In 2015, at a concert in Melbourne, Australia, Chris Cornell performed a moving rendition of the Temple of the Dog song “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” He dedicated the performance to Scott Weiland, who the night before had passed away of a drug overdose. Now, less than two years later, Cornell has died at age 52; the cause of death has been ruled a suicide.
Cornell’s death invites innumerable questions, but one ramification is clear: rock music has lost one of its signature voices. As frontman for three separate groups—Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog, all significant and compelling in their own ways—and as a solo artist, Cornell’s multi-octave vocal range at times both embraced and defied the trademark mumbling vocal style of grunge—a genre in which he is often credited with a pioneering role, alongside the names Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder.
Cornell’s vocal power is well-documented on his bands’ most popular songs, such as “Like A Stone” and “Black Hole Sun.” A deeper look at his sprawling discography reveals more of the same: an understated cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” shows Cornell at his most concentrated, bristly self; “Slaves & Bulldozers” from Soundgarden’s 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, is a veritable masterclass in the pathos and power of grunge.
Having endured a lifelong battle against on-and-off substance abuse, Cornell’s lyrics never flinched away from difficult subjects. On Soundgarden’s Down on the Upside, “Pretty Noose,” presciently and sadly, alludes to hanging; the sneering anger on “Hunger Strike” also serves as a chilling showcase for Cornell’s cannon-esque high notes over Eddie Vedder’s brusque tenor.
Beyond his obvious power as a performer lies perhaps one of Cornell’s most understated virtues: he was as prolific a songwriter as they come. The story is in the numbers: six Soundgarden albums; three with Audioslave; one with Temple of the Dog; four solo albums—that’s over a hundred songs, the vast majority of which featured the singer as either a primary or co-lyricist.
Cornell died just hours after playing a packed house at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Survived by his wife, Vicky Karayiannis, and three children, Cornell also leaves behind an indelible legacy. An outpouring of grief, shock, and, ultimately, appreciation has flooded social media; tributes have come from such varied musicians as Jimmy Page and Chuck D of Public Enemy. He was a lively performer, who, from the outside looking in, still might have had his best years ahead of him in that regard.
RIP Chris Cornell
Incredibly Missed. pic.twitter.com/pKNI4tKiXz
— Jimmy Page (@JimmyPage) May 18, 2017
The artist’s career is undeniable, however abruptly and tragically it has ended. It is unfortunately the reality we live in, where the creative pioneers among us so often become entangled in mental illness. Why this happens, and why it happens so often, are probably too grand of mysteries to tackle, in any conclusive way, in this humble write-up.
When a person ends their own life, it is tempting to draw a conclusion of some sort from it, for those of us left breathing in the dust of their decision to glean some lesson. But the incomprehensible specter of mental illness cannot be alleviated by Hallmark-card sentiments, or any such simple answer. This is the ongoing experiment of which we are all a part.
What we can absolutely do, though, is celebrate what Chris Cornell, and those we have lost before him, have left behind. Here, we are met with a body of work so passionate, so thrumming with all of life’s trials and jubilations, that we all should consider ourselves immeasurably lucky to have, for however short a time, shared the planet with such a talent.
If you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline’s information can be found below: 1-800-273-8255 and Online Chat