Chris Cor­nell

Classic Rock - - Contents -

Even as Soundgar­den were be­gin­ning to break out of the Seat­tle scene, he stood apart from his peers. Clas­sic Rock charts the rise and tragic death of a true star.

Me­tal, not grunge. This is the thought I woke up with this morn­ing, a few days af­ter Chris Cor­nell’s sad and un­ex­pected death in Detroit. Me­tal, not grunge. When I trav­elled to Seat­tle at the start of 1989 to cover a whole slew of un­kempt, un­ruly, long-haired bands re­leas­ing records – coloured vinyl and the odd 12-inch – on lo­cal la­bel Sub Pop, Soundgar­den were al­ready a breed apart. The band were signed to three la­bels – SST, Sub Pop and ma­jor la­bel A&M – and had been mak­ing con­sid­er­able in­roads into the mu­sic in­dus­try. I met them as a mat­ter of course along­side their more brat­tish peers – Nir­vana, Mud­honey, the man-be­he­moth Tad, and so forth – and al­ready, it seemed, there was con­fu­sion over what the ac­tual sound of Seat­tle was.

Soundgar­den had not formed overnight (the band started in 1984), and they played un­re­quited me­tal – al­beit me­tal melded with de­ranged hu­mour on their de­but 1988 al­bum Ul­tramega OK. And even then, with the psychedelic me­tal pulse of their early al­bums, and the mighty ag­i­ta­tion of Hands All Over from 1989’s tur­bu­lent, genre-rein­vent­ing Louder Than Love, they seemed more se­ri­ous some­how, more fo­cused.

Blues, not punk.

Maybe it was Chris Cor­nell’s voice – oth­er­worldly and near-fem­i­nine in its higher reg­is­ter, a force of na­ture, a freak­storm not heard since the early days of me­tal in the 1970s. Maybe it was Kim Thayil’s gui­tar, churn­ing and break­ing and sprawl­ing ev­ery­where… or Matt Cameron’s drum­ming (it’s far eas­ier to ruin a band with a bad drum­mer than with any other in­stru­ment)… or the thun­der­ous bass of Hiro Ya­mamoto (later to be re­placed by Ja­son Ever­man, and him by Ben Shep­herd).

Cer­tainly the band al­ready cast a long shadow over the nascent Seat­tle scene – grunge or no grunge. Their mu­sic, their cool, no-fuck­ing-dick­heads at­ti­tude to gen­der is­sues and day-to-day liv­ing, their moun­tain­ous power… all of these were ma­jor in­flu­ences on the newer bands. The band’s early slo­gan, To­tal Fuck­ing God­head, was no empty prom­ise. Nir­vana, in par­tic­u­lar, went through a pe­riod of want­ing to be Soundgar­den Mk.II – they shared two bassists (Ever­man and Shep­herd, a for­mer Nir­vana roadie) and a pro­ducer (Jack Endino), and their de­but al­bum, Bleach, was in places Soundgar­den lite.

Soundgar­den were in­ex­orably en­twined with Sub Pop’s early years: it was on Kim Thayil’s ad­vice that his buddy Jonathan Pone­man con­tacted Olympia fanzine writer Bruce Pavitt with the idea of form­ing the la­bel. Drum­mer Matt Cameron came from Endino’s band Skin Yard.

I can­not re­call when I first met Soundgar­den – pos­si­bly it was in the Sub Pop of­fices on the tenth floor of the Ter­mi­nal Sales Build­ing on 1st, with the framed Matt Groen­ing car­toon on Bruce Pavitt’s of­fice wall, or maybe it was in the first Star­bucks down in Pike Place Mar­ket, where half the Sub Pop ros­ter worked. Ev­ery­one hung around with ev­ery­one else back then.

Un­de­ni­ably, how­ever, Cor­nell had the mak­ings of a star. It wasn’t just the way he’d rip his shirt off at a mo­ment’s no­tice, revealing rip­pling bi­ceps. He pos­sessed a star­dust that I have only ever spot­ted in one other star: Björk. Some of Soundgar­den’s con­tem­po­raries were both­ered by the no­tion of rock star­dom, of tak­ing the Je­sus Christ pose. This no­tion never both­ered Cor­nell. There was some­thing about the way he car­ried him­self, his ca­sual bril­liance. It wasn’t that he was stand-off­ish. Far from it. Just that

Even as Soundgar­den were be­gin­ning to break out of the Seat­tle scene, Chris Cor­nell stood apart from his peers: a rock god among grunge’s icon­o­clasts.

he quite clearly was go­ing to shine. (I never made the same ob­ser­va­tion about Cobain or any of his peers, and even now some­times find my­self sur­prised at how fa­mous that par­tic­u­lar re­lo­cated Seat­tle res­i­dent be­came.)

There was a near-leg­endary Soundgar­den show in London, pos­si­bly their first, a dou­ble head­liner with Mud­honey (sup­ported by for­got­ten hard­core band Mur­phy’s Law), where the makeshift stage col­lapsed and a whole bunch of us had to form a hu­man chain, drag­ging the tres­tle ta­bles back­stage and hurl­ing them into an empty room be­fore any­one got crushed. Af­ter the chaos, Soundgar­den ended their set with Cor­nell an­nounc­ing: “We’re Black Sab­bath. Good night.”

The band, mean­while, had be­come taken with my will­ing­ness to plant my­self firmly in the ac­tion, grap­pling drunk­enly up on stage to hurl in­sults down the mi­cro­phone at the au­di­ence, and ‘sing’ a few im­pro­vised songs. When I caught up with the group a few months later (ear­lier? Ev­ery­thing was so con­fused back then), in the Dutch squat/venue the Vera Gronin­gen, Cor­nell dragged me up on stage to duet with him on a trun­cated ver­sion of Some En­chanted Evening (from the Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cal South Pa­cific), be­fore the band roadie rugby tack­led me into the wings. The set that night in Hol­land, 1989, was in­cen­di­ary.

To this Chelms­ford boy who had grown up read­ing the UK mu­sic press at the time of post-punk and had been trained to be­lieve that all me­tal (with the hon­ourable ex­cep­tion of Motör­head) was both wrong and evil, it was more than about lov­ing great mu­sic. It was a rev­e­la­tion, an awak­en­ing – for the first time, I un­der­stood the at­trac­tion of me­tal. It is fun to thrash your hair from side to side, to churn a groove into the floor, to scream heed­less into the dark night. The fact that Soundgar­den were so clearly cool peo­ple – will­ing to laugh, not will­ing to take bull­shit in what­ever form it came – was a con­sid­er­able fuck­ing bonus. Def­i­nitely a bonus, and prob­a­bly an im­por­tant fac­tor in my bur­geon­ing love for this genre.

When it came to the in­ter­view I did for Melody Maker, Soundgar­den, like their col­leagues and friends on Sub Pop, un­der­stood one in­vet­er­ate rule: rock’n’roll has never been about truth. Rock’n’roll is not about the facts. Rock’n’roll has al­ways been about fur­ther­ing the mythol­ogy, in­vent­ing your own back­story, cre­at­ing your own path. Rock’n’roll is where we hide. First ex­hibit, the in­ter­view…

soundgar­den first met at a teen hop in Seat­tle. Chris Cor­nell, vo­cals and bare torso, takes up the story from the depths of a youth hos­tel bed­room in Gronin­gen: “We were play­ing in a band called The Shemps, dressed in tuxe­dos,” he re­calls. “We threw our gui­tars down in dis­gust and quit, be­cause we weren’t ex­press­ing our­selves as we wanted to. So we formed a three-piece band where I played drums and sang, and Hiro [bass] sang back­ups and Kim played gui­tar and did the doo-wops.

“We started writ­ing jan­gly, creepy-crawly songs, giv­ing them names like Blood and

Open Se­same and Bury My Head In The Sand. We sup­ported Hüsker Dü as a three-piece, blew them away and got into a wrestling match with them after­wards. The drum­mer sat on us and spilt Rice Krispies in

Kim’s beard. All we wanted was the crowd to cheer and carry us around on their shoul­ders.”

Ul­tramega OK was nom­i­nated for a Grammy in 1990 – as was its break­through fol­low-up, 1991’s Bad­mo­torfin­ger. Grunge did not break Soundgar­den, Soundgar­den helped to break grunge. Soundgar­den wanted to em­brace the main­stream. Their sound and look was ev­ery­where in Seat­tle in those early tur­bu­lent years. And, cru­cially for all that sprawled out of the Pa­cific North­west dur­ing the start of the

1990s, Soundgar­den were pos­i­tive role mod­els.

Their mu­sic may have fol­lowed the tem­plate of the early Black Sab­bath and Led Zep­pelin scream­ers, but it still man­aged to be in­ven­tive and mess with the form. Of­ten, it

‘Cor­nell had the mak­ings of a star… There was some­thing about the way

he car­ried him­self, his ca­sual bril­liance… he quite clearly was

go­ing to shine.’

felt the mu­sic had more in com­mon with the manic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of (now for­got­ten) SST la­bel­mates Das Da­men and the hard, psychedelic rock of Cream than with any of the ‘poo­dle rock­ers’ that back then were ev­ery­where on the me­tal scene. In the same way that Nir­vana helped re­vi­talise al­ter­na­tive rock with punk at­ti­tude and fem­i­nist lean­ings, Soundgar­den gave me­tal a much-needed over­haul and kick­ing, bring­ing it back to the raw power of its ori­gins. It rekin­dled the thrust of its en­gines. All of a sud­den, rock mu­sic rocked once more. Je­sus Christ Pose is nu me­tal a decade ahead of sched­ule (back then it was termed ‘grind­core’), and weirdly sounds right in place with the mu­sic of its time (Big Black, the God Ma­chine). Not that Soundgar­den ap­pre­ci­ated be­ing lumped in with Poi­son or Bon Jovi.

“When we re­leased Louder Than Love,” Cor­nell told me in a Tokyo ho­tel room in March 1994, “ev­ery­one wanted us to be heavy me­tal be­cause that’s what was big – the record com­pany, the pub­li­cists, the heavy me­tal mag­a­zines es­pe­cially, who were hav­ing a pretty se­ri­ous time try­ing to find some­thing wor­thy to write about be­cause all the bands sound ex­actly the fuck­ing same, sing about the same shit and have noth­ing to say. It’s a to­tally lack­ing genre.

“Part of that cat­e­gori­sa­tion was our fault, be­cause Louder Than Love was a me­tal record and, be­ing our de­but for a ma­jor, was the one that made the im­pres­sion. Bad­mo­torfin­ger led away from there, but prob­a­bly not enough. To us it never made any sense, be­cause we knew where we came from and the songs we would write.”

It’s ironic that Chris was talk­ing that way, then. Su­pe­run­k­nown – Soundgar­den’s 1994 al­bum that blew ev­ery­one away, and the rea­son I was talk­ing to him in Ja­pan – is unadul­ter­ated, un­re­quited, un­apolo­getic me­tal. Pure and beau­ti­ful. Lis­ten to The Day I Tried To Live, with its heart-clench­ing vo­cal per­for­mance, and try telling me that it’s not an equal of Sab­bath or Zep. Lis­ten to the era-defin­ing Black Hole Sun (era-defin­ing, at the time of Cobain’s death) and try con­vinc­ing any­one that this is not me­tal shot through and through.

The pri­mal blues, moved on through dis­tor­tion and time.

Un­der­stand­able, though, that Cor­nell and Thayil wanted to dis­tance them­selves from the crap, the shit that just gets passed over too many times. Back then, only Me­tal­lica could equal Soundgar­den for emo­tional range, and they fell away fast. (Me­tal­lica them­selves ac­knowl­edge Soundgar­den’s sta­tus – gui­tarist Kirk Ham­mett told Rolling Stone mag­a­zine in 2008 that En­ter Sand­man might never have ex­isted if it hadn’t been for the “big, heavy riffs” on Louder Than Love.)

In ret­ro­spect, per­haps it should have been ob­vi­ous that the fi­nal days of Soundgar­den were to shortly be upon us. Only one al­bum fol­lowed be­fore the band’s in­evitable re-for­ma­tion in 2010, 1996’s won­der­fully bleak Down On The Up­side. As Cameron termed Su­pe­run­k­nown to me in ’94, “It grooves and it rocks and ev­ery­thing is where it should be. I can lis­ten to it. Nor­mally, rock songs are about cer­tain things – chicks, cars and dicks. But the lyrics to Su­pe­run­k­nown are very in­tro­spec­tive, very dark. They’re say­ing a whole dif­fer­ent thing. Ba­si­cally it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to the world, a plea to leave us alone!”

Per­haps it should have been ob­vi­ous, but it wasn’t – the band were still too busy rock­ing, and ar­gu­ing, and fight­ing, and… up to mischief. In Nagoya, in front of a wildly en­thu­si­as­tic club au­di­ence, Cor­nell stopped the band’s set half­way through to an­nounce a “real spe­cial guest star, all the way from Eng­land”. The au­di­ence went suit­ably berserk, ex­pect­ing Lemmy or some­one. In­stead they got me.

I want to leave the fi­nal word to Chris Cor­nell, from the same 1994 in­ter­view, some­thing he said that al­ways stuck with me. Fel­low song­writer

Ben Shep­herd was the most vis­i­bly de­pressed, gui­tarist Kim Thayil the most ar­gu­men­ta­tive, but it was Cor­nell who both­ered me the most. Al­ways.

“Fell On Black Days was like this on­go­ing fear I’ve had for years,” he said. “It’s a feel­ing that ev­ery­one gets. You’re happy with your life, ev­ery­thing’s go­ing well, things are ex­cit­ing, when all of a sud­den you re­alise you’re un­happy in the ex­treme, to the point of be­ing re­ally, re­ally scared. There’s no par­tic­u­lar event you can pin the feel­ing down to, it’s just that you re­alise one day that ev­ery­thing in your life is fucked!”

He shouts the last word.

RIP Chris Cor­nell and Soundgar­den. You to­tally fuck­ing rocked.


gave me­tal a much-needed over­haul and kick­ing, bring­ing it back to the raw power of

its ori­gins.’

Words: Everett True

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