Chris Cornell, grunge and leaving before it’s time
The death of Chris Cornell has stolen a lot of music from the world. When Leonard Cohen passed away last year, it was not accompanied by this feeling of theft; Cohen died at 82 and made music throughout his life. Cornell died a younger man than Cohen by 30 years. If he had too lived to be 82, we may have seen three decades of writing, recording and performing as he continuously evolved and refined his craft.
Such is the whimsical thinking typical to the aftermath of talented musicians departing before their time. It carries a sweet redundancy: What kind of songs would an elderly Kurt Cobain have written? Happy ones? What if Jimi Hendrix had lived on to develop a weakness for jazz? How throaty would a 60-year-old Janis Joplin have sounded? Cornell’s memory now joins such speculation even as his actual body of work, sadly, can now be assessed in its entirety.
A little context: for rock-loving, cassette-buying Indian teenagers in a pre-internet-piracy era, the exposure was nothing like it is now. By and large, people’s favourites, like Soundgarden, were picked from a small and famous pool. Without the mighty download, nichy cults were few and schools were awash with Metallica, RHCP, Linkin Park and Green Day—in their analogous glory.
There was grunge. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were (rather impressionably) seen as a long-haired Mount Rushmore of suburban angst which loved muddy guitars and hated spandex. It was a mirror to the West’s silent accumulation of the worst tendencies of the 1980s; the vomiting out of excesses which had dumbed down the artistic process in a haze of confetti, make-up, costumes and smoke machines.
Grunge was bare and heavy—a rallying point for bullied sensitivities which erupted like warts all over the airbrushed face of the US music industry (and it was heavily and effectively marketed as such). It was not enough to grab your crotch and have “Nothin’ But a Good Time” anymore.
Chris Cornell, the voice of Soundgarden, was part of all this. And uniquely so.
While popular grunge acts were clumped together, there were differences. Silver linings, musical complexity and even the acceptance of the term “grunge” were topics where the bands differed. Some liked elaborate guitar solos and others wanted to bury such ideas. Within this house of marketably sad people, there were distinct approaches to the theme.
Cornell was the strangest. He did not have Cobain’s guttural retaliation to demons. He didn’t fluctuate between youthful abandon and beyond-years wisdom like Eddie Vedder. He had a different serenity. His melodies were more complex and delicately positioned. The listening process was never pure desolation. Soundgarden (and Audioslave) could not be described as a base rush of anger; it was a crafted thing, a troubled entity which longed to be mellow. It hinged on the precise interactions of the elements. There was a vulnerability in the sense Cornell was using it as a canvas for “processing pain”, but his songwriting had a humanity which was more disarming than just singing a sad song.
These themes were cut with Cornell’s musical preferences and the kind of voice he had. He would often favour a stuttering quality to, not the vocals, but structure of the melody. Both Soundgarden and Audioslave loved making wide, spacey riffs over 16 bars, and over them Cornell was free to weave in and out with all his remarkable tools. With more vocal variation than some of his contemporaries, Cornell could dive deep into the ground and rise suddenly and sharply. He could croon out a soulful verse in a voice crackling with sincerity, then deftly start lashing the air with a screaming chorus and sidestep into a falsetto to give way to his sonic other, Tom Morello. It was its own formula.
Chris Cornell was grunge’s most nuanced singer. That is why he could sing nasally over just major chords about his uneasy peace and have you believe it—because of musicality. His voice gauged very well the requirements of what he wrote down and made a listener believe in the crisis and also think that the crisis was cool.
For that, it would have been interesting to see what and how he sang at a ripe age. The same goes for Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain (or Andrew Wood or Scott Weiland, depending on your taste). All these musicians died unnatural deaths; in tweaked circumstances, they would have exponentially larger discographies. The kind of work Johhny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen have done in their later years has been informed by age and a natural progression of their sensibilities in evolving musical circumstances; art sitting atop necessary stepping stones of past efforts.
For too many special artists like Chris Cornell, that story is cut short and there really is no underlying positivity to write home about. Selfish fans can, perhaps, placate themselves with the knowledge that music inspired by Cornell will keep getting made. His own body of work will, of course, continue to breathe and be discovered and rediscovered; a small sense of immortality in an alarmingly perishable state of things.
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