Editor’s Note: The following was originally published on May 19, 2017 at NYS Music. Chris Cornell died on May 18, 2017.
Within an hour of completing a performance at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Soundgarden lead vocalist Chris Cornell was found unresponsive in his room at the MGM Grand Hotel after a concerned call to a friend from his wife, Vicky. Cornell was declared dead at the scene. The medical examiner later determined his death was self-inflicted by hanging.
Most famous as the front man for the Seattle grunge-era band Soundgarden and later Audioslave (formed with the remaining members of Rage Against the Machine after Zack de la Rocha’s departure), Cornell was the voice of a generation with a commanding stage presence. A Cornell performance demanded your attention.
With his long mane of dark curly hair swirling as he delivered dark and introspective lyrics, Cornell’s image became the calling card of the fledgling Sub Pop Records and the developing Seattle scene of the late 1980s. The band’s mix of metal and punk, informed by the Sonics and the Wailers, helped forge a new sound in American rock.
Cornell struggled with drug abuse and depression from a young age. He quit school at the age of 14 after his parents divorced, taking a job to help support his mother. He used music as his refuge during this period, eventually forming Soundgarden in 1984 with guitarist Kim Thayill and bassist Hiro Yamamoto. Cornell originally pulled double-duty on drums and vocals before Scott Sundquist joined to allow Cornell to focus on vocals. Sundquist subsequently left the band in 1986 to spend time with his new family and was replaced by Skin Yard’s Matt Cameron. The band signed to Sub Pop records in 1987, releasing its debut EP Screaming Life that year. The combination of Thayill’s drop-D tuning and Cornell’s four-octave vocals laid the groundwork for what would become the grunge scene.
Soundgarden was the first of the big four Seattle bands (Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains round out the four) to score a major label deal, signing with A&M for 1989’s Louder Than Love, but it wasn’t until 1994’s Superunkown, that the band became a household name. Managed by Cornell’s then-wife, Susan Silver, who also managed Alice in Chains, she was the band’s biggest champion. Cornell and Silver’s marriage came to an acrimonious end in 2004.
In 1990, Cornell contributed to a tribute album to his former roommate, Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, entitled Temple of the Dog. The band was comprised of former members of Mother Love Bone (Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, both later of Pearl Jam), Mike McCready (also a future member of Pearl Jam) and Matt Cameron (a member of both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam). Eddie Vedder also appeared on the album that was largely unnoticed until the success of Pearl Jam’s debut in 1991 earned the album recognition. The single “Hunger Strike” featured Cornell and Vedder trading vocals. Cornell later stated about the session, “He sang half of that song not even knowing that I’d wanted the part to be there and he sang it exactly the way I was thinking about doing it, just instinctively.” Temple of the Dog did a brief reunion tour in 2016 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the album.
Following Soundgarden’s breakup in 1997, Cornell began recording as a solo artist, releasing his solo debut, Euphoria Morning in 1999. The single “Can’t Change Me” was nominated in the Best Male Vocalist category at the 2000 Grammy Awards. During this period, he also contributed songs to several films, including Mission Impossible 2 and Casino Royale.
In 2001, Cornell partnered with the members of Rage Against the Machine following the departure of de la Rocha. The ensuing supergroup, Audioslave, was well-received from the start. Guitarist Tom Morrello described Cornell’s introduction to the band:
“He stepped to the microphone and sang the song and I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t just sound good. It didn’t sound great. It sounded transcendent. And … when there is an irreplaceable chemistry from the first moment, you can’t deny it.”
Cornell left Audioslave in 2007 citing “musical differences” as reason for his departure. Rumors of a Soundgarden reunion began to surface in 2009 and the band eventually returned to the stage, headlining Lollapalooza in 2010. The band released its sixth album, King Animal in 2012 and has been touring since. Thayil has indicated that the band has been working on material for another Soundgarden release.
In 2012, Cornell and his wife formed the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation to help children facing homelessness, abuse and neglect. Cornell suffered from depression throughout his life, discussing it openly in interviews. He did not leave a note prior to his suicide and gave no indication of his intentions. The investigation is ongoing. Devastated family and bandmates are cooperating in the investigation.
If you or someone you know is showing signs of depression or thoughts of suicide, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day (1-800-273-8255). The National Institute of Mental Health has information on how to identify symptoms of depression and resources available to those suffering. Additional information, about how a mental health diagnosis can be empowering can be found here.
The shocking death has been felt throughout the music world. Tributes, including a quickly organized memorial at seminal Seattle radio station KEXP, expressed the effect Cornell had on the music world. The Seattle landmark, the Space Needle, also went dark from 9-10 p.m. in tribute to Cornell Thursday night. Dave Mustaine of Megadeth paid tribute while on tour in Japan, performing a version of “Outshined.”
Chris Cornell was a game-changer, an instrumental part in the early grunge scene and its doorway to the world, Sub Pop Records. He helped forge a sound that challenged and changed the music industry and in turn, helped put Seattle on the rock and roll map. He is survived by his wife of 13 years, Vicky Karayiannis, their two children, Toni (12) and Christopher (11) and his daughter with Susan Silver, Lillian Jean (17).