There is no clean, easy way to sum up the career of an icon. It is especially difficult to do so when gazing backwards after their passing from this mortal coil. There are words we want to say to describe our admiration, amazement, and appreciation and those are just the words that start with “a”. There is the duality of the devotion; by the artist towards their work and, ideally, to their fans as well as that same being reciprocated by those fans. At some point during the arc of an artist’s career, fans sustain their devotion and deep appreciation because of the connection that is made through words, art, a sense of “not so alone”-ness that they receive. We may never meet them but we feel as if we know them because of how open they are, how very real and human they allow themselves to be.
Chris Cornell was nothing if not human albeit one with otherworldly pipes and a mind ripe with the ability to form words and phrases in such a way as to simultaneously connect and befuddle listeners and onlookers. By all accounts he was a contemplative person who loved his inner circle very much but he wasn’t alone in his troubles. His imperfections, those that his fans knew about anyway, bred a certain closeness strengthening the bond they had with the performer. He was one of rock’s golden but least gilded gods.
We have lost another great one but his legacy speaks for itself. We will miss you, Mr. Cornell. Our condolences from the Heavy Blog Family to yours.
Read on for what our staff and special contributors feel is a sampling of some of the best work over the course of Chris Cornell’s amazingly moving career.
Temple of the Dog – “Hunger Strike”
Temple of the Dog were a hastily formed band of musicians and friends paying homage to fallen friend and fellow musician Andrew Wood. Wood was the singer for Mother Love Bone. A band who had been widely tipped in the late 80s as the “next big thing” out of Seattle never realized that potential when he died of a heroin overdose in early 1990. Cornell was Wood’s roommate at the time and went on to seek out Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard who were in Mother Love Bone before going on to form Pearl Jam to pay musical tribute, in the form of Temple of the Dog (the band name being a reference to Mother Love Bone’s “Man of Golden Words”), to their fallen friend. So, knowing that back story, part of what made this such a remarkable song is because you can actually hear Cornell out-sing Eddie Vedder on what is essentially, musically-speaking, a Pearl Jam track with Soundgarden flourishes. It’s no knock on Vedder as his presence on the track seems to make Cornell dig deep for an amazing performance. It could be argued that “Say Hello 2 Heaven”, a track penned exclusively by Chris, is stronger but for its staying power (after a 1992 re-release as well as the 2006 re-issue) the lead single from this album holds a certain place in the pantheon of Cornell’s best work.
The track opens with Cornell holding court over a clean picked Stone Gossard riff that lends itself to what visuals the group achieve in the video of a campfire jam session. The riff itself is so laidback that the comfortable feel of the vocal delivery hits in a way that is immediately catchy. As the mic gets passed to Vedder the song feels less like a competition than a friendly duet and the song’s tension builds with the Pearl Jam frontman in the fore of the mix with Soundgarden’s leader nailing the highs in the background. The crashing “Soundgarden” mini-riff is cathartic each time through and ending the song on it serves as a weary halt to an emotionally draining recognition to a fallen friend.
Soundgarden – “Outshined”
“Outshined” was simply the perfect “grunge” song. While I was much more partial to “Jesus Christ Pose” it is hard to deny that the functioning parts of Soundgarden are at their peak on Badmotorfinger as an album and this track as the single. For those who don’t know, “Jesus Christ Pose” was the first single from the album and re-introduced fans to a sleeker, dare I say, more organized yet still noisy and manic Soundgarden but it wasn’t until “Outshined” was released in December of 1991 (the winter of 1991-92 was when grunge hit its pinnacle only to come crashing down in Spring of 1994 with Cobain’s death) that the band broke into the level of stardom achieved by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains (“Smells Like…” arrived in September ’91 while “Alive” was released in August; “Man in the Box” had been playing well to the larger metal audience since March of that year).
But “Outshined” hits all of the blues-y, sludge-y marks the band had cultivated on earlier releases and shows off a clean breakdown in the mid-section before taking off again at the prompting of a trademark Cornell wail that makes the track iconic. That the pump had been primed by the other members of grunge’s “Big 4” for Soundgarden to finally take off with the masses can’t be dismissed but this track as much as anything else summed up neatly the elements that made grunge, musically, what it was at its most nascent and, arguably, potent.
Chris Cornell – “Seasons”
There’s a reason why Cameron Crowe asked Cornell to use this song for his seminal film encapsulating, somewhat awkwardly yet endearingly, the popularized version of 90s “alternative” (in the MTV 120 Minutes sense of the word) culture. The one big thing the film has going for it when you strip away what almost feels like a parody of what people imagined Seattle was like in that period is the soundtrack. It’s practically flawless in execution and curation (the inclusion of Midwestern alt-rock icons, Paul Westerberg and Smashing Pumpkins, was an interesting and ultimately essential choice) highlighted by the presence of a Cornell not many had seen or heard at this point. Coming on the heels of Badmotorfinger this solo acoustic number was already one of the more delightful surprises in the film and on the soundtrack.
The immediate thing a listener will take note of on this track is the expansive guitar. The odd tuning and production provide a lot of the power but it’s the drop into Cornell’s voice in its sweetest form. What is striking is the earnest nature of the delivery that lend themselves to comparisons to Robert Plant on one side and something more stubbornly blue-y. That the track is this melding of these elements makes it all the more compelling, as if “Battle of Evermore” were cross-pollinated with something out of Neil Young’s deep catalog. What it comes down to, though, is the soul that Cornell’s voice always reverberated with is in gut-wrenching form here.
Audioslave – “Like a Stone”
While this ballad from the supergroup of Rage with a side of Cornell was a massive hit in the early ‘00s it still didn’t feel “the same” for fans of the bands this group came from. The convenient marriage of these “alt”-rockers seemed to frustrate as many listeners as those who celebrated them. The potential that many felt Audioslave should have hit never really seemed to materialize though they did experience their own massive popularity.
On this track, more than any other in their catalog, it’s Cornell’s voice that carries the weight. Morello’s guitar tricks are inseparable from this piece but the way Chris sings around those lines is what gives the track the needed gravitas that would sink a lesser vocalist into the depths of schmaltz. The band wisely lay back on this to allow the vocals to be front and center though the mix, as was problematic on the whole with this album, seems to attempt to get all four members to the same spot. At the “louder” portions of the song the vocal highs are often fighting for space with the guitars and cymbals. Even then, it’s Cornell’s pipes rising ever higher that grab the attention of the listener.
Soundgarden – “Fourth of July”
Choosing “Fourth of July” might be a somewhat unconventional pick but it’s honestly one of the best Soundgarden tracks out there and even one of the best grunge/rock tracks in existence. Its secret lies in the complexity of its structure, hiding behind the treacherous outward simplicity of its presentation. It’s a track almost off-kilter from its contrasts, balancing tone, message and melody in an intriguing way.
The secret is, of course, in Cornell’s voice and delivery. The main vocal lines are resplendent drawl, dragging the track along as was often the grunge frontman’s job. However, the much higher octave backing tracks are what sets the vocal performance alight, giving the track a shine which clashes strongly with the rest of the delivery. The guitars pick up on this clash, moving from the slow crawl of the main riff towards the flourishes of the two solos, the bright, treble-y sounds of the leads dancing with boundless friction on top of the main weight of the chords.
These contrasts make the track endlessly fascinating, granting the listener access again and again to the unique emotional space which it exudes. That’s why it’s so unique within the band’s discography and the genre; oft overlooked, “Fourth of July” is a true testament to the writing and performing prowess of Cornell and one of the reasons he’ll always be an important and even legendary figure in rock’s history.
Soundgarden – “New Damage”
The power of closing tracks is a fascinating thing. They serve as a last impression, and in this case, Badmotorfinger closer “New Damage” always seemed to leave me salivating for a repeat listen – and it’s largely due to Cornell’s remarkable performance. Though it’s one of my favorite Soundgarden songs, it’s a relatively basic composition by their standards, and one of the least interesting, lyrically (though it’s a still-relevant jab at the far-right). But its spartan construction makes for a simple and blunt statement, providing the perfect environment for Cornell (and Thayil) to really let it rip.
Within the first five seconds, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hellacious opening for a doom standard, but Cornell takes it to the next level with a boiled-alive scream, and comes out of it unscathed with a wail that would make Rob Halford blush. His control is outright masterful, reigning in seemingly limitless power and flourishing his words with a relative ease – basically making this song his vocal playground. Though he’s more steadily paced and deliberate with his delivery at first, he becomes progressively more unhinged throughout the track by ramping things up, intensifying his delivery with uncommon aggression, adding both bite and depth to the lyrics, ultimately responding to a new world order with chaos.
The song’s trudge is broken up nicely by a shining example of what’s probably the most underrated feature of his work: writing perfect call-and-response-type hooks. His warning, “the wreck is going down” is mirrored by a hopeless beckon of “get out before you drown” that slides down his register on the final three words for added effect. This too, though, is eventually escalated, becoming more chaotic before everything spirals out of control and he’s suddenly howling “get out before you drown” alongside a Thayil amp-melting solo. It’s something that nobody really does because honestly, they shouldn’t. It’s a space reserved for legends.
Audioslave – “Cochise”
With the dissolution of Rage Against the Machine at the turn of the century, the massive rift between vocalist Zack de la Rocha and the remaining members of the band seemed irreparable, though the four would reunite briefly from 2007 to 2011 for a series of shows, only to once again go on an indefinite hiatus. In the interim, then-former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who had also experienced a split with his main project a few years prior in 1997, would fill the void left by de la Rocha to form Audioslave in 2001 alongside guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk. The supergroup would go on to release three albums, the first of which would spearhead the post-grunge movement and influence later acts that would embody the sound before becoming part of that new wave of music.
“Cochise” begins with Morello’s signature effects at play; the slow, scratchy build-up leading into the thick bass accompaniment and droning drums before all these familiar pieces culminate in the song’s backbone of a riff before introducing Cornell’s iconic wail to round out this new sound that’s not quite Rage Against the Machine and not quite Soundgarden, but something a little in between. The religious overtones in the lyrics betray the aggressive nature of the song itself, which Morello said was inspired by and named after the Apache chief, echoing his personality traits of fearlessness and resolution in the music.
Beyond that, “Cochise” signified a new era for all the musicians involved. Though Audioslave would go on to evolve their sound completely outside of this meeting of two already-established forces of rock, this anthemic introduction, in all its viciousness and force was akin to a thunderclap after a long period of quiet. “We hope you didn’t forget about us,” it boomed, “because we’re back.”
Chris Cornell – “Follow My Way”
While the song lacks the musical heaviness delivered by Kim Thayil or Tom Morello, this gem from Cornell’s 1999 solo album Euphoria Morning highlights the emotional heaviness Cornell brought to any song at his disposal. Many of the songs above are praised for the emotion wrought by his voice, but “Follow My Way” shows Cornell’s massively underrated talent as a lyricist. Cornell’s struggles with mental illness are no secret, and by his own admission he sank deep into vices such as alcohol and OxyContin after the 1997 dissolution of Soundgarden. The result was Euphoria Morning (originally titled the more appropriate Euphoria Mourning, the album was renamed under label pressure), a psychedelic pop-rock offering about the weary soul behind the curtain of Cornell’s reluctant 90’s sex symbol/grunge god status.
Several Euphoria Morning tracks are self-effacing pleas for his fans and loved ones to recognize his façade, summed up in “Follow My Way”’s opening line, “Little one, don’t be a fool. I’m a wreck when I look mighty.” Cornell isn’t the “boy bathed in infrared and sunlight” that he knows the listener is looking for, “only pure when I get lost.” But while tracks like “Can’t Change Me,” “When I’m Down,” and “Flutter Girl” warn the listener of the futility and danger of loving him, “Follow My Way” asks the listener to brace for his chaos and love him anyway. The gorgeous and intimate imagery (“In euphoria I’m bruised,” “I’m the pain, fever, and sweet relief in one,” “Warm your hands inside my veins, I might be contagious”) certainly make it easy to fall for him.
This is not to say that Cornell’s lyrics carry “Follow My Way” more than his voice. “Follow My Way” shows Cornell at his most emotionally vulnerable. Listen to the strain during the final lyrics, “When all you know is that I don’t know where we are, when all you know is that I don’t know, follow my way.” Cornell has hit higher notes with ease. The finale demonstrates a knack for using the right vocal techniques for the right mood. Cornell knows he is lost. Cornell knows he will only further ruin the listener with his doubts. Yet as he begs for the listener to follow his way anyway, Cornell solidifies “Follow My Way”’s place amongst the most heart-wrenching songs of his discography.
Soundgarden – “Beyond The Wheel”
This fan favorite from Soundgarden’s 1988 debut LP Ultramega OK lies in the middle of a trilogy: “665”/”Beyond the Wheel”/”667.” The implication can be seen from a mile away, but not even previous tracks “Flower” and “All Your Lies” could predict the terror of “Beyond the Wheel.” (“665” and “667” are filler tracks satirizing the “Satanic panic” obsession with backmasking, with Cornell professing his love for Santa Claus on “665”) Over a menacing repetition of an open Drop-d power chord choked by the 5th harmonic, Cornell intones a warning of disaster. But how will you survive? Can you do what is expected of you and protect your young?
This introduction features some of the lowest notes in Cornell’s vocal range. Yet within thirty seconds, Cornell launches himself over three octaves higher, hitting some of the highest notes of his discography. Only “Smokestack Lightning,” “Power Trip,” and “Jesus Christ Pose” feature higher notes, and only “Jesus Christ Pose” matches the power and sustain. His question “Mother, who’s your man?” explodes past Matt Cameron’s drum lead-in like a volcano, wrapping around Kim Thayil’s guitar leads to drive the 666 deep into heart of this song. Is Cornell himself the bearer of whatever chaos was foretold? No one knows, but it’s gripping as fuck.
When Soundgarden performed “Beyond The Wheel” in Düsseldorf, Germany (4/16/1990), Cornell spent the first thirty seconds loudly declaring Jesus to be his friend, just to amp up the dread. The one time I was blessed enough to see the song performed live (8/10/2014), Cornell’s improvisation in the final verse revealed a new dimension of fear. Instead of simply repeating “We’re driving flesh and blood deep into the ground” from the last verse, he sang “We’re driving flesh and flesh and flesh, deep. Deep. Deep.” with a straight-faced tension reminiscent of Birthday Party-era Nick Cave (Think “Junkyard”). No matter which version you choose, the outro track “667” sums up the experience of “Beyond The Wheel.” Played at just the right volume, the song fades out and disappears save for one sound: A 23-year-old Cornell, seemingly smiling to himself, remarks, “Cool.” Indeed.
Soundgarden – “Kristi”
What’s a retrospective without a b-side? Better yet, a 1995 outtake from Down on the Upside, although the drop-tuned “Kristi” feels more like a bastard child of Badmotorfinger. Besides serving as another opportunity for Cornell to flex his vocal range, “Kristi” finds Cornell taking on the character of an emotionally abusive lover. While it would be easy to take the lyrics at face value and write this song off as regressive, something stops this song from coming off earnest. Perhaps the demands are so outrageous that it feels like a caricature of machismo bullshit? (“Big Dumb Sex” is another Soundgarden song that critiqued the aggressively hypermasculine sexuality of 80s hair metal by going over-the-top to the point of mockery) The idea that the increasing fury comes from the hypothetical “Kristi” knowing she doesn’t deserve this treatment?
The song begins with a deep croon that could lure a hundred Kristi’s into Cornell’s grasp. It’s almost tempting to tell him what he wants to hear, that the listener is weak without him and will never sleep without him. Yet Cornell presses on, changing out sexuality for taunting as he jabs harder the listener’s self-esteem. As Cornell’s narrator turns up the pressure, the band mirrors the descent by playing just a bit louder, just a bit more frenetic as the attempts to control “Kristi” grow more serious. Now the listener can’t walk or run without him, can’t feel or breathe without him. Except “Kristi” obviously can, because the final round finds Cornell’s narrator dropping every pretense of affability to scream the listener into the ground. This time, Cornell pulls no punches. “You’ll only break without me!” he shouts, “You’ll never make it without me!” His vocal delivery is unhinged yet calculated, like all abuse. If the listener will not stay with Cornell’s narrator out of love, the listener will stay with Cornell’s narrator out of fear. When Cornell drags out his final declaration “You’re going to die without me!” ad nauseam, the result is both ridiculous and horrifying. The listener must either escape while they still can, or look within themselves and see what they’ve become in their own obsession with possessing their “Kristi.”