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Chris Cornell Was Grunge Music’s Virtuoso

Chris Cornell Was Grunge Music’s Virtuoso

When David Bowie died last year, Chris Cornell wrote, “You don’t know how important someone is to you as an artistic influence until suddenly they’re gone. I’ve certainly been having that experience. It’s kind of equal parts sad and celebratory to think, ‘Awesome. What an amazing career he had and what an amazing legacy he’s left for everybody.'”

It’s in somber celebration that we can now apply those words to Cornell himself, who died last night after performing with Soundgarden at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. The band closed the show, as they had regularly for years, with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying,” a harbinger, but a song perfect for Cornell’s ethereal range.

The natural heir to Joe Cocker, Cornell’s voice sounded like it had been dragged through a gravel quarry after a dynamite detonation. But it was balletic too. Ranging four octaves, his vocals sounded as smooth and bitter as mud-black coffee, the perfect medium for the haunting, adrenalizing poetry he shared throughout four decades.

Cornell was proof that the word “virtuoso” shouldn’t be reserved solely for those classically inclined. His style was centered in the Seattle Sound, but experimentation proved his vocals meshed well with folky jams (“Before We Disappear”), poppy tribal grooves (“Can’t Change Me”), bluesy ballads (“Sweet Euphoria”), and countless other genres.

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Out of the glitter-strewn ashes of ’80s rock, Soundgarden (alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam) offered something that felt more dangerous. Instead of bathing in neon excess and manic, spandex smiles, grunge permitted musicians and fans an outlet for exorcising pain. In plain t-shirts and jeans, Cornell rejected the theatrics of the previous decade: “Black hole sun/ won’t you come/ and wash away the rain” was simultaneously baptismal and apocalyptic.

Stripped-down and raw, Cornell’s clear tones were a perfect sonic foil for Kim Thayil’s distorted–often psychedelic–guitar riffs. A similar partnership emerged when Cornell merged with a Zack de la Rocha-less Rage Against the Machine to slam 1970s hard rock together with the signature 1990s alt energy both Rage and Soundgarden helped invent. Tom Morello’s driving, muted guitar chords and alien solos offered a coarse counterpoint to Cornell’s precision, but what made the partnership soar was Cornell’s ability to belt it out when the guitars kicked into overdrive. He had a huge stadium voice that didn’t have a single drop of sunshine in it, and his most magical gift was his ability to add distortion to his tone exactly like an electric guitar.

Despite the dozens of Audioslave and Soundgarden tracks to blast today, I genuinely hope that Cornell’s solo work isn’t lost underneath the mosh pit. “Euphoria Morning” (originally intended to be called “Euphoria Mourning” before a typo) is a masterpiece. It signaled an incredible artist in transition, rooted yet exploratory, disturbingly easy to listen to. His final studio solo album, “Higher Truth,” is similarly outstanding, but it both benefits and is hampered by his status as an elder statesman. It’s a bit safer, a bit more stable, and it allowed his voice to take the spotlight. Cornell’s grinding, repeated “He will say I Love You” in the simple ballad “Only These Words” is magnificently heartbreaking, and as usual, his writing offers bold visuals and a true sense of emotional space.

Cornell was also the rare musician who understood how to cover other musicians’ songs. With skillful integrity, he allowed the core of the work to persist while adding his own, unique layers. From Whitney Houston to Pearl Jam to The Beatles to Prince, he honored their music as a fan first, giving each tribute its own flare. His cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is a legitimate reason to change religions.

Pain was not something Chris Cornell ever hid. I’ve always thought that Cornell’s vocals hovered exactly between heaven and hell, mildly tormented. He faced depression throughout his life, but, while tinged with distress, his music transcended single-minded obsession with hurt. On the contrary, it offered a wide range of experiences, vivid imagery, and exultant passions. I can only assume that legions of fans, like me, discovered the liberation of honestly and directly expressing vulnerability because of Cornell. This was his parting gift, and his music, thankfully, lives on.

The national suicide prevention hotline is at 1-800-273-8255.

Images: A&M Records, BB Gun Press

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