Chris Cornell (1964-2017)

“Light a Roman candle… And, hold it in your hand.”

This line always stood out to me, its bold and sung utterance built atop the gritty stroll of “4th of July,” a song from Soundgarden’s much acclaimed Superunknown, an album whose existence warped my being with every listen, my adolescent brain smitten with every melodic stanza, every metallic lick. I fed this album into many blank cassettes in the summer of 1994, almost using the task as an excuse to necessitate an uninterrupted hour-plus of listening: “Gotta cut the track right. Gotta press PAUSE just before I run out of tape on side-A.” So essential that album remains to my chronology that I rarely listen to Superunknown as it puts me at a time and place I'd rather not be. It remains an affecting work from Soundgarden, whose primal scream, Chris Cornell, is dead from an apparent suicide. He was 52. Needless to say, since this news was announced, Superunknown has been on rotation, the dust wiped off the jewel case, a Wall-to-Wall Sound & Video guarantee still adhered to the plastic, and my favorite line in “4th of July” now skipping. It’s the only song on the entire CD that’s not playing right. 

It’s been more than a week since his death and the Internet has been expectedly and understandably rife with fandom and deep genuine expressions from those of us who were maybe affected by Cornell, growing up during the heyday of Seattle’s stint as Alternative Rock’s land ‘o’ plenty. Artists are covering Soundgarden tracks, blog posts and commemorative articles have been writ and posted, and the faces of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, and Audioslave albums have been popping up as proof that those albums are indeed spinning in tribute to an artist lost. And then, once the loss is addressed, the realities of fame and suicide become a focus, acknowledging that this was in fact a life taken through action not circumstance. And we think about what it is to be an admired and unquestionable talent, what it is to be successful, and how sometimes that's still not enough of a reason to stay alive. This isn’t the first time 90s kids have seen their heroes expire too soon. 

Cornell's wife, Vicky, has stated that she believes his suicide to be the result of an excessive intake of anti-anxiety medication. It could very well be that Cornell's actions were chemically influenced. We can't pretend to know. We can only really note how tragic it is that he's no longer with us. In her recent dedication to her husband, she states, “I’m sorry, my sweet love, that I did not see what happened to you that night. I’m sorry you were alone, and I know that was not you, my sweet Christopher. Your children know that too, so you can rest in peace.”

Chris Cornell had a voice that surpassed many in the early 90s. Being someone who regretfully never took advantage of any opportunity to experience this voice live, I can only imagine how colossal Cornell must've sounded, those aggressive refrains of "OUTSHINED! OUTSHINED! OUTSHINED!" or that chilling register he hits in "Hands All Over" impressive enough bursting from the modest speakers of my JVC boombox, the centerpiece of my teenage bedroom. With a deep appreciation for the muddy cult blues of Black Sabbath and the unadulterated intensity of Motörhead, (“Rusty Cage” alone makes this pretty obvious), Soundgarden reveled in punk rock’s muck of disillusionment and had the confident stride of a band cultivated by the ethos of DIY. Having put out records for both SST and Sub Pop, they were the first of the Seattle acts to sign to a major label, which had garnered some negative reactions from their fanbase. Ultimately, though, this move led them to success once Nirvana’s Nevermind sounded the call of a generational shift in tone, attitude, and sound. They produced some of the era’s best releases, preceding the shift with 1988’s Ultramego OK and 1989’s Louder Than Love, then informing the decade with 1991’s Badmotorfinger and the aforementioned Superunknown, albums that continue to rate as essential as any 60s or 70s rock classic. Put Cornell up there with Plant, Dio, or Gillan. He belongs up there: looking California, feeling Minnesota.

R.I.P., Chris Cornell.

Letters From A Tapehead


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