Long before the rock mainstream co-opted the term “grunge” as a fashionable means to market a punk/metal-ish collective of artists pouring out of the Northwest, there was Soundgarden. The band was one of the formative voices of its generation, one empowered with garage rock smarts, youthful gusto and unapologetically brazen immediacy. At the center of that cyclone was Chris Cornell.
Cornell’s death on Tuesday is disturbing on a number of levels, not the least of which was its ruling Thursday afternoon as a suicide by hanging. He was 52, an elder in rock ’n’ roll terms, yet what a terribly premature age to leave the world. But there was also the image, perhaps a naïve one to those of us outside the inner workings of an artist, that all seemed well — enviable, even — with his career. He managed the impossible by balancing performance lives as a solo artist as well as with a reconstituted Soundgarden, which regrouped in 2010 after a 13 year split.
Then again, how can an audience member even begin to comprehend what plays out in the mind of an artist they adulate, especially during that performer’s offstage life? That’s ultimately what makes Cornell’s passing so disheartening.
I first saw Cornell sometime in the late 1980s — best guess is 1989 — when Soundgarden played the long gone Short Street club The Wrocklage (Shakespeare & Co. now occupies that building). Memories are scattered of that performance, mostly because I knew so little of the band at the time. But I was in the minority. With the beginnings of an indie rock revolution already taking hold, word on the band had already spread. I just hadn’t gotten the memo. Outside of Son Volt’s 1995 debut at The Wrocklage, I have never been in a club so packed with patrons as I was at the Soundgarden show. But Son Volt was a folk act compared to Cornell and company. What I do remember was how his voice — that atomic, operatic voice — seemed to rip the room right off the floorboards.
Flash forward to May 2007, almost a decade ago to the week. Cornell was a solo act playing the Louisville Palace one day after the release of “Carry On,” his first album following the breakup of Audioslave, the Los Angeles band he fronted with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
This was the evening that stuck with me. While Cornell was promoting new music, the two hour performance was essentially a career overview covering Soundgarden tunes, Audioslave music and even a few songs from Temple of the Dog, the famed but short lived early ’90s Seattle band that also boasted several members of the soon-to-be-formed Pearl Jam.
And as an unassuming nod to his star status, Cornell also performed “You Know My Name,” the theme song he wrote and recorded for the first James Bond film of the Daniel Craig era (and one of the finest Bond movies overall), “Casino Royale,” which had become an international hit the previous fall.
Cornell established his credentials at the onset of the evening, tearing into the show-opening “Spoonman” — the lead single from Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album, “Superunknown.” Hearing him blast away on the songs affirmed how much the enduring Seattle bands of that era (Pearl Jam included) owed to Cornell’s intensity as well as to his honest, even good natured stage demeanor.
This wasn’t some staged presentation of rock/metal rage. The music was triumphant and real. It may have come from a different, darker generation, but it addressed the same restlessness that fueled every rock ‘n’ roll generation before and since.