The Sound & The Fury: The Passing of Chris Cornell
The sudden, tragic passing of rock vocalist Chris Cornell at an MGM Grand Casino in Detroit is a reminder of the passing of an era- the post-glam grunge hurricane of the 1990s- and a reminder of what is lacking in modern rock n’ roll, if not modern popular music in general.
While in recent years Cornell had been mostly releasing diverse solo efforts with wildly mixed results, his legacy will be based on having fronted the grunge band Soundgarden. Cornell’s death- for now ruled as a suicide- is heartbreaking, but it revives memories of a recent past when the angst, uncertainty and sense of wandering of an entire generation was expressed through a powerful sound and fury.
Cornell’s was the most primal and scorching voice of the roster of Seattle bands that raided the charts like Mongols two decades ago. After the synth-driven, party hard debauchery of 1980s hair metal and pop rock, grunge was the beautifully gothic hangover. The genre combined the social rebellion and anarchy of Punk with the fierce wall of sound common in heavy metal. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” announced the revolution in 1991 with the generational anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Soon the landscape was dominated by defining bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and of course, Cornell’s Soundgarden. Crass imitators like Creed would close the decade selling out stadiums. This was the post-Cold War Clinton era when the economy was booming and the internet was new. In a sense grunge was miles ahead of its time because it would feel more at home now, when millennials are dominated by the need to conform, an uncertain job market and social pressures to be defined by bank accounts and social status. The illness in American society is what drove Kurt Cobain to scream “here we are now, entertain us,” and for Cornell to belt that he would “break my rusty cage and run.”
It is interesting to play “Spoonman,” one of Soundgarden’s hit singles from their 1994 masterpiece “Superunknown,” and hear just how raw, ferocious and strong its tribal, ritualistic rhythm feels when compared to newer, softer fare that’s in vogue these days (The Lumineers). If folk strumming is now the comfortable norm, in another classic Soundgarden cut, “Fell On Black Days,” Cornell’s four-octave voice croons a soul-infused howl while guitarist Kim Thayil drowns the track in neo-psychedelic washes of heavy riffing. Being mostly born in the 60s, grunge bands commonly referenced bands of that period, combining their inventiveness with a modern, dark heart. Soundgarden’s most famous track, “Black Hole Sun,” is a slow burner that sounds like The Beatles fit for the Age of Trump.
Cornell was always a songwriter of poetic and baroque longings and depth. It is hard to imagine what is going on inside anyone’s most private selves, but whether in a band or as a soloist, Cornell always seemed to be channeling the moods of a society surrounded by materialism, and seeking more, even if there was nothing at the end of the tunnel. There was a special sincerity, even vulnerability in his words and voice- a nakedness you wouldn’t hear in much of today’s manufactured product. If today’s music seems to provide escape from a darkening world, Cornell and the grunge movement were its melodic reflection. Like Goya’s Black Paintings, grunge was art as exorcism. It was like a culmination of history, where everything that came before was infected or changed by the times. Cornell’s voice was regularly compared to Robert Plant, but unlike Led Zeppelin, his work with Soundgarden and Audioslave was nearly devoid of sex, it was about angst. When he did sing about love it wasn’t immersed in lust, but in the sheer need to not be alone.
In 1997 Soundgarden disbanded and in 2001 Cornell joined the former members of the political band Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave. Just in time for the era of Bush and the Iraq War, the band found a middle ground between Cornell’s visionary lyricism and the other members’ focus on social rebellion. But there is a painfully reflective voice in all of these songs. Consider the visceral track “Show Me How to Live,” where behind Tom Morello’s crunching guitar Cornell sings “nail in my hand/from my creator/you gave me life now show me how to live.” The band’s biggest hit, “Like A Stone,” is essentially a mourning ballad where a man waits for death. Even a sunny tune like “Doesn’t Remind Me” features a line lamenting “I don’t want to learn what I’ll need to forget.”
In 2007 Audioslave also disbanded and Cornell was left as a wandering voice. He scored some interesting hits such as the theme song for the James Bond movie “Casino Royale,” “You Know My Name,” and a notorious flop in the Timbaland collaboration “Scream.” Grunge by then was almost a relic. Charts were and are dominated by the likes of Coldplay, The Lumineers and 21 Pilots- music that is at times cold, insincere and mostly filtered through an electronic haze that captures our tech-overwhelmed society. The beat has overtaken the words.
In 2010 Soundgarden reunited and began touring, even releasing a new album, “Animal Kingdom.” It was after performing in Detroit on Wednesday night that Cornell was found on a bathroom floor, with a band around his neck. He already had a history of suffering from alcoholism and stints at rehab. Even in the depths of addiction however, the man was always electrifying on stage.
It is the latest tragic loss in a genre that has witnessed its greatest talents die of overdose or suicide. In 1994 Kurt Cobain shot himself, in 2002 Alice in Chain’s Layne Staley died of an overdose and in 2015 Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots was found dead in his tour bus, also the victim of drugs. It’s as if a generation of dark composers were consumed by the angst of their own visions. They are a metaphor for a society that doesn’t know where it’s going, but it knows it is hurting. Pity the millennials, because they now come of age in a time when the president is a naked personification of everything violent and terrible about their civilization, the system is going insane, opportunity is a distant mirage and they have no one to write their ballads. But sincere art survives the gales of time, and whatever storms Chris Cornell was suffering in a private hell, his voice is preserved in the airwaves to croon is into the long, dark night.