Chris Cornell was a rock star in every sense of the word; to my eleven or twelve-year-old self, Cornell absolutely embodied it! He had the look, he had the sound and he definitely had the vocals that would overshadow any rock song he contributed to. Admittedly, I was not the biggest Soundgarden fan of all time. I mean don't get me wrong… I owned the album SuperUnknown along with the rest of the world, and enjoyed “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage,” but I most certainly did not live or die with the band. My appreciation for Chris Cornell really came into my later high school years when I burned a hole in the self-titled AudioSlave album and also came to understand just how influential he was in starting the Grunge – Era / Seattle Sound that I fell in love with. Without Cornell there is probably no Pearl Jam (my favorite band), there is definitely no Temple of the Dog (“Hunger Strike” one of my all-time favorite songs) and honestly MTV may have never shed light on all the amazing music coming out of the Pacific Northwest.
Later on in life, definitely college years and after, I have developed a better gratitude about Soundgarden’s entire catalog and the impact they made. However, the pecking order for me will always be 1) Pearl Jam, 2) Alice in Chains, 3) Nirvana, and then Soundgarden, but that doesn't diminish their greatness or Cornell’s specifically. Soundgarden’s two records that I remember well, 1994’s SuperUnknown and 1996’s Down on the Upside, were ungodly huge, with a pulverizing swagger and a menacing tone that dominated alt-rock radio and MTV alike. Though, I developed a little resentment, because when I was first getting into music, listening to the local stations in Dallas, I felt “Black Hole Sun” was so overplayed and drawn out. In my own mistake, I always associated Soundgarden with that song, which delayed the embracement from me as a fan.
As I mentioned earlier though, the Audioslave debut album was just massive for me… the record came out my junior year of high school and I remember being intrigued by the idea of a Rage Against the Machine; Soundgarden super group coming together, because I was a big Rage fan, but always skeptical that it wouldn’t have near the same magic because Cornell had big shoes to fill replacing Zach de La Rocha (the unique front man of Rage). Once I heard the first single, “Cohise,” I knew this could be something great. Rage as a band was always a little overshadowed by de la Rocha’s rapping and now being mixed with Cornell’s vocals was showcasing something beyond what I had been exposed to. That CD was just awesome, had six official singles on it and had a song represented on the radio for over two years, literally until I was in college. “Cohise,” “Like a Stone” (#1 hit of the album), “I am the Highway,” “Show me How to Live,” “What you are,” “Shadow on the Sun”; all just amazing songs for any consumer.
The critics gave the band mixed reviews, but that was ok honestly, because no way would this group be received as well as the two iconic bands they destroyed to form it. Though the commercial success the album enjoyed going triple platinum with six singles meant the audience really dug it. For my own little world, I feel like the album represented even more because this was a time where Nu-Metal had replaced Grunge and Post Grunge and honestly Rock as a music genre was really starting to dip away from the mainstream. This record really gave fans of the older mid 90’s style of rock something to gravitate to and enjoy. By this point, Nirvana was gone, AIC was gone, Pearl Jam’s new stuff didn't have the edge, Smashing Pumpkins had broken up, Stone Temple Pilots had dispersed; all we really had was the old anthology of songs from these bands we had fallen in love with. We really leaned on Foo Fighters, RHCP, and this super group AudioSlave to keep the momentum going for the time being. The second album, 2005 ‘s Out of Exile was good but didn't have the same fresh, exciting sound that the original installment did. Cornell’s vocals still shined though, as they always did in any song no matter the background noise.
Listening to all of Cornell’s songs in retrospect is really something though, almost enlightening with a counter view point. Here was a powerful light as well as darkness in his catalogue, and Cornell as much as any singer saw how pain and uplift could intertwine. Regardless, he now inevitably will be included in the upsetting list of grunge stars who’ve died unexpectedly—Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, among others. This sadness comes on the idea, that if you asked most hardcore grunge fans, they probably would’ve predicted Cornell to go last as he was in many ways the founding father for all of this, paving the way for most of these singers to bring a new attitude to rock music. For the first time, you didn't have to have long, colorful hair, spandex, bright pyros or gimmicky lyrics… you could be yourself, flannel t shirt, jeans with holes in them, strumming a guitar, playing songs about the troubles or despair you were facing or the future you were aspiring for. That's what made his songs great and relatable to any and all comers.
RIP Chris Cornell.