After a nearly seven year break, this piece marks the return of my “Rock & Roll Heaven” series, which began nine years ago.
It was originally intended to be a week-long mini-series of articles. That first week included pieces on Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence, and Jim Morrison. However, I also offered that I might consider continuing the series with additional occasional pieces.
After receiving positive feedback, the series continued over the next two years. The musicians highlighted after the original mini-series were Karen Carpenter, Ty Longley, and John Bonham. All articles in the series can be enjoyed by simply clicking on the series ‘label’ at the bottom of this piece.
Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin who Rolling Stone magazine has ranked as the top drummer of all-time, died in September of 1980. He was just 32 years old. The alcoholic Bonham died after a two-day drinking binge.
That factor is a hallmark of my series. All of the artists portrayed were icons in their generation, and died young under controversial or dramatic circumstances.
Icon of his generation. Death under controversial circumstances. That perfectly fits the loss earlier this year of Seattle grunge band icon Chris Cornell. The lead vocalist for Soundgarden and Audioslave, Cornell’s death on May 18, 2017 was ruled a suicide. He was known to have suffered from substance abuse issues and depression.
Like many popular rock artists of the early 1990’s, Cornell emerged from the Seattle, Washington scene. He was born in Seattle on July 20, 1964, and so was less than three years younger then me.
He helped form Soundgarden in 1984, and by 1990 the band was receiving a Grammy Award nomination for their debut album. They continued to record and tour together through 1996, and their 1994 album “Superunknown” won the band a pair of Grammy Awards.
One of those 1994 Grammys was “Best Hard Rock Performance” for the song “Black Hole Sun”, perhaps their most well known among the wider music-listening public.
Of those early 1990’s years with Soundgarden, Cornell stated the following:
“Nobody came to Seattle to sign a band or write about you or put your song on the radio, so everything there was very genuine. I’m privileged to have been in that place at that time. I also put a lot of energy into that. We really had to beat the doors down.”
In 1990, Cornell had to cope with the death of his close friend and roommate, Andrew Wood. A fellow musician from Seattle, Wood died in March 1990 following a heroin overdose. In an interview with Jim Farber for The Guardian just a year ago, Cornell stated:
“I’ve always had really difficult time with loss. I didn’t deal well with Andy’s death. After he died, numerous times I’d be driving and I would look out the window and I thought I saw him. It would take me five minutes to update to the moment and realize, ‘no, he’s actually dead.”
Cornell recorded a 1990 tribute album to Wood with a project band known as Temple of the Dog. This band included members who would go on to form Pearl Jam.
Temple of the Dog featured the first recordings by Eddie Vedder. Originally from San Diego, his friendship with Cornell helped legitimize Vedder in the Seattle music scene. The two would remain close friends, and Cornell would go on to work with Pearl Jam a number of times over the next two decades.
In 1985 at age 20, Cornell began dating Soundgarden’s manager, Susan Silver. They married in 1990, had a daughter in 2000, and divorced in 2004. Later that year he married Vicky Karayiannis. The couple would have two children, a daughter born in 2004 and a son a year later.
His Irish-Catholic father and Jewish mother were both alcoholics according to Cornell. If true, that propensity towards addiction was already going to be a factor at some point in his life.
Cornell stated in a 2006 interview with Dorian Lynskey for SPIN magazine that his early life had been “pretty great.” But then a bad experience after trying PCP at age 14 left him with panic disorder and he slipped into depression through his teen years.
In a December 1994 interview with Alec Foege for Rolling Stone magazine, Cornell stated that he took guitar and piano lessons as a kid.
He has also stated that he believes that drums purchased for him by his mother may have saved his life during those tough teen years. “It was the only thing I had an attention span for,” he said per Foege:
“When you’re young, playing drums is immediately satisfying ’cause whether or not you know how to play anything, the bottom line is that you’re pounding on something, so you’re happy about it.”
It wasn’t until his late-20’s that he succumbed to his parents alcoholism. That eventually led him to prescription drugs, and then harder drugs.
Internal conflicts regarding the band’s creative direction led to the Soundgarden breakup in early 1997. Cornell released a commercially unsuccessful solo album in 1999. Then in 2001, Cornell joined three former members of the band Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave.
Over the next half-dozen years, Audioslave recorded three albums of material, all of which proved commercially successful. Their 2002 self-titled debut LP went triple-platinum, and their second “Out of Exile” in 2005 went platinum. The band broke up when Cornell decided to leave in early 2007.
In 2006, Cornell co-wrote and performed the song “You Know My Name” for the James Bond film “Casino Royale”, taking home both a Satellite Award and World Soundtrack Award.
During the Audioslave years, as well as both immediately before and after, Cornell worked on a number of solo and side projects. He also contributed music and vocals on the work of other artists, including Slash, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins.
On the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 Islamofascist attacks on America, Cornell performed John Lennon’s “Imagine” on the popular Conan O’Brien late night TV show. He would later release a version on his acoustic live album “Songbook” in November 2011.
Whispers of a Soundgarden reunion began in 2010, and in April of that year the band verified by announcing they would play that summer’s Lollapalooza concert. The band would remain together, recording and touring over the next few years.
In April 2013, Cornell gave the introduction speech for Heart when that iconic band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the speech, Cornell stated that Ann and Nancy Wilson had been role models for him and numerous Seattle musicians and singers. Cornell joined in a version of Heart’s classic hit “Barracuda” along with the Wilson sisters and other musicians.
In 2015, Cornell recorded the solo LP “Higher Truth”, which would prove to be his final album.
As Soundgarden was breaking up in 1997, his marriage to Silver falling apart, Cornell slipped into a depression that lasted for years. He turned to OxyContin at one point before finally checking in to rehab in 2002.
In a 1996 interview with Robyn Doreian for Metal Hammer, Cornell had first publicly mentioned the idea of suicide:
“I know what it feels like to be suicidal, and I know what it feels like to be hopeless. There is some point where I learned enough about myself to know that I don’t have the tolerance to create other hurdles as well.”
“If I would have ever started taking drugs when I was younger, I would never have lived. I would have gone out quick. I don’t have the tolerance to live in that emotional and physical pain and not have anything positive or good around me.”
The more relevant question is, where was Cornell at the time of his death in regards to his personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Same goes for anyone else covered prior in this series, or who we will cover in the future, on Rock and Roll Heaven.
Cornell frequently wore a cross on a chain around his neck. If that was not just a fashion statement, then I think that I know the answer in the case of Chris Cornell.