May , 2017
By David N. Lindsey
Chris Cornell - An Observation
Photos JAM Staff
It is sadly fitting that the last song Chris Cornell performed with Soundgarden shortly before his untimely death would be Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" as comparisons to Robert Plant have been there from the start. Both have amazing wailing once in a generation rock arena voices. But who would of thought Plant would live to see his heir apparent ascend to Valhalla before his own overdue Viking funeral? This is a shock. Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland? Those seemed inevitable, but Cornell? Nobody saw this one coming.
Cornell always seemed comfortable in his own skin, even unassuming, despite his obvious talent. He never bemoaned stardom (like Eddie Vedder), acted like a petulant child (Kurt Cobain), and although he had his addictions, he never made that part of the act (Layne Staley, Scott Weiland). Sure he had many dark nights of the soul and his lyrics often reflected that, but for Cornell it always seemed cathartic, getting the demons out through the music. From the beginning to the end he always seemed to like being a rock star, often smiling, and always put the music first.
And first he was. While Soundgarden benefited from the Nirvana's wake when the grunge explosion hit. Nirvana wouldn't have not have even been in the running had it not been for Soundgarden. They recorded one of the very first Sub-Pop singles that helped put that label on the map in the mid 80s. After a couple of EPs, instead of jumping to a major they released their first LP on SST, the underground label that hosted Husker Du, Black Flag, and Sonic youth. They jumped to A&M for Louder Than Love their major label debut. They were up for a Grammy, and had hired (and fired) a member of Nirvana, all this before the 80s were over, when nobody out side of their area code had ever even heard of Nirvana.
Maybe that's what made the difference. Soundgarden had more of a slow build. Their career would've progressed just as it did and to the same level, just at a more even pace, and the music would have been the same. Cornell in particular always seemed to keep things going with making music. There were never any sudden radical reinventions with Soundgarden, solo or with Audioslave. Side roads with projects like "Temple of the Dog" were all about making music with people he liked or in tribute to those who made great music. Just an artist constantly evolving over time. Things always seemed to make sense. Soundgarden covered Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom" and Devo's "Girl U Want" not as a career move or with sense of irony, but with a music fan's recognition of they were great songs. Just as artist as diverse as Guns N' Roses to Chibo Matto covered Cornell's songs.
Of course Johnny Cash's recorded a version of "Rusty Cage," why wouldn't he? Despite all the bombastic elements, songs were always there, underneath. And few managed to move from acoustic pastoral sounds to electric bone crushing with such results. Inducting Heart into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame? Chris was a natural choice. Everything always seemed to fit. Which is why his death seems so shocking.
Too much has been made of "In My Time of Dying" as being a hidden clue or a cryptic farewell, I dismiss that. Its not like he closed with "Pretty Noose" or ""Like Suicide," and people would be speculating had it been "Fell on Black Days." Chris threw in a bit of a classic rock track at the end of a gig. No different blasting through an Rush's "Working Man" with Audioslave for an encore or wrapping up solo gigs with "Whats so Funny about Peace, Love, and Understanding."
Chris smiling said "See ya soon!" at the last Detroit gig, and the circumstances of his death are still fuzzy. But remember as him as the music loving rock star he was with powerful voice showing its range on "Beyond The Wheel" and stomping the stage wailing "Slaves And Bulldozers" trading riffs with his buddies. Remember him that way, that's how he'd want it.