Chris Cornell was, indisputably, to the ’90s as Robert Plant was to the ’70s: a long-haired, handsome frontman with charisma and charm to spare, deep, soulful eyes, and a voice. Oh, that voice. A primal, erotic wail, really. Where Cobain was the tortured artist and Vedder was (or became) the “everyman,” Cornell was the rock god.
No one linked the worlds of “alternative” and heavy rock/metal like Soundgarden: they were rooted in the heavy stomp of ’70s monsters like Mountain, but were also (fairly or not) seen as one of the leaders (commercially at least) of grunge, which meant that they broke out of the indie and college radio scene. Their debut, 1988’s Ultramega OK, came out on SST, for pete’s sake; don’t question their indie bonafides.
I first heard them in the fall of 1989, thanks to being in college radio at the time. The song was Louder Than Love‘s “Big Dumb Sex,” which was a real head-turner, with Cornell bellowing “I wanna fuck/fuck/fuck/fuck you” over remarkably sludgy, heavy rock. This was an album that wasn’t afraid — as opposed to most college rock of the time — to glory in sex. I loved that about them. But boy oh boy, were they ever not cool in ’89-’90.
’91’s Badmotorfinger started to break them big. They opened for Guns N’ Roses! “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Rusty Cage” got them on MTV. “Outshined” was transcendent. And then, GRUNGE HAPPENED. Thanks to Soundgarden and Pearl Jam breaking, the Temple of the Dog album (a tribute to Cornell’s former roommate Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone) got re-promoted and became a massive hit, thanks in large part to the MTV-loved video for “Hunger Strike,” which featured Cornell and Vedder trading vocals. And then there was the Singles soundtrack (which, unnervingly, is getting its 25th anniversary deluxe reissue tomorrow).
“Spoonman,” which might actually be my favorite of their singles, was the first from 1994’s Superunknown. The third was of course “Black Hole Sun” (a fine song which MTV killed dead). And now they were superstars. And goddammit, they rocked. Hard. And were so good. But it became very easy, especially after Cobain’s suicide, to snub them and take ’em for granted. They very quickly became uncool again, which was totally unfair (and really had nothing to do with them, but more about our projection).
2002’s first Audioslave album — produced by Rick Rubin — is likely better than you recall. Later works calcified into a bit of hard rock cliché, but the first time Cornell teamed up with the non-singing pieces of Rage Against the Machine was hard rock magic. “Cochise” is a killer single. His solo career I largely ignored (and now wonder if I should investigate). But fuck, in his prime, Cornell was THE MAN.
In a comment on a Facebook post this morning, Eric Harvey observed, sadly, that “of all the charismatic frontmen of the “grunge” moment (Cobain, Vedder, Weiland, Cornell, Staley), only Vedder is left.” Which is heartbreaking.