Chris Cornell’s Voice Transcended Generations

Chris Cornell at Lollapalooza in 1992. Photo: John Storey/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Teens from the ’90s got a raw deal: We never settled into the idea that our heroes were built to last. The death of Kurt Cobain was a shock. Losing Tupac really hurt. We still feel the loss of Big and Pun. River Phoenix, Kristen Pfaff, Andy Wood, Eazy-E, and Jeff Buckley seem frozen in eternal youth. Layne Staley and Scott Weiland deserved more time. Loss is the only human experience that doesn’t get easier through repetition. You fall off a bike enough times, and you figure out how to keep your ass on the seat while you pedal. You lose a friend, a family member, or a beloved performer, and it hurts freshly and differently every time. The loss of Seattle singer and Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell last week stings because he was a master of his craft who made vital, inspirational art. He helped his audience make sense of loneliness and depression. He deserved the same peace.

There is perhaps no generation better suited to understanding the fearful sociopolitical climate that drove Cornell and his peers toward nihilism than the current one. The same mix of powerful, damaging government ineptitude, ill-advised overseas conflict, and glaring hometown inequality broils now that did then. The same explosion of youth anger pushing bodies into the streets for protests this year also provided animus for records like Pearl Jam’s Ten, Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger.

Soundgarden had the distinction of being one of the first Seattle bands to cut a record for Sub Pop Records, the hometown start-up that played midwife to the birth of “grunge” as a commercial phenomenon. Their early successes energized younger, lesser-known local bands that would carry the music on to national renown. They were a little older than the Pearl Jam and Nirvana guys, and they always seemed a little better suited for fame, or at least, a little less openly intractable. They didn’t balk or brood when they got the Rolling Stone cover. The writer seemed surprised by their lightheartedness.

Soundgarden was an unconventional band that mixed the punishing gravitas of metal with punk’s prideful ragged edges, a dusting of psychedelia, and prog-rock pomp. (There aren’t many bands that have drawn comparisons to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles in the same breath.) And Chris Cornell was an unconventional front man: On sight, he was a long-haired, steely-blue-eyed vision of rock godhood. On record, he displayed a snarling sense of humor about the business of being one of his era’s emergent rock sex symbols. 1989’s Louder Than Love included “Full on Kevin’s Mom” and “Big Dumb Sex,” piss-takes that poked holes in a culture of machismo of which Cornell seemed to the uninitiated to be a perfect physical embodiment. There was always more to Chris than appearances might suggest, and his records bore this out in glorious detail.

Soundgarden had a knack for expressing bad moods in the most apocalyptic terms possible. It made them instantly relatable to teens and 20-somethings damaged in the shift from Reagan and Bush’s crime-riddled ’80s to the wobbly prosperity of the Clinton years. Chris Cornell was a poet who knew darkness. It wasn’t always his own darkness; sometimes the words to a Soundgarden song were just the singer’s attempt to cut through the brutal music underfoot. What else can you say back to the guttural sludge of “Mailman” but “I know I’m headed for the bottom, but I’m riding you all the way”?

Still, Cornell stands out as a poignant voice giving eloquence to feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and decay: “Holy water’s rusting me.” “Give me little bits of more than I can take.” “When the whole thing comes crashing down don’t ask me why.” In spite of Soundgarden’s signature gruesomeness, Cornell’s songs also harbored a hopeful edge, one that makes news of his apparent suicide all the more heartbreaking. “Fell on Black Days,” a song about slipping into a rough patch that suddenly feels like “doing time,” ends with a verse about the value of personal freedom (“Don’t you lock up something that you wanted to see fly”) and an optimistic refrain of “I sure don’t mind a change.” “The Day I Tried to Live” is a yarn about “about trying to step out of being patterned and closed off and reclusive,” a person stumbling out of hopelessness beaming with quiet contentment: “I learned that I was alive.”

Cornell was an evocative writer who resonated even when he wasn’t trying. We always pay great singers the strange compliment that we’d gladly listen to them perform the telephone book, that their voices are arresting enough to wring emotion even from simple lists of things. Run through “Nothing to Say” on the back end of Soundgarden’s debut single “Hunted Down,” and the phone book colloquialism comes into focus. “Nothing to Say” is literally a song about not having anything to say, where nearly every third word is “nothing.” But Chris Cornell’s triumphant wail gives it wings, blessing a gag lyric with a performance so killer it’s the only B-side on Soundgarden’s 1998 hits compilation A-Sides. His Seattle-scene peers might’ve been saddled with the weighty “voice of a generation” distinction, but Cornell had a voice for the generations.

Cornell’s voice is an instrument best known for its brutal edge, since most were introduced to it as a weapon dicing through powerhouse post-Sabbath grooves on “Beyond the Wheel,” “Loud Love,” “Outshined,” and the like. But really, its power lay in its delicacy. The folk-blues solo song “Seasons” off the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Singles; the mournful, psychedelic blues of Temple of the Dog’s “Say Hello 2 Heaven”; the muscular Motown soul of Audioslave’s “Original Fire”; and the elegant falsetto runs on Euphoria Morning’s “Preaching the End of the World” and “Wave Goodbye” all exercised an awareness of restraint and subtlety that offset the forcefulness of his voice in his flagship band. Chris Cornell was unstoppable in a full-throated shriek, but the instances where he held it back are every bit as important to his legacy.

It hurts that Cornell’s story ends here. Latter day gems like “The Keeper” and “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” are proof he still had more to say. Suicide is ellipsis. It’s unfinished business. You don’t get to understand it. It never sits right. It’s tough with musicians — you fight off the grimy urge to pore over their work looking for hints that they weren’t doing so well. It’s one we should resist. The end of Chris Cornell’s life doesn’t render his darker lines any truer or make his optimistic ones less sound. Let’s just be thankful for the 30 years of memories he left behind, and wonder what he could’ve done with 30 more.

Chris Cornell’s Voice Transcended Generations