Remembering Chris Cornell, 5 years later

It’s sometimes hard to drive around Seattle and not recognize the ultramega footprint that Chris Cornell left in his hometown. At least it is for me. Even for a city that’s widely known for ruthlessly ripping out and reorienting its own history in the name of “progress” — think taller, taller, glassier skyscrapers as far as the eye can see — Chris’s fingerprints are everywhere.

As you walk down Leary Way in its former stomping grounds around Ballard, you’ll pass the triangular-shaped Reciprocal Recordings, where Soundgarden recorded their debut album scream life in 1987. Studio Litho, where they deposited their last disc before the rupture, 1996 down inside out, nearly two decades later, is just a few minutes up the street, across from the huge statue of Vladimir Lenin. Ray’s Boathouse, where Chris worked as a young line cook scraping fish guts to fund his rock star dreams, is about 10 minutes the other way.

Through the sound of West Seattle, Cornell’s face appears everywhere. More importantly, it’s painted on the side of Easy Street Records. Right next to him, memorialized on brick, is a similar piece of street art depicting his former roommate and Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. Inside, the shop is a veritable grunge rock museum, where you can buy almost all of his discography, on vinyl or otherwise.

On 8th Avenue is the stately Paramount Theater which Soundgarden rocked in 1992 for its acclaimed “Motorvision” shows. Downtown on 4th Avenue, you can look through a dusty window and admire the remains of Bad Animals Studios, where he spent months and months and months honing the sounds of the hit album by 1994 of his group. superunknown. Two blocks away is the Moore Theater where Soundgarden recorded their second EP, OFPP. The international headquarters of Sub Pop, the label he helped legitimize all those years ago, is only a few blocks away.

Down on 2nd Ave in the alley is Black Dog Forge, where he, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam all rehearsed in the early 90s. On 1st Ave is the Central Tavern, one of the oldest saloons in the entire West Coast, and the scene of dozens of Soundgarden concerts throughout the 80s and 90s. The band also used the floor as their private headquarters for several years. The Showbox where they reunited in 2010 as the Nudedragons is a few miles away, across from the famous Pike’s Place Market.

(Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)

And finally, there is his bronze statue placed right in front of the Museum of Popular Culture, just around the corner from the Space Needle, greeting passers-by for eternity.

“His songs and voice ignited the alternative rock scene and helped put Seattle on the map as one of the world’s great music scenes,” proclaims the plaque around his feet. “Cornell’s work…has had a tremendous impact on popular music and will continue to inspire future artists and bands for generations to come.”

Whatever your feelings about the supernatural, it’s pretty much a fact that parts of who we inevitably stay long after we’re gone. These can be physical reminders – a painting, a bronze bust, a well-placed photograph – but there’s also an emotional imprint that’s much harder to quantify. A feeling. A collective memory. A tingling sensation when you hear a particular song at the right time of day.

The wake that Chris Cornell left behind is particularly immense because the impact he had on the world was incredibly enormous. Just like the shocking nature of his death. When much of the world fell asleep on the night of May 17, 2017, one of the greatest voices in rock history was on stage at the Fox Theater in Detroit, doing what he did best; entertain thousands of loyal fans with his singular gift. The next morning he was gone.

For many people, myself included, the tragedy was almost impossible to reconcile. For those who knew him best – his family, his closest friends and his many bandmates – it will always remain so. Cornell was a larger than life person, both in word and deed. He was a 6-foot-3 dropout who turned into a poet. A self-proclaimed music nerd, who has become one of the coolest figures in an industry where cool is the currency of the kingdom. A reclusive drummer, who rose from the back of the stage to the very lip and then beyond, while transforming into the perfect idea of ​​what a rock and roll leader is supposed to look, sound and act .

Chris Cornell
(Credit: Christie Goodwin/Redferns via Getty Images)

“He was a really good drummer,” Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil told me in 2018. “He’s not like Matt [Cameron] but he wrote very well as a drummer. i think so much that [bassist] Hiro [Yamamoto] and I had the idea of ​​having another singer for Chris to continue writing with us on drums. But Chris really wanted to get up from behind the drums.

Many in the Seattle underground apparently snickered as he wildly ripped off his shirt night after night and dove headlong into the crowd throughout the 80s. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would reminisce onstage between songs, when he called this particular move, “The full Cornell.” Apparently they used to bet on how long the jersey would last. As locals joked, others around the world took many notes, learning from the dynamic black-haired singer what is needed to keep the masses engaged.

But while anyone can buy a gym membership and do a few step dives, one thing that couldn’t be replicated from Cornell was his iconic, bone-marrowing voice. It was a singular instrument that stood out even among the incredible crop of gifted howlers that emerged alongside it throughout the era of alternative rock. Even more amazing were all the myriad ways he used it. Chris Cornell was not born a great singer. He had the natural tools, but it took years of hard work and practice to realize his full abilities. But once he did, all bets were off.

I remember I was talking to someone once while writing my book, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell. They said they once had difficulty trying to figure out *how* to sing a particular piece of music. They were puzzled. Confused. Impossible to nail it. Then a thought crossed their minds: “How could Chris Cornell sing that?” Suddenly everything became clear. They knew exactly what they were supposed to do. Chris gave them the roadmap.

There were no words on Earth that he couldn’t fill with heartbreaking emotion, mind-numbing power, or sheer, mind-blowing electricity. Its low, ominous rumble could apparently drop to the depths of the ocean floor, before soaring into the stratosphere like an F-35 howling after a recently fired missile. When Chris Cornell stepped up to the microphone, everyone noticed.

Chris Cornell
(Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

About four years ago, I was sitting with Kim Thayil backstage on the Chicago subway, talking about Cornell. He observed that “he didn’t take many things or materials or relationships with him in his life. He was somewhat independent of that. He traveled lightly.

And that’s true.

Chris always moved on to the next thing, then the next thing, and the next thing. Pop sub at A&M Records. Cry out life to superunknown. Soundgarden at Audioslave. From hip-hop beats to acoustic solo tours. He was still looking. Always looking for the next corner to find what interested him most. And then he was gone.

But as light as Chris has been through life, the legacy he left remains enormous. It’s in his children, who took up his craft and turned into spectacular singers in their own right. It’s in the old haunts around town, and the memories of musical conquests left behind. It’s in the hearts and minds of the millions of fans who have turned to his lyrics and melodies through tough times, through times of heartbreak, and through times of self-doubt. As long as his records remain, they always will.

Chris Cornell may not be with us anymore, but he’s still here.


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