Chris Cornell joins fellow tragic figures of grunge

Chris Cornell is shown in a 2011 file photo. (John Carucci/The Associated Press)

Chris Cornell’s death was initially reported as “sudden and unexpected.” Well, so was he. That voice arrived like a flash crossfire hurricane. Primal and soaring, his rock wail was a weapon, unmistakable.

Of course “sudden and unexpected” is often code for suicide, which is what it was. After a Soundgarden show at the Fox Theatre, Cornell, 52, hanged himself in a Detroit hotel room. Which is a rock ’n’ roll enough way to go. And a horrible loss.

The Seattle native will be remembered for his work with Soundgarden (a band of sullenists known for moody grunge, furious heavy metal, ponderous sludge and savage psychedelia) and, to a lesser extent, Audioslave, a hard-rock collaboration formed with the disbanded members of Rage Against the Machine in 2001.

In 1991, the song Hunger Strike was released by the side project Temple of the Dog. A hit duet with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, the track spotlights Cornell’s vocal versatility and fierceness. He sang about choosing to go hungry, and maybe that’s a useful metaphor.

The prime years of Cornell and Soundgarden are represented by the 1994 album Superunknown and 1996’s Down on the Upside. The band’s most recognizable hit was Black Hole Sun, a slow, Beatlesque dreamscape marked by a pretty melody, a gorgeous sense of dread, and Cornell’s riled counter vocals to his own singing.

His line “Times are gone for honest men” refers to the moral corruptness he saw creeping in around him. “It’s really difficult for a person to create their own life and their own freedom,” Cornell told Rolling Stone in 1994. “It’s going to become more and more difficult, and it’s going to create more and more disillusioned people who become dishonest and angry… .”

Another of the song’s lines could be the Cornell’s epitaph: “Heaven sent hell away; No one sings like you anymore.”

One more standout cut on Superunknown is Fell on Black Days, which doesn’t need any explanation. Cornell battled depression and lapsed into self-medication spirals in his life.

Robert Johnson, the pre-war blues artist, sang about hell hounds on his trail. He died after drinking whisky spiked with poison (allegedly by a jealous husband). Brooding, vulnerable and vocally raging, Cornell sounded like he drank from the same bottle as Johnson.

Darkly handsome and seemingly tortured, Cornell was dug by women. And guys did too – the man’s voice was a once-in-a-generation instrument, and who wouldn’t want to possess that, if for just five minutes?

On April 20, 2011, Cornell gave a solo acoustic show at Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The material performed, some of which ended up on his live album Songbook, offered insight into his musical tastes (Led Zepplin’s Thank You, John Lennon’s Imagine, Bruce Springsteen’s State Trooper) as well as his mindset (As Hope and Promise Fade, When I’m Down and Soundgarden’s Like Suicide).

Less than three months later, Cornell was back in Toronto, with a reunited Soundgarden, at the ampitheatre on the lake. “They said a storm was coming,” Chris Cornell said to the crowd, addressing the rain, “and now here it is.”

And there he was, wearing his own private rain cloud like a halo.

With his death, Cornell joins the other tragic figures of grunge music, troubled fellow singers Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland and Alice in Chains’s Layne Staley. The grunge godfather Neil Young wrote a song about it being better to burn out than to fade away. Instead of inspiration, seems like some took the line as instruction.

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