I was born in 1996, which meant I missed the Seattle grunge explosion by a good five years. One of those bands, Soundgarden, would commence what was thought to be a permanent breakup on April 9th, 1997. As happens to all bands, they largely disappeared from the cultural conversation, outside of lead singer Chris Cornell’s contributions to film soundtracks and the debacle that was Audioslave.
Decidedly outside of my parents’ musical wheelhouse, I would not be exposed to their unconventionally tuned, face-melting riffs until I turned 12, while record shopping with my fifteen-years-older cousin. Wanting to appear cool in front of him, I asked what CD I should buy. He pointed to Badmotorfinger, and said “Top ten right there.” Coolness temporarily achieved, (as it is only ever temporary) that moment solidified my musical obsession outside of my parents’ sphere of influence.
Bassist Kim Thayil memorably told Spin in 1994: “We play masculine music, really powerful rock. We rock without the long, pointless sections that go nowhere, the stupid guitar solos, the lipstick, and the codpieces. We wanted to be Black Sabbath without the parts that suck.” Soundgarden was reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, complete with the searing Robert Plantian vocals and sludgy riffs, but without the faux mysticism and sex posturing. Cornell’s lyrics were impressionistic and existentialist, and his four-octave, belting, and gnarly vocals kept them from meandering.
From 1988’s Ultramega OK and its standout ‘Big Dumb Sex’ to 1997’s underrated Down on the Upside, Soundgarden’s has both challenged and evolved with the times, even as their coolness was constantly in question by the plaid-wearing neo-hipsters of Seattle grunge. 1994’s Superunknown was their creative apex, incorporating elements of psychedelia and East Indian music. Certified five times platinum, the album’s themes of alienation and depression were ethereal yet concrete, while the production retained its heaviness and its sense of control. With the band’s breakup (until 2012’s welcome King Animal) Cornell and Soundgarden were seen as the lone survivors of a scene which took the lives of many of his contemporaries, from his own roommate Andrew Wood, Shannon Hoon, Layne Staley, Andrew Weiland, and of course, Kurt Cobain.
Until May 18th, 2017 when he was found dead in his hotel room of an apparent suicide. Tributes poured in across the music world to mourn someone who according to his wife would have never done something so horrific. While he had talked at length over the years on his problems with addiction and depression, the 52-year-old had never stopped in his thirty year career, launching straight from rehab into an Audioslave tour. By all accounts, he kept a handle on the darkness that so often consumes people regardless of money or love. But in the end, it’s not something you ‘get over.’ “I always thought that line I heard a million times – twice as bright but half as long – is bullshit.” He told Vulture. “It’s tragedy, I just carry that with me all the time.”
Chris Cornell continued the dynamism of his band, especially in his Jeff Buckley-esque solo Euphoria Morning. Soundgarden’s recent tour reaffirmed his rock god status, reveling in his versatility and maturity. He should be able to enjoy Plant’s elderly acoustic phase in 2030, but now that is an impossibility. He shouldn’t be dead, and while the cognitive dissonance may forever remain, Cornell’s legacy will now be that of the genuine rock star and underrated writer he always was. It is with that note of remembrance that the last of the rock gods passes into memory.