A lot has been said, and will continue to be said about the sudden passing of Chris Cornell last Thursday. Although the cause of death has been issued, a lot more will be discussed about it and I urge you, that if you have any feelings or thoughts that may lead to harm yourself, please seek help, call Lifeline on 13 11 44.
I don’t want to talk about the end. I want to talk about the beginning. About how it all started, the Seattle grunge scene and why we know Chris Cornell’s name and why he will be an artist that will be remembered, spoken about as one of the greats and will be missed. A lot of people were introduced to Soundgarden through the songs ‘Black Hole Sun‘ and ‘Fell On Black Days‘, but there is a wealth of material from their early days which is just extraordinary.
In the 1980’s, Seattle was a city in America where nothing happened. Much like Brisbane, Queensland during the same period. The only successful band to have emerged from this perpetually wet city was Heart in the 1970’s. There was a local punk and covers scene where a young Duff McKagen was a participant but there was nothing else going on. Duff who was friendly with a lot of people who were about to make an impact in a few years left Seattle for Los Angeles because he felt no band of any impact would ever come from Seattle. He joined a little band called Guns N’ Roses. They did okay. And much like Brisbane in the 80’s, touring bands would give Seattle a wide berth and wouldn’t even play there. This is a fertile environment for a local music industry.
Soundgarden formed in this period at around 1984 with Chris Cornell singing and playing drums, Kim Thayil on guitar and Hiro Yamamoto on bass, playing original music with a distinct drop D tuning that produced a distinctly heavy sound. They also wear flannel shirts, torn jeans and thermal underwear, more for practical purposes due to the cold than for look, but the fashion is totally against what everyone was wearing during the 80’s. Other bands from the area such as the Melvins, Mother Love Bone, Alice In Chains have a similar style and look. It’s a hard music to categorize: it’s influenced by 70’s rock like Black Sabbath, KISS and Aerosmith as well as the punk of the Sex Pistols and The Clash from the U.K. and Black Flag and The Ramones from the U.S. And weirdly enough, they love Australian punk acts like Cosmic Psychos, Hard-ons and the Celibate Rifles. These bands, they weren’t heavy metal, they weren’t punk, they were somewhere in between. The city has also produced its own label, Sub-Pop which would help a lot of these bands find success by the 1990’s.
However, all these bands are out of step with what is the popular form of rock music of the time; the glam metal of L.A. featuring Motley Crue, Poison, Quiet Riot, the heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Cougar Mellencamp and Bon Jovi (who were kind of between the two). There was also the college rock scene which featured R.E.M., Wall of Voodoo, and Husker Du. But by 1987, the major labels are sniffing around as word is reaching L.A. and New York that something is happening in Seattle.
Soundgarden would hire a new drummer so Chris could concentrate more on vocals and along with all the other bands, and another bunch of upstarts from Aberdeen, Nirvana were beginning to make a name for themselves (Soundgarden’s ultimate lineup of Cornell, Thayil, Ben Shepherd on bass and Matt Cameron on drums would take shape by 1991). Soundgarden released a couple of EP’s; Screaming Life and Fopp and in 1987 released their debut Ultramega OK. However it was their second album, Louder Than Love where those who had their ear to the ground and were looking for the next thing that would be their calling card. It was heavy. It was melodic. It was intense but it was beautiful. If you were into heavy music in 1989 and 90 and you heard ‘Loud Love’ or ‘Hands All Over‘, you knew you were listening to something special.
Even listening to it now, there is nothing else that sounded like early Soundgarden. Chris was blessed with a voice from the Gods and with Kim Thayil’s heavy guitar, it was a beautiful noise. He was also a poet, using striking imagery to create his lyrics. Consider ‘Rusty Cage’’s opening lines from their follow up, Badmotorfinger (great album title), “You wired me awake and hit me with a head of broken nails.” His music was like being hit with a head of broken nails riding a pack of dogs. It may have meant nothing, but it meant everything, As I am writing this, I am listening to these songs and those feelings that I had all those years ago come rising back. The urge, when you hear and feel something powerful, to jump around your room, into the walls, hurting yourself but not minding because it’s a cathartic way to let that angst, that energy out of your system. I’m a bit old now and I don’t recover as well but I can still jump around.
Writing this and listening to these songs, it has finally hit me that we will not hear this man’s voice live again. And that is a tragedy. He was touring with Soundgarden again and there was talk of a Temple of the Dog reunion (the collaboration he did with members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to honour the life of Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone). He was also touring acoustically as a solo artist.
Chris Cornell leaves behind a massive body of work, from Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave and his solo work. One of the most extraordinary and unique artists we will ever have the privilege of hearing. I feel that we are blessed to have shared this time in history with him. Vale good sir, and thank you. I want to play this song that you sang for Whitney Houston. We are dedicating back to you.
Words by Dan Brixey (@DanielJBrixey)
Music fan forever and always.