Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Cridlin: With death of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, a dynamic voice goes dark

Chris Cornell speaks to the media as he arrives at the MusiCares Person of the Year tribute honoring Neil Diamond in Los Angeles in 2009. Cornell, who gained fame as the lead singer of Soundgarden and later Audioslave, has died Wednesday night in Detroit at age 52. [Associated Press]

Chris Cornell speaks to the media as he arrives at the MusiCares Person of the Year tribute honoring Neil Diamond in Los Angeles in 2009. Cornell, who gained fame as the lead singer of Soundgarden and later Audioslave, has died Wednesday night in Detroit at age 52. [Associated Press]

Chris Cornell may have been grunge's finest songwriter. He sang, in his bronzeworthy wail, of alienation and decay, of black holes and black days and the void of the superunknown. He sang, too, of love and hope, of rebirth and absolution, of pains he could never wipe away.

He also sang — in songs now harder than ever to hear — of suicide.

The songs that made Cornell one of the most dynamic voices in rock will take on new poignancy following his death early Thursday at 52. Police in Detroit found Cornell unresponsive in a casino hotel bathroom while on tour with his iconic Seattle grunge group Soundgarden, according to the Associated Press. A medical examiner ruled the death suicide by hanging.

This wasn't a Kurt Cobain or Scott Weiland situation, where fans could see the end coming a mile away. Cornell had struggled with depression and addiction to opiates and alcohol; he was always upfront about it interviews and in those frequently pitch-black lyrics.

But in recent years, Cornell seemed healthy and happy. He had moved part-time to Miami, a city he loved for its moodiness and Seattle-like rainfall. He toured frequently with and without Soundgarden, and stopped many times in Tampa Bay — postponing the occasional show for one health reason or another, yes, but always delivering the goods when he made it. Just three weeks ago, Soundgarden launched a spring tour at Tampa's 98 Rockfest, where Cornell looked vital and surfer-dad chic, singing and shredding with his signature supernova heat.

REVIEW: At 98 Rockfest, Soundgarden returns to the road with a roar at Tampa's Amalie Arena

It was impossible to know how close Cornell was to the end. And because of that, the rock world had perhaps begun to take his undeniable talent for granted. At 98 Rockfest, fans drawn to the fest's much younger, thrashier undercards filed steadily to the exits throughout Soundgarden's thundering headlining set. Despite Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enshrinement for their peers Nirvana and Pearl Jam, there's never been much of a drumbeat for Soundgarden to join them.

REVIEW (2014): Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden blaze a too-quick trail through Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre

And that's a shame. Great as Nirvana and Pearl Jam were and are, if I'm being honest, my favorite grunge group as a teenager at the time — and perhaps to this day — was Soundgarden, who bridged the gap between '70s stadium rock, '80s metal and '90s alternative better than anyone. Few bands dared write such lumbering, labyrinthine slabs of rock muscle, and even fewer with the pop songwriting genius of Cornell, an unabashed Beatles fanatic, lurking beneath the surface.

REVIEW (2012): Chris Cornell fills the Tampa Theatre with massive pipes and grunge hits

The two-time Grammy-winning Superunknown (1994) is a perfect hard rock record, loaded with unlikely radio and MTV staples like Black Hole Sun and Spoonman, but also pedal-pumping adrenaline rushes like My Wave and the title track, and introspective, melancholy songs like Fell On Black Days and Like Suicide. And yet my favorite Soundgarden song, the upbeat Burden in My Hand, comes from Superunknown's underrated follow-up Down on the Upside (1996), an album Cornell in 2016 called "probably our crowning achievement."

Cornell had more of those than most. Outside Soundgarden, he had at least three more wildly successful projects: Temple of the Dog, a collaboration with members of Pearl Jam that yielded the enduring single Hunger Strike; Audioslave, another platinum-selling supergroup with members of Rage Against the Machine; and his own robust solo career, which, while inconsistent, yielded more Grammy nominations and even a James Bond theme: You Know My Name, from Casino Royale. How many singers can claim such a resume?

REVIEW (2015): Chris Cornell covers his career in stripped-down, spellbinding set at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater

As a solo artist, Cornell also became known in part for his fiery, slow-burning covers of pop songs like Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U and Michael Jackson's Billie Jean — an interpretation that in 2008 probably helped David Cook win American Idol, if that gives you an idea of the breadth of his influence. Over the years he recorded with Zac Brown, Alice Cooper, Carlos Santana and Timbaland, and the list could have been much longer — at some point, singerless bands started calling him cold, begging to borrow his pipes, as he did with Audioslave.

"I started getting those (calls) probably around 1990, and haven't really stopped," he told me in a 2016 interview. "The rock singer aspect to what I do is attractive to guitar players. It was never really anything that made sense to me, but it's always nice to be thought of."

FROM 2016: Chris Cornell talks about his latest reinvention, living in Florida

In that interview, I asked Cornell if he was ever surprised that he survived the '90s, a turbulent time of addiction and intra-band turmoil that in 1997 forced Soundgarden into a 13-year hiatus.

"I get asked that a lot, and I suppose if I were a coal miner, I might think, Yeah, I'm lucky to have gotten through that," he said. "Personally, it's something where I feel like any decade, in any vocation, whatever it might be, any job that you might do, there's always the aspect of the possibility of substance abuse and personal problems. The best example I can give is if I walked into any 12-step group, there's a really good chance that I would be the only musician in there. Everybody is from all walks of life."

It's unfortunate, he said, that celebrities receive more attention for personal problems than other people in society.

"It then gets glorified a little bit, like, 'This person was too sensitive for the world,' and 'A light twice as bright lives half as long,' and all that. Which is all bulls---. It's not true. It's the same as anybody. It's the same as a guy who works in a grocery store that has a substance abuse problem."

Like all the greatest songwriters, Cornell spoke a personal truth shared by so many across all walks of life; his lyrics now resonate with an even deeper pain. Thursday was one of those dark days he so often sang about. With his voice extinguished, it's hard to see the sunshine peeking through.

Cridlin: With death of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, a dynamic voice goes dark 05/18/17 [Last modified: Thursday, May 18, 2017 4:01pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Review: Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald team up to cool down the Clearwater Jazz Holiday

    Blogs

    A cool breeze swept through Coachman Park Saturday night. Couple of them, actually.

    Kenny Loggins performed at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Oct. 21, 2017.
  2. No. 16 USF hangs on at Tulane, off to first 7-0 start

    College

    NEW ORLEANS — After half a season of mismatches, USF found itself in a grudge match Saturday night.

    USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) runs for a touchdown against Tulane during the first half of an NCAA college football game in New Orleans, La., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Derick E. Hingle) LADH103
  3. Lightning buries Penguins (w/video)

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Ryan Callahan spent a lot of time last season rehabilitating his injured hip alongside Steven Stamkos, who was rehabbing a knee after season-ending surgery. During those hours, Callahan noticed two things about Stamkos: his hunger and his excitement to return this season.

    Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek (29) advances the puck through the neutral zone during the first period of Saturday???‚??„?s (10/21/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
  4. Spain planning to strip Catalonia of its autonomy

    World

    BARCELONA, Spain — The escalating confrontation over Catalonia's independence drive took its most serious turn Saturday as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain announced he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.

    Demonstrators in Barcelona protest the decision to take control of Catalonia to derail the independence movement.
  5. Funeral held for soldier at center of political war of words (w/video)

    Nation

    COOPER CITY — Mourners remembered not only a U.S. soldier whose combat death in Africa led to a political fight between President Donald Trump and a Florida congresswoman but his three comrades who died with him.

    The casket of Sgt. La David T. Johnson of Miami Gardens, who was killed in an ambush in Niger. is wheeled out after a viewing at the Christ The Rock Church, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017  in Cooper City, Fla. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP) FLMIH102