The Roar Inside the Silence
FEW of us expected to start the day…
to the news that Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell had died. I was tuned in, like I do every weekday morning, to Shaun Keaveny’s breakfast show (on ‘6 Music) and heard the awful news – something that tangibly affected both Keaveny and Matt Everitt in a very direct way. More details are coming to light but all we know is Cornell collapsed a few hours after performing a twenty-song Soundgarden gig at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. Whether a heart attack or something else; few of us care about the cause: the fact a true titan of music has left us in a deep and untimely shock. Following last year’s extraordinarily anomaly of music-related deaths; I would have thought we’d be in for an easier ride. Although we have not witnessed the same wave of tragedy as 2016; the fact Cornell is the first huge musician death of 2017 has been a gut-punch to many. Many of us are reading tributes from musicians and fans sharing their experiences of Cornell’s music. The Audioslave legend was, as we know, actively gigging and one feels new Soundgarden material would have been in his mind. Brian Bumbery, Cornell’s representative, broke the news, and with it, plunged the music world into a state of mourning. One cannot talk about Grunge and Rock without talking about Chris Cornell. He is a stalwart and hugely influential songwriter who has inspired a legion of bands and artists. Think about those titan-voice singers and you’d imagine Robert Plant and Axl Rose, perhaps. Cornell, to me, topped them all due to his sheer power and emotion. My first exposure to Soundgarden was, rather oddly, witnessing their Black Hole Sun video when it came out in 1994.
IN THIS PHOTO: Chris Cornell’s Soundgarden
The Superunknown standout remains Soundgarden’s signature song and its video is one of the most vivid and strange in all of music. As a ten-year-old; it was an eye-opening experience and one that opened my eyes to the joys and potency of Cornell. That incredible, enraptured voice got into my mind and is still there. I cannot think of him without thinking: how many people have the same strength and courage as him? As a singer, his range defied odds and scored some of the biggest Rock/Grunge anthems of all-time. After that Black Hole Sun introduction – outside a tavern at night on a Greek Island – I was keen to explore their catalogue and started from the mid-1980s. The Seattle band’s most-famous album was Superunknown. In a way, it gained significance and new light following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. The Grunge godfather was a big inspiration for a lot of bands at the time and one cannot help listening to songs like Black Hole Sun and thinking of Cobain. For an album that explored depression, suicide and life’s darker sides: it remains one of the most uplifting, compelling and accessible albums I have ever heard. The band are incredible but it is Cornell’s immense voice and lyrical nuances that make it such a staggering record.
Fell on Black Days has that hooky chorus and looks deep inside Cornell’s soul; Limo Wreck harks back to the most lion-roar moments of Badmotorfinger while Spooman is that brilliantly quirky and addictive track. Cornell’s voice is never simple and predictable. There are softer moments and tender asides; huge, bellicose declarations and a range of emotions running through every song. Badmotorfinger, the predecessor, is a more fierce and raw album that really shows how intense Cornell’s voice could be. Listen to Slaves and Bulldozers, Jesus Chris Pose and Rusty Cage and witness that hurricane unfold. When listening to that album, I always got jealous and wonder how that bastard managed to project so much intensity and emotion. Not only does Cornell (I am always going to use the present-tense) pack a huge punch but seems to have infinite lung power. How can you sing a few lines of Jesus Christ Pose and still have any energy and voice left by the time you get to the chorus?! It is a flabbergasting mystery and one that makes Cornell’s death so unfair. He is one of the titans and true greats whose legacy and true genius can never be fully recognised.
I have been a big fan of Soundgarden since the early days and always love to play their albums if I need that rush and exhilaration. You hear Cornell and the band perform and are pumped and inspired. The arms swing in victory and the voice is primed and ready. The fact I could never credibly follow Cornell’s voice – unless I want to strip the vocal chords down – never matters. I play his music to learn about a complex and wonderful human being. I have not really dipped into Audioslave but do love their eponymous debut. The fact it united Cornell with the majority of Rage Against the Machine – except Zach de la Rocha, for obvious reasons – made it a tantalising proposition. It showed Cornell was able to slip into another band and rather than replicate Soundgarden’s work, could create something different and equally amazing.
Chris Cornell’s solo albums, aside from Scream, perhaps, are exceptional and I have listened to acoustic tracks from him and amazed how effecting his voice is when taken down. Whether stripping a Soundgarden song or tackling a standard: a singer who had no limits and just as able to buckle the knees with beauty as he was with sheer power. These kinds of artists come once, maybe twice in a generation and we have lost one of the greatest singers ever to walk the planet. Cornell, to me, was much more than a biblical voice. As a lyricist, he tackled hard and taboo themes that, today, are, perhaps, more common.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Lipsky
With Grunge innovators like Nirvana willing to unveil their demons in a very naked way; Cornell was another writer who felt little need to shroud his psychological problems. Today, there is still a stigma around mental health and songs of self-destruction but I’d like to think people like Chris Cornell have given musicians (and ordinary humans) the bravery to speak and write about these subjects. As an interviewee, as you will see in the video below, Cornell was an amiable and fascinating subject. He spoke with such wisdom, humour and honesty. In an age where musicians are either guarded or moulded into sound-byte-spewing robots, having someone like Chris Cornell dispense with the bullsh*t and say it how it was is refreshing and inspiring – more musicians should listen to the man speak and follow his example!
I know we can’t cotton-wrap musicians away from the vicissitudes and crapshoot of life. The Grime Reaper should have greater jurisprudence and understand there are certain musicians, this young in life, you do not hassle. The fact Cornell’s death was so out-of-the-blue – hours after a gig – makes it all the more appalling. When more details do arise, it will give us some explanation but, for the moment, we are all trying to wrap out heads around such a thunderbolt of sadness. This morning, I felt the same shock and colour-draining sensation when learning about David Bowie and Prince’s deaths. It will take a while for it all to sink in but I am still scrolling through the messages and words on social media: people paying tribute to a great man and a music hero. Everyone has their own attachment to Chris Cornell and none of us can quite believe what we are having to accept: we will never hear the man speak or see him in the flesh. His legacy will remain and we have that incredible body of music to remind us of what Cornell left the world. I am sure there will be tribute and concerts – in the coming weeks – that commemorate and thank Cornell for his service to music.
IN THIS PHOTO: Cornell Fronted the Band Audioslave
Make sure you dig out all the Soundgarden, Audioslave and solo music from Chris Cornell and realise why his death has left a huge hole in music. Perhaps it is best not knowing why he died – lest it was avoidable and, therefore, even more unbearable – but the clinical details do not hide the fact a vacuum is before us. Will we ever see a singer as astonishing and inspiring as Chris Cornell? In a time – the early-mid-1990s – when many of his peers were synonymous with knuckle-dragging lyrics and shallow, commercial music – the Soundgarden lead was singing about songs relevant to the listener; unconcerned with fame-chasing and generic topics that would get you on MTV. In fact, a song like Jesus Chris Pose was about those ego-minded musicians who thought they were something special. I am, like millions out there, programming the news of Chris Cornell’s death and can find few adjectives to distill my feelings. I am heartbroken and so sorry to see such a fine, and young, musician leave us. I will never stop listening to Cornell’s music but it will be tinged with sadness now. I hope the legend rests in peace and sees his peers come out in force – honouring his memory and talking about why he is so special. Thank you for the music, Mr. Cornell, and, please, wherever you are….
TAKE good care!