Chris Cornell’s sudden passing was as shocking as any celebrity death, but came with a deeper sadness: with him, a chapter of rock history ended too.
Cornell had an illustrious career, though he was never a big star in his own right. He was a consummate musician but an introvert at heart. His struggle with substance abuse is well documented, not least by Cornell himself, who wrote powerfully about compulsion and addiction.
Exploding out of the Seattle grunge scene in the 90s, Cornell found massive success with Soundgarden. Tracks like ‘Rusty Cage’ and especially ‘Black Hole Sun’ remain classics of the genre. They perfectly epitomise the angst and grit of early 90s alternative rock, and how subversive and uncompromising that sound was. In the age of micro-marketed pop, it’s an attitude to composition that is sorely missed.
As a musician however, Cornell reached his peak with Audioslave. An unlikely team-up with the Rage Against the Machine boys (minus their frontman) lead to the Audioslave project. It was a dumb name for a project then, and still is now.
However the sheer destructive force of their self-titled debut has not aged a day. Savaged at the time for it’s perceived shallowness, the album saw Cornell and axeman Tom Morello at the height of their powers. Who remembers the first time they heard ‘Cochise?
Cornell’s massive voice: operatic, dirty, a voice that cracked and bowed with passion but never broke, was his calling card. Whilst he had the gruff and throaty holler that grunge music demanded, his voice communicated a depth unmatched by his peers. Over two further albums Cornell and his band pushed their sound to encompass a wealth of styles that exhibited Cornell’s breadth of expression. Most memorably, his take on the funky ‘Broken City’ which suggests Tom Waites by way of The Four Tops.
Elsewhere, Cornell came to co-write and perform the theme to the Bond reboot Casino Royale, an irony that was not lost on Cornell, who found the later films corny. It took considerable effort on the part of Sony to get him to agree, and only with the promise that Cornell would have wide control. The result, ‘You Know My Name’ was a Top 10 hit in the UK, and remains one of the most underrated of Bond themes.
Chris Cornell, such a strong and assured voice in the history of rock music, will be sorely missed.