When I was 14, there were two people that made me want to play the guitar. One, predictably, was Slash from Guns n’ Roses. The other was Chris Cornell. Although Cornell didn’t throw the guitar hero shapes that Slash did, and lead guitar noodling duties were passed to the virtuoso Kim Thayil, playing like Cornell felt like an achievable yet still highly aspirational goal. I bought a black Les Paul (copy) as a result.
His inimitable multi-range vocals undoubtedly overshadowed his guitar playing prowess. From his nasal screech from Soundgarden‘s Louder than Love days to the deep soulful drawl of The 4th of July et al, Cornell hit the notes you could only dream of. I later bought the Superunknown guitar book and tried to both sing and play in the same way. It felt hollow.
What joined all the dots together was his song writing. I remember reading a review which described Cornell (on The Day I Tried To Live in particular) as a “wordsmith” and that blew me away. That’s what I wanted to be. I poured over Cornell’s lyrics, deciphering the connotations where I could. His lyrics largely felt removed from my reality yet somehow still relatable. “I stole a thousand beggars’ change and gave it to the rich” had me thinking, “That’s me! Sort of.” And this was what set them apart from their Seattle contemporaries Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and, yes, Nirvana.
I saw Soundgarden perform at the Wolves Civic (I think) on the Superunknown tour, so around 1994. It was back in the days when you bought your ticket from a record shop (in this case, Rockaboom in Leicester) and it came with the bus pass included to make sure you got there. I remember that there was genuine concern that the floor was going to cave in, as it bent and bowed under our feet as the crowd bounced up and down. It was the first time I’d seen Chris Cornell in the flesh: I was shocked. He looked ill. Emaciated. Singing seemed uncomfortable to him and he was a shadow of the man I’d once seen in the Outshined video.
Years passed and my interest in Soundgarden waned although my love remained. The disappointment of Down on the Upside (1996) coincided with a growing interest in British indie acts but I kept an ear on what Soundgarden were offering. After they split, Cornell’s Euphoria Morning (1999) hogged my Discman for months on end and shortly after, he did the impossible and essentially replaced Zack de la Rocha in Rage against the Machine. My infatuation was temporarily stoked again. But something was missing. I felt pangs of pride when Audioslave’s Shadow of the Sun soundtracked a peaceful and poignant moment in Michael Mann’s crime thriller Collateral (2004) and this feeling was only amplified when You Know My Name was showcased as the Bond theme for the reinvigorated spy series.
After that? I just assumed he would always be there, ready to go crawling back to and to fall in love with all over again. Four solo albums remain undiscovered and Soundgarden’s final album King Animal still sits in the cellophane. But as of this morning, it feels too late.
I was heartbroken to hear of his death, but I was crushed to hear that it was suicide.