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Remembering Chris Cornell, a rock star in an age of anti-stardom

Photo: Sean Sabhasaigh/Getty Images
Photo: Sean Sabhasaigh/Getty Images

Figuring out what was “cool” in the ’90s was exhausting. For anyone who cared about such things—i.e., self-conscious teens whose fragile identities were defined by what they liked—it was practically a full-time job keeping track of what it was universally okay to be into, what outliers you could safely adopt to cultivate an air of mystique, and what seemed cool but everybody who was actually cool innately understood to be fucking lame.

For example, Nirvana was generally agreed upon as a base-level cool; you weren’t going to impress anyone (even the jocks dug Nirvana), but you certainly weren’t going to be mocked for it. If you were, say, really into Sonic Youth, it conferred upon you an ineffable aura of deep-cut cool. Meanwhile, I will forever remember my poor high school classmate who showed up in his crisp, new, Sam Goody-purchased Gin Blossoms shirt approximately two weeks after “Hey Jealousy” began its ruthless run on the radio, and I swear even the teachers made fun of him for it. Being cool, as it always is, was a very stupid game with arbitrary rules that were forever changing, but particularly so in the “alternative” era—in which you had to be cool while not caring about being cool at the same time. You also couldn’t not play the game, as not playing wasn’t cool yet. It was a uniquely frustrating time to grow up.

If you cared about such things, Soundgarden presented something of a coolness conundrum. The band—led by Chris Cornell, who died suddenly at the age of 52—played thunderously loud hard rock built on brick-shithouse riffage and Cornell’s piercing, multi-octave wails. It was a sound that both defined and defied grunge: Soundgarden’s first releases, 1987’s Screaming Life and 1988’s Fopp, featured the sort of sludgy, Black Sabbath-knicking riffs and tormented lyrics that every Seattle band quickly aspired to, but they also attracted radio and major-label attention because, superficially, they weren’t all that different from what was out there already. Next to Kurt Cobain’s sardonic nihilism, Eddie Vedder’s socially conscious sensitivity, and Layne Staley’s burnout despair, Cornell cut a decidedly traditional figure. He may have been singing about inner torment and longing for escape, but with his Robert Plant-ian voice and habit of performing stripped to the waist, he seemed better suited to songs about riding dragons and sex with groupies. He was a cock-rocker in an era when everyone was supposed to be too depressed or doped up to fuck.

Soundgarden struggled with that perception for all its life, perhaps no member more so than its gnome-bearded guitarist Kim Thayil, who spent just about every interview being hyper-defensive about the band’s image and meathead appeal, and trying desperately to delineate it from other hard-rock bands. “People always think of us as macho pigs,” Thayil told Spin in 1994. “We play masculine music, really powerful rock. We rock without the long, pointless sections that go nowhere, the stupid guitar solos, the lipstick, and the codpieces.”

In the same interview, Thayil memorably slags off “all that rock crap” he used to listen to in high school and tries to prove his punk-rock bona fides, saying, “I always hated Led Zeppelin—too pretentious—and Black Sabbath had really cool riffs, but they stretched them out in really stupid ways. We were way more into stuff like Scratch Acid at the time. At first I think we wanted to do, like, Black Sabbath songs without the parts that suck.” This is a perfect encapsulation of Soundgarden’s constant war with its own talent, as well as the tiresome posturing everyone adopted in the early ’90s. Sure, we’re into hard, heavy rock, but not, like, for real, man.

Thayil had reason to be defensive: After all, as he later told Guitar World, Soundgarden was one of the earliest casualties in the eternal, ultimately pointless war over “credibility” that dominated all alt-rock conversation, having lost much of its original fanbase when it jumped from punk label SST to sign with major label A&M Records, in the wake of 1988’s Ultramega OK. That album—with its fusion of sludgy metal dirges, punk attitude, bluesy angst, and psychedelic experimentation—was a blueprint for the entire grunge movement that followed, but whatever nascent innovation it contained ultimately mattered less to rock snobs than the fact that it was nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy. Or especially the fact that the group did tours with Skid Row and Guns N’ Roses in 1991 and 1992. When Kurt Cobain told some Singapore newspaper that “rebellion is standing up to people like Guns N’ Roses,” then got into an epochal fight with Axl Rose at the ’92 MTV Video Music Awards, a phantom line was drawn. You were supposed to hate Guns N’ Roses, not open for them.

Still, whatever coolness its courting of metal fans cost Soundgarden, it certainly didn’t hurt its commercial success. However much Cornell and Thayil may have complained about spending every night playing for thousands of Guns N’ Roses fans who “didn’t care about them,” and however many alt-rock fans cared far more about Nevermind that year, 1991’s Badmotorfinger was still a Grammy-nominated bestseller, and “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined,” and “Rusty Cage,” became staples of MTV as well as mainstream radio (where they remain to this day). With everyone suddenly regarding Seattle as the epicenter of cool, Soundgarden was overdue for a reevaluation.

It helped that Badmotorfinger contained the band’s most refined songs to date, with Cornell matching the newfound complexity of those gnarled, droning compositions with impressionistic lyrics that captured a sort of vague, pensive restlessness, delivered in a primal yowl that felt cathartic and trapped at the same time. True, its videos might have found a half-naked Cornell headbanging around those industrial sparks that were always flying around ’90s music video factories, and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (a withering arbiter of “cool” if there ever was one) might have famously told the band, “Fuck, you guys sound like Rush now.” But if you looked past the optics and just listened, you could hear a new kind of hard rock that was less cock, more cerebrum.

Still, the “fashion issues,” as Thayil once put it, never stopped for Soundgarden. Even though the group was called “the defining band” of the Seattle sound according to no less an authority than Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman, they were also, he told Spin, seen as the “also-ran” for (ironically) being a little too comfortable with being great. You could even see this take its toll on Cornell physically: When the band reemerged in ’94 with its breakthrough—and best—album, Superunknown, Cornell had shaved his long, curly locks, as though out of some sort of self-imposed monastic penance for his rock-star hubris. Like all things “cool,” it was insignificant and absolutely superficial, but it still mattered. People who were way too caught up in waging Cobain’s rebellion against rock’s recent past suddenly felt as though they could take Soundgarden seriously, like they could finally warm to Cornell’s voice when it wasn’t coming through all those loose strands of hair. (It also helped that he bought some shirts.)

And again, it helped that Superunknown marked another quantum leap in creativity, bridging the band’s earlier heaviness with its more psychedelic tendencies on a collection of singles that also sounded crazy good on radio. “Black Hole Sun,” “My Wave,” “Fell On Black Days,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Spoonman”—collectively, the album was a monster, full of songs that balanced aggressiveness, anxiety, and alienation in an incredibly catchy little package that you could sing along to.

Superunknown rightfully became a critical and commercial smash and, in my dumb, shallow little high school world, it suddenly made it okay to wear a Soundgarden shirt without being regarded as a mouth-breather. It’s a record that, especially compared to many of its contemporaries, still manages to surprise today—at least partly because you forget how many great tracks are all on one record, but also partly because Soundgarden remains bafflingly underrated as a musical innovator, even after briefly getting everyone to agree that it was the best rock band in the world.

Some of that can be attributed to things well beyond Soundgarden’s control. Alternative rock was already beginning to recycle itself by 1994, and that ever-shifting perception of what was “cool” was gradually turning its gaze to Britpop, to SoCal punk—to anything that wasn’t grimacing dudes playing drop-D chords and moaning about depression. Cobain’s suicide a month after Superunknown’s release “just seemed to metaphorically put an end to everything,” Thayil told Rolling Stone that year. And so, the band that had been there from the beginning, that had laid the groundwork for the very scene that had always resisted accepting it, had finally “arrived” just in time to witness its end.

Of course, the delays and in-fighting that surrounded the making of 1996’s underrated Down On The Upside didn’t help either. By the time Soundgarden ended up sharing a draining Lollapalooza stint with co-headliner Metallica—a booking those ever-vigilant guardians of cool deemed the end of “alternative” as we knew it—then disbanding on a Hawaii stage in ’97, it already felt like part of a quickly fading world.

As for Cornell, he would continue to wrestle with “coolness” for most of his career. His 1999 solo album, Euphoria Morning, was a mature, nuanced, psychedelia-tinged, Jeff Buckley-influenced work of real craft that continued to showcase his versatile range, and it may as well have been released directly to used CD bins. He only confused fans further by doing some James Bond themes, working with Timbaland, and making limp covers of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” of all things. If the critics and cool kids had turned up their noses at Cornell for looking just a little too natural as a glistening rock god, they now openly scoffed at him for his new, watered-down, American Idol-third-place-finisher vibe.

And then there was Audioslave, a band that sounded great on paper: The fireball riffage of Rage Against The Machine topped by Cornell’s primal screams? What new musical heights will that reach? But I’m not going to pretend here. Apart from the occasional inspired moment like “Cochise,” it mostly produced middle-of-the-road ballads seemingly designed solely for aging A&R dudes in Rock & Republic jeans. Cornell’s voice, as always, was in great form (though his lyrics were their worst ever), but it seemed wasted on such Clear Channel filler. Deserved or not—and I acknowledge that it certainly has its defenders—Audioslave developed a mook-rock reputation that threatened to retroactively tarnish Soundgarden’s own legacy, even as, like that band, the group continued to expand and explore new directions, long after everyone had written it off.

Eventually, of course, time erases all that shit. But in Cornell’s case, he engineered his own quote-unquote redemption by retreating to his past, reuniting Soundgarden for a run of dates that prompted a reevaluation of the band as more than just one of grunge’s sole survivors, but one that realized, oh yeah, these guys were fucking great. His hair returned to its former glory, his voice once again impeccably paired with Thayil’s thundering bottom strings, Cornell looked reborn, his status as a “rock god” no longer a matter of smirking derision but an awed affirmation of fact. Along with briefly bringing back Temple Of The Dog, the nascent Pearl Jam team-up that started it all, as well as releasing the welcome, if decidedly fine, new Soundgarden album King Animal in 2012, Cornell seemed to be enjoying reliving his career, this time unencumbered by the constant battle for respect among the “cool” cognoscenti.

That he died just after performing one of those sold-out Soundgarden shows, playing to a room of adoring fans, only contributes to the dissonance and disbelief we’re feeling today. So many of Cornell’s contemporaries are gone now: Kurt Cobain. Layne Staley. Shannon Hoon. Scott Weiland. Most of them never got the chance to experience the sort of late-career bloom that Cornell did (or in Weiland’s case, they did but still pissed it away). Cornell was still thrillingly alive, still healthy, and still such a primal force on stage that he seemed like he could—and should—continue indefinitely, pounding out monster rock concerts with Soundgarden for another decade or so, and even being allowed to blossom into the sort of mature, finely aged singer-songwriter that his solo career only hinted at. He should have released a heart-wrenching acoustic covers album of old Robert Johnson songs in 2025, damn it. He shouldn’t be dead.

And yet, he is. And while we may never understand exactly why, or get over feeling like we were cheated out of something, if there’s one solace we can take today, it’s that Cornell will now get the legacy he’s always deserved: as one of the most talented singers and strangely underrated songwriters of his generation. Like all the rest of us who have at long last grown up, the question of whether he’s cool or not is no longer a matter of importance. He was a genuine, goddamned rock star, and that is not to be taken lightly.