On Wednesday, May 17th, Chris Cornell and his band Soundgarden played a show at the vaunted Fox Theater in Detroit. It wasn’t the singer’s best gig. According to reports by those in attendance, he seemed to be low-energy and missed a few of the lyrics to songs he’d been singing for decades. Nevertheless, the fans left the venue feeling relatively happy, with little inkling about what was to come.
Then, tragedy struck. According to published reports, Cornell’s wife tried to get a hold of him at some point that night, but couldn’t. She reached out to a friend, who forced their way into his hotel room at the MGM Grand Hotel where they found him on the floor of the bathroom with a band tied around his neck. Chris Cornell was gone. He was only 52 years old.
In the immediate aftermath of Cornell’s death, between the glowing tributes to his abilities as a songwriter, his deep humanity, his natural charisma, his otherworldly voice, and the enomrous void he leaves behind in the realm of rock and roll, another sentiment broke out across social media; protect Eddie Vedder at all costs. Gallows humor perhaps, but one that cuts to a deep and unsettling question: What does the future hold for the grunge generation?
Lead singers are a unique entity in almost all rock bands. It may be harsh to say, but you can find another drummer to replicate backbeats and fills. Pearl Jam have actually proved that time after time. You can replace your bassist and recreate rhythms. You can get a new guitarist to lay down riffs and toss off solos. It might not be the exact thing, but you can achieve a passable facsimile. What you can’t do is change the vocal identity of a band by getting a new singer. Okay, maybe if you’re AC/DC, but they’re the exception that proves the rule.
Cornell’s death follows the premature last acts of way too many of Grunge rock’s most impactful front men. Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Kurt Cobain ended his own life with a shotgun blast on April 5, 1994. Layne Staley of Alice In Chains died on the same exact day eight years later in 2002, also of a heroin overdose. Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Buzz Osborne of the Melvins are still kicking, but amongst the Big Four bands of grunge, Vedder is the last man standing.
“I’d had friends die before that,” Cornell told Howard Stern about Cobain’s death years ago. “The way that he did it was kind of a twist, but other than that, I’d been through it before. But it’s a shame, and it’s a shame for his daughter, for one, and it’s a shame for fans. But really it’s a personal thing, and it was a drag. I wish it didn’t happen. And I also think, like, if he had just kind of hung on for six months, six months later he could’ve been a completely different guy.” I wouldn’t pretend to have any idea about what demons Cornell had been facing in his final days, but it’s hard not to carry a similar train of thought about him now.
Chris Cornell was so much more than the front man of Soundgarden. He was a totally credible solo artist in his own right. The rhapsodic acoustic Singles song “Seasons” is one of greatest things he ever produced. He was the voice and mind behind the James Bond Casino Royale theme “You Know My Name,” a thrilling, orchestra-backed rock and roll opus. He was also in two other seminal groups Temple Of The Dog and Audioslave. “Hunger Strike” from the former was one of the most inescapable anthems on rock radio in the early 1990s, and I defy you to find two songs more conducive to windows-down highway driving than “Cochise” or “Shadow Of The Sun” from the latter.
Still, despite his many, many outside achievements, Soundgarden will always be the first entity people think of when they recognize his name. Grunge itself is a very loose classification used to describe many of the bands that came out of Seattle and hit the mainstream around the same time in the mid-1990s. There’s actually not that much “grunginess” in Soundgarden’s sound and aesthetic. They had far more in common with giants of the ‘70s like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Cornell himself was definitely from the Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Paul Rodgers school of singing. He was a long-locked shrieker, whose voice could soar to the heavens before dropping down into the deepest pits of hell. Songs like “Black Hole Sun,” “Rusty Cage,” and “Spoonman,” remain integral parts of the sonic fiber of an entire generation.
With the passing of Cornell, Grunge has reached a crisis point that feels similar to what fans of ‘80s pop have been forced to reckon with over the last several years. Just like there’s no there’s no Prince or Michael Jackson, or Whitney Houston or George Michael to regale us with incredible live shows and sporadic musical release anymore, there’s also, it would seem, no more Soundgarden either. Nirvana has been little but a memory for decades. Alice In Chains is still around with a fill-in for Layne Staley, but even though guitarist Jerry Cantrell helps trace the outlines of the vocals, along with replacement William DuVall, it’s not quite the same. Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters are doing all they can to carry the rock torch, but they hit their stride years after the fact. Pearl Jam is really all we have left. It’s a stark and sobering reality.
I lived in Washington State for about seven years before eventually relocating to the Midwest, and that time led me to believe the Puget Sound region is endlessly haunted by the ghosts of grunge’s past. I lived in the capitol city, Olympia, and my house was only a few blocks away from the one Kurt Cobain lived in when he wrote the era-defining anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I went to school The Evergreen State College and had a friend who lived in the dorm room K208 where Nirvana performed in the late ’80s. I’ve visited the actual sound garden that lent its name to the band in Magnuson Park in Seattle.
As a regular concertgoer, I’ve seen Pearl Jam live and in different solo permutations more times than I can count. Seriously, I’ve watched lead guitarist Mike McCready pop up as a surprise guest at like ten different shows. The dude loves Cheap Trick. I once saw the living members of Nirvana jam out in a baseball arena with Paul McCartney. “Sir-vana” they called it. I’ve seen Mudhoney, The Melvins, The Meat Puppets, and Alice In Chains. I’ve also seen Cornell himself hit the stage on numerous occasions.
The last concert I ever attended as a Washington resident took place at Benaroya Hall in January 2015. The grunge super-group Mad Season were reforming for just one night. The group’s original lead singer, Layne Staley, and bassist John Baker Saunders, were both long dead by this point and in their stead, Mike McCready and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin took the stage with Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses on bass and Chris Cornell on the microphone.
It was the perfect Seattle concert. McCready poured his guts out through his Les Paul guitar, and Cornell seemed determined to peel the paint off the walls with atomic level caterwauling. The all-star group ran through some of the best of the Mad Season material, before Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard came out onstage. It was a full-on Temple Of The Dog reunion, minus just Eddie Vedder. The band bashed out two of that group’s most well-known hits “Call Me The Dog” and “Reach Down,” the latter which Cornell dedicated to his one-time roommate and friend, the late Andy Wood.
After that night, I felt I’d seen the absolute best that Seattle had to offer musically; I felt ready to move forward with the next chapter of my life in a different region of the country. The city’s musical legacy was in very good hands. I feel pretty much the opposite today. The records, those towering monoliths like Superunknown, Badmotorfinger, and Down On The Upside, will always be around to remind us of what was, but I can’t help but worry about the future.
Classic rock has endured as a vital force for so many decades after its initial boom because luminaries like Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen, and that’s just to name a few continue to hit the road and bring their music to the people. They’ve also stuck around long enough to carefully manage and curate their own legacies through a seemingly endless run of reissues, b-side collections and documentaries.
Still, it’s not like people are not going to forget about the major grunge bands anytime soon; their impact and their music is far too consequential for that. However, in losing Chris Cornell, we’ve lost one of the most important voices from that generation. We’ve also lost someone who has done more than most to keep that music alive in front of audiences around the world. Twenty years from now, I can only hope that another enterprising singer will step up to pay homage to his indelible legacy just like Cornell did for his long-departed friends that one incredible evening in Seattle.