Chris Cornell, one of the most consistently excellent musicians I know of, died today. His death was unexpected, its circumstances murky as yet, but they don’t matter all that much, at least to me. Cornell, first of Soundgarden, then Temple of the Dog, and finally Audioslave, was a monumentally powerful singer. As a teenager with delusions of my own musical ability, even my engorged ego did not stretch far enough to ever give me the impression that I could match him, or even come close. This piece is a small tribute to a man whose talent outshined me.
From the beginning of his career, Cornell could be a great lyricist, and his wit bit deeply. On ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, the lead single from Badmotorfinger (1991), Cornell’s lyrics threatened anybody who would spuriously compare their own sufferings to those of the saviour himself:
Would it pain you more to walk on water
Than to wear a crown of thorns?
It wouldn’t pain me more to bury you rich
Than to bury you poor.
Touring Europe in support of the album, he and the band in turn received death threats from those of a violently Christian persuasion, accusing him of blasphemy.
Even his best lyrics, though, made less impact than the stunning voice that carried them. His voice could emerge from beneath heavy, layered guitar tracks, perfectly on pitch and clear, and leap out to ride over riffs of Led Zeppelin-proportion, as it does on ‘Let Me Drown’ from Superunknown (1994). He produced vocal melodies that few have imitated (something to which my adolescent forays into vocal performance would attest), following the odd tempos of a similarly talented rhythm section on Soundgarden tracks like ‘Limo Wreck’. He could deliver a chorus with force unparalleled by others on the scene, as on ‘Gasoline’, recorded by Audioslave, the post-Soundgarden supergroup he formed with members of Rage Against the Machine. Towards the end of the opener from Audioslave’s first album, ‘Cochise’, Cornell holds the last, wrenching note of the final verse for almost fifteen seconds, and is never drowned out by Tom Morello’s huge guitar tone. Producers understood Cornell’s power.
‘Even his best lyrics, though, made less impact than the stunning voice that carried them… Cornell was simply a brilliant musician, no qualification required’
And when I say he was a talented singer, I do not mean it in a relative sense—Cornell was simply a brilliant musician, no qualification required. It is true to say to be a successful vocalist in a rock band does not necessarily require great skill or range, only a distinctive delivery, as somebody like Tom DeLonge or Billy Corgan might prove. But to group Chris Cornell into a category with most other, lesser talents, simply because he too was a singer in a rock band (or three) would be unfair to all of them. Even worse is to compare him with his contemporary in the grunge scene of the early 1990s, Kurt Cobain, whose appeal as a vocalist was a willingness to abuse his voice. Cornell’s voice was a calibrated instrument.
It may be that Cornell’s voice found its widest audience when he provided the soundtrack for the first film in the revamped James Bond franchise, Casino Royale (2006). (Not only, in my opinion, was this a great career move on the part of Cornell since millions of cinema-goers incidentally heard his voice who would otherwise never have done so, but because his name then appeared in the credits of the greatest action film yet released in the twenty-first century.) The theme, ‘You Know My Name’, is a testament to Cornell’s ability as a popular songwriter and reliable performer. It also puts to shame most other entries in the thick catalogue of Bond themes, easily eclipsing the work of even Jack White, whose theme for Quantum of Solace pales in comparison to Cornell’s.
I leave for last what I consider to be Cornell’s greatest performance, and the most affecting track released in his career. The short-lived band Temple of the Dog formed in 1990 and disbanded soon afterwards, releasing only one album, in 1991. The band had two singers: Cornell and another soon-to-be grunge icon, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. To my knowledge, they only released one single, and while the whole eponymous album is worth your time, it is that one single that exhibits everything Cornell could do (including some rhythm guitar). His vocal performance on the single ‘Hunger Strike’ makes me shiver, and when the verses repeat and he passes off to Vedder, the magic of it is not the same. Cornell delivers the same verses as Vedder, but in his glowing voice, the message of solidarity resounds and stays with me:
I don’t mind stealing bread
From the mouths of decadents,
But I can’t feed on the powerless
When my cup’s already over-filled.
With Chris Cornell’s death at only 52, we have lost a great deal.
Image: Rolling Stone