowest point, yet even that record, for what it was, a pop record typical of the times (and typified by Timbaland, go-to producer of those dreadfully forlorn pop years) was not the disaster many claim it to be. The title track is as catchy a Cornell tune I’ve ever heard, and although the rest are lacking, they still feature his inimitable voice and are a different breed when played acoustically.
And then came 2015’s excellent Higher Truth, an acoustic treasure of an album, complete with all sorts of intricate arrangements, instruments (mandolin!) and tunings that proved a bedrock to earnest and heartfelt lyrics laid above soft fingerpicking and seamless chord changes.
As with many of his albums, you need a few listens to properly appreciate and pick up on the many hidden facets, the nooks and crannies and the secret snippets of genius scattered throughout but you’ll be rewarded with records quite unlike any others that would comfortably sit alongside many great songwriter albums.
The basis for his Higher Truth came from the acoustic tour that preceded it, and from this tour came the magnum opus that is Songbook. It’s a 2011 live album based on this tour and acts as a sort of intimate acoustic greatest hits collection, where the setting really allows his spirit and voice to shine through. With songs from his whole vast catalogue, from Soundgarden to Audioslave, through Temple of the Dog, along with solo cuts and topped off with two covers of which a fantastic cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”, there’s neither a better epitaph nor a better initiation to the sweet and incredible talent that was Chris Cornell.
I was fortunate enough to catch his last performance in the U.K. at the majestic Royal Albert Hall in London where he only played SIX covers, from Prince to Michael Jackson, the Beatles to a mash up of U2 and Metallica.
He was an extremely well-loved figure in the music industry, amongst both peers and fans and he always come across as a genuine lovable character in documentaries such as Pearl Jam Twenty, Hype! for example. If Dave Grohl is considered the nicest guy in rock then Chris can’t be far behind, just peacefully biding his time in the corner. With all the poignant tributes pouring out for him, I just wanted to add my own to the long list and thank him for his perseverance and for having had such a positive impact and influence on my life.
I’d like to dedicate to him the very song he himself wrote for his late friend Andrew Wood.
Say hello to heaven for us Chris.