I can vividly remember the first time I heard Chris Cornell sing.
I was 17 years old, and in the full bloom of my teenage metalhead phase. I had a mullet – a big, curly, flowing one – and a ridiculous jean jacket. I’d discovered Metallica three years prior, which kicked off my love for all things heavy, and just one year before, Megadeth’s Rust in Peace had been released, and I was still convinced that it was the best album ever made. I still didn’t know what to do with Nirvana – Nevermind was only a few months old, but people in my high school were talking about it. I found it pretty simple, but I would, given I’d spent years immersed in technical metal tunes.
I had no idea that Seattle was about to take over the world. I’d been familiar with Mother Love Bone and bought Pearl Jam’s Ten (because of course I did, everyone who was alive and cognizant in 1991 bought Ten) and Alice in Chains’ Facelift, but totally missed Temple of the Dog, and so I missed the idea that this was a scene, a movement, a powerhouse. And I also missed that Soundgarden had already led the way with two albums, including one on a major label. I’d never heard of them.
All I knew about Soundgarden was wrapped up in the five minutes and ten seconds of “Outshined,” the first of their songs I heard. I don’t know if you all remember this, but MTV used to play music videos, like, all the time. (The M stood for Music. And now you know, and knowing is half the battle.) The video for “Outshined” looks like metal. Hell, it features a bunch of it – it’s set at a foundry, where we see saws buzzing and hammers striking anvils and pits of molten something bubbling.
So I was already in, and then the song. The song! It was slow and sludgy, built on one of those riffs that feels mired in mud. But this one soared. There’s a pre-chorus that I would have accepted as the chorus, and then the chorus itself lifts off with the single most memorable melody from the Seattle scene to that point. And out front, shirtless and wild-haired, was Chris Cornell, singing like some strange combination of Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury, just nailing it.
I bought Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden’s third album, that week, and was confronted with music unlike any I’d heard. It was metal, but it wasn’t – Soundgarden remained unconcerned with how fast or how precisely they could play, but they weren’t sloppy, either. A song like “Rusty Cage” piled on the tricky time signatures, even more than Rush at that time, and something like “Slaves and Bulldozers” took that thick, powerful sound and ran you over with it, slowly. They were heavy, but they also had melodies to spare, and it was clear even on this early record that Cornell could sing anything.
It would be a disservice to call these early Soundgarden albums “humble beginnings,” but there was no way I could have known that Cornell’s voice would be a constant in my life for the next 25 years. I’ve often said that I would listen to Cornell sing anything, and he gave me plenty of opportunities to prove it.
I know it’s cliché, but 1994’s Superunknown is not only my favorite Soundgarden album, but may also be my favorite thing to come out of the ‘90s Seattle craze. Even the ubiquity of “Black Hole Sun” hasn’t dimmed that record for me. (I thought “My Wave” was gonna be the big hit. Shows what I know.) Even at a time when everything on the radio was heavy and grunge-y, Superunknown stood out. The songs were tighter than a drum, and Cornell was nothing less than a rock star, able to belt it out with the best of them and hit subtler spaces at will.
I remember having a conversation with my girlfriend at the time and being unable to concentrate because the radio station in the background was playing unreleased songs from 1996’s Down on the Upside. (That relationship didn’t work out, but I don’t think it was solely because my attention was divided that night.) I remember buying the soundtrack to Great Expectations in 1998 almost entirely for “Sunshower,” our first taste of what Cornell’s solo career would be like, and being blown away by the tender nature of the thing, and the utter purity of his voice. I adored Euphoria Morning, that first solo album – it proved that Cornell was a hell of a songwriter too.
And yeah, I shook my head at his cover of “Billie Jean,” and was mystified by 2009’s Scream, a collaboration with Timbaland that was one part electro-pop, one part hip-hop and three parts confusing. But damn if Cornell didn’t love taking risks like that. Audioslave was certainly a risk, marrying that subtle, supple voice with three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine, one of the most single-minded, thunderous rock bands around. It worked, though. More than that, it turned into a strong argument for Chris Cornell as a rock god.
In recent years Cornell reformed Soundgarden, issuing the surprisingly strong reunion album King Animal, and gave us one of his best solo albums, the folksy Higher Truth. Things seemed from the outside to be going well, which just goes to show that you never know. I woke up Thursday morning to the news that Cornell had finished a Soundgarden show in Detroit, returned to his hotel room and hung himself. He was only 52.
I still don’t even know what to do with this information. I feel like I want to talk about depression and suicide – I’ve been living with the former for most of my life, and have definitely thought about the latter. Stories like this one have a tendency to knock me off my axis. But everything I want to say about it sounds clichéd and trite. Depression is sneaky and invisible, and affects people in different ways, and I don’t know that anyone could have helped Cornell. I’m sure there’s no shortage of people blaming themselves this week for not seeing the signs, but they’re very hard to see. Cornell suffered for a long time with addictions, and it sounds like a different kind of addiction might have played a part here.
It also strikes me that the music we loved during the ‘90s was largely about depression and how to deal with it, Cornell’s music included. Among the first lines I ever heard him sing were “I can’t get any lower, still feel like I’m sinking.” “Fell on Black Days” is an obvious one, as is “Let Me Drown.” A huge percentage of grunge songs were about drug addiction or depression, and we’ve now lost four leading lights to drugs or suicide. I never quite took the self-loathing and pain of those songs as seriously as, clearly, I should have.
But what I really want to talk about is Cornell’s voice, and how sad it is that we’re never going to hear it again. It’s still strange to think about. Cornell was such a constant presence – every couple of years since I was 17, I’ve been able to hear him sing something new. His voice was such a part of my life that I never even considered that one day that voice would be gone.
I’ve seen several people sharing this video of Cornell covering Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and I wanted to share it too, for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s awesome. For another, both Cornell and Prince are now gone, taken before their time. But most importantly to me, it shines a spotlight on that voice, here in an unfamiliar setting, singing a song you might not expect from him. And he absolutely slays it. Here’s where I might say something like “I’ve rarely heard his voice sound this beautiful,” except that’s not true. His voice always sounded this beautiful. He was the finest singer of the ‘90s Seattle scene. I would listen to him sing anything. I wish I could keep on listening.
I hope you rest in peace, Chris. I’m sorry you were in so much pain. And I hope we learn to be good to one another, to listen to one another, to really hear one another. No one is alone, no matter how it may sometimes feel like it. There is always light. There is always love.
Obviously, that’s all for this week. Next week I’ll try to write a longer one, with reviews of Slowdive, the Alarm, Linkin Park and The Lulls in Traffic. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.