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.
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.
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.
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?
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."
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.