With Chris Cornell’s Death, We’ve Lost Another Of The Grunge Era’s Towering Rock Stars, And One Its Best Songwriters

For someone who grew up in the ’90s and was raised on grunge, waking up to the shocking news that Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, has died suddenly at age 52 by taking his own life conjures a wave of feelings and thoughts, almost all of them sad. Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, Shannon Hoon, and now Cornell — so many of that decade’s most towering rock singers are gone, robbed of the middle-age and senior years that the classic-rock heroes of the ’60s and ’70s have been afforded.

If you loved Soundgarden — and given the band’s run from 1989’s Louder Than Love to 1997’s Down On The Upside, you really should if you care about epic, heavy-riffing rock — it’s hard not to feel a little ripped off. After all, Soundgarden had just re-formed in 2010, released a quite good reunion LP in 2012, King Animal, and was in the process of making another album when Cornell passed. Best of all, they were still monsters on stage who acted like teddy bears toward each other. When I saw Soundgarden in 2013, they seemed to genuinely enjoy being in each others’ company, the acrimony of the late ’90s long since put to bed. This band should’ve had many more years. Given the dearth of larger-than-life bands on the planet right now, we needed Soundgarden to continue. But it’s over, and I sort of can’t believe it.

I’m also thinking of the scenes from Pearl Jam Twenty in which Cornell talks about his late friend, Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, and how their relationship shaped his life and art when they roomed together in the late ’80s. In the ’90s, Soundgarden became the Led Zeppelin of its generation, specializing in the sort of mile-wide riffs and endless swagger that had became passé around the time that John Bonham died, and has now become virtually extinct in modern popular music. But in the ’80s, Soundgarden was half-legitimate hard rock band, and half-exercise in post-punk piss-taking. People forget that the band’s debut album, 1988’s Ultramega OK, is actually kind of funny, a word that would never again be associated with Soundgarden. But wacky experiments like “665” and “667” gleefully mocked the conventions of heavy metal — it was the band’s own self-aware musical version of This Is Spinal Tap.

By the time that Cornell met Wood, however, he was moving in a more serious, soulful direction. And Wood, an outsized personality who modeled himself after Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury, helped to spur that change. As roommates, Cornell and Wood were competitors, writing songs all the time and trying to top each other. With his darkly handsome good looks, long locks and breathtaking arena-rock voice, Cornell could’ve coasted on his natural frontman charisma. (He was the rare ’90s singer influenced by old-school hard rock who could’ve easily slotted into one of those ’70s bands.)

But during this period, Cornell started evolving into one of the best and most underrated songwriters of the grunge generation. Cornell’s talent was always finding a place for melody and intimacy in the space of enormous rock songs. He could swing the hammer of the gods, but he did it with finesse and sensitivity. All of my favorite Soundgarden songs — “Rusty Cage,” “Fell On Black Days,” “‘The Day I Tried To Live,” “4th of July,” “Blow Up The Outside World” — take unexpected turns. Cornell might slip a beautiful bridge into the angriest rager, an insightful lyric inside of a scream, a nod to the Stooges beneath the thickest Sabbath riff. There were more facets to Chris Cornell’s art than he usually got credit for.

The paths that Cornell and Wood took after they roomed together couldn’t have diverged more widely. Cornell went on to shepherd one of the most popular rock bands of the ’90s, join one of the most popular rock bands of the ’00s, perform a monumentally weird cover of “Billie Jean,” get sober, and reform Soundgarden, reclaiming the band’s legacy as one of the top hard-rock groups of its time. Wood, meanwhile, died tragically in 1990 of a heroin overdose. Few were as devastated as Cornell. He poured his grief into the one-off tribute album Temple Of The Dog, recorded with his Soundgarden co-hort, Matt Cameron, and Wood’s former bandmates in Mother Love Bone, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, as well as Mike McCready, the guitarist in those guys’ new band, Pearl Jam.

In Pearl Jam Twenty, it’s clear that Cornell is still devastated by Wood’s death. He weeps openly at the memory of his friend. He refers to it as a “death of innocence” moment — for the Seattle scene and, perhaps, for himself.

Chris Cornell for me is one of those musicians who has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve cared about music. I’ve adored his songs, I’ve not-adored his songs, I’ve revered him, I’ve made fun of him — I’ve done all the things you do with icons that you come to take for granted because they’ve never not been there. But after Pearl Jam Twenty, things changed for me. Chris Cornell looked and sounded like a rock god, and he always will be to me. But I was reminded that he was also just a guy. Cornell had an innate sense of humanity that he infused into whatever he did, good or bad. He wasn’t some distant rock star issuing proclamations from up on high. He was an artist who dared to make himself vulnerable, time and again.

This morning I’ve been playing my favorite Chris Cornell song on repeat, 1991’s “Seasons,” from the Singles soundtrack. “Seasons” is Cornell’s grand stab at aspiring to the grandeur and beauty of Led Zeppelin III — it’s a tribute to his talent that he absolutely achieves this lofty goal. I’ve been trying to nail down what this song is about, but Internet searches and deadlines are conspiring against me. I’ve always interpreted it as a song about grief, and I’ve always assumed that this grief was for Andrew Wood.

“And I’m lost, behind / The words I’ll never find / And I’m left behind / As seasons roll on by.”

Terrible things happen but the world keeps spinning. Chris Cornell is gone, but I’m grateful he left this song behind to help us process that. His humanity lives on.