“I remember it because that's the first time that happened. No one had ever looked at me like that,” he said in an interview in 2015. It stuck with him.
His mom gave him piano and guitar lessons when he was young. Between ages nine and 11 he became inspired by Little Richard and the Beatles, listening to vinyl records lying around the house. His parents were alcoholics, and alcohol was also lying around. And he indulged. He later called it a gateway drug as it “takes away the fear around anything else.”
At 14 he had a bad reaction to the drug PCP — angel dust, as it is very darkly, ironically known — and became paranoid and reclusive for a couple of years. His mom gave him a snare drum when he was 17, and within a week he was in a band.
“Seattle had been this isolated, provincial little petri dish of art and music that was allowed to kind of grow because nobody cared about it,” he said in an interview with CNN in 2013.
The Seattle scene was all about dark moody music, basements, and finding your identity. It wasn’t L.A., and it wasn’t New York. They had their own thing happening — an anti-commercial music, a cross between heavy metal, rock, and punk, which somehow got the quite-appropriate name Grunge.
Cornell was only 20 when Soundgarden formed in 1984. Penning most of the lyrics, he came out from behind the drums (as they couldn’t find a satisfactory frontman, but could find a drummer). With his 6-foot, 3-inch frame, incredibly good looks like a rockstar Jesus, and an extraordinary voice, Cornell (and Soundgarden) quickly became a favorite on the scene, alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and a mushrooming group of other bands. Eddie Vedder called him “the best singer we have on the planet.”
Cornell thought that Soundgarden predated Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but there was no overnight success for any of them, although when Nirvana broke, the floodgates opened for everyone.
He described himself as a free thinker and seemed to be shy, never really comfortable as a rock god, although it came entirely natural to him. And he certainly wanted and worked hard for the success. He seemed a conflicted person, a bit tortured. He sang about angst, addiction, and depression. But, then again, that was pretty much the grunge scene at the time. And he lived in Seattle.
In 1990 he married Soundgarden’s manager Susan Silver, whom he’d been dating for five years by then. But Chris started losing people around him. One that hit hard was his roommate Andrew Wood, the lead singer of Mother Love Bone, who overdosed on heroin in 1990. He formed Temple of the Dog, a one-off tribute band with some of Pearl Jam’s members, including Vedder, in Wood’s honor.
In 1994 Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and grunge more or less died with him. But by 1995, “Black Hole Sun” was a massive mainstream success for Soundgarden, winning a Grammy. Soon after, in 1997, they mutually decided to disband. Cornell felt free of any song-writing restrictions and embarked on a solo career, producing four studio albums and recording a James Bond theme, for Casino Royale, in 2006.
Chris and Susan had a baby girl, Lillian, in June 2000. By now, Cornell was calling himself a high-functioning-alcoholic. Struggling with depression, he sunk himself into booze and prescription drugs, and eventually, and inevitably, there were troubles in his marriage too.
Maybe he was never truly comfortable with the spotlight. He said he was “always hungover” when he joined Audioslave in 2001. Audioslave were more guitar-riffed thunder rock, with behemoth guitarist Tom Morello, formed after Rage Against the Machine lost their lead singer. Their debut album achieved triple-platinum status.
Cornell decided to get sober in 2003, which was when he met Vicky Karayiannis, an American publicist living in Paris, at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, where he was staying with Audioslave after a Paris gig.
He moved to Paris, while his ugly divorce raged like a tempest back in the States, to be with Vicky, and they were said to be inseparable. They had two children, Toni in 2004 and Christopher in 2005.
These photos are from that time, when Chris was living in Paris, in love, and perhaps, momentarily at least, at peace. Audioslave were still going strong, but in 2007 Chris left, citing musical differences. His music changed, becoming more reflective, more melancholic, more nuanced, and he also sang covers, leading to a sold-out U.S. tour in 2011.
On May 18, 2017, after playing a Soundgarden tribute show in Detroit, he hung himself in this hotel room and was found by his bodyguard. A toxicity report found multiple drugs in his body, including Ativan and barbiturates, but also harmless ones such as a decongestant and caffeine. With seemingly everything to live for, his unimaginable demons took him away.
The first time Steve Lyon met Chris was at a club in Paris off the Champs Elysees in 2003, the Black Calvados, BC to the hip, the club that Cornell would later co-own. It had the Parisian de rigeur clientele of models, and all they attracted. You had dinner upstairs, and the club was downstairs. Steve was introduced to Vicky Cornell, who had seen his work, and she proposed he shoot their intimate pre-wedding shots.
Vicky and Chris were semi-naked in their bedroom the next time he saw them, in either “springtime 2004 or could have been the end of 2003,” he says, not remembering precisely. Their Paris apartment was large, high ceilings; elegant, big windows; crown moldings; and modern contemporary furniture. Every room tastefully done. Steve said they knew how to fill a space, as opposed to other friends of his in Paris who had large apartments and no furniture. Chris’s platinum records adorned the walls alongside vintage guitars. “It was super comfortable and organic,” recalls Steve.
Vicky still has a small print from that intimate session on the nightstand next to her bed. She calls Chris the love of her life, her soulmate. They were married in May 2004.
Around 18 months after the wedding, Lyon was asked to come over and do some photos of Chris. He was there from the morning, shooting reels of Chris with his baby, one year old Toni, of Chris relaxing and with his guitar, and the family, until the famous Parisian light faded. He had no assistant, just his cameras.
“It’s his birthday. I love these pictures. Chris loved these pictures. Let’s make it a celebration,” Vicky told Steve last week.
This is the first time that these photos have been shown together.
Why have you sat on the pictures for so long?
I knew they were special, and never wanted to capitalize and wanted to get Vicky’s approval. I’ve only used one or two of the pictures in interviews and as a photographic collective out of respect for the family.
What struck you most about him when you first met?
How non-rockstar he was, a guy who I’d want to meet and be friends with. We talked. I was in AA, so Chris and I talked about that, as Chris had been or was going to meetings. As far as I know, at that time he was clean of everything. He certainly looked it. It was common ground, and I think we both respected each other for that.
And such a handsome man, my God.
You said you picked up his guitar (the one in the photo) and sang to him one time. What was his reaction?
He laughed and shouted, “Vicky, come in here. Steve’s gonna sing us a song.”
We were always very comfortable. In my opinion, he had one of the most amazing rock voices ever, and I’m sitting there in his living room singing him my song. [Laughs.]
Vic and Chris had a great relationship. I remember every time he would put on a shirt, he would call in Vic to get her approval. I said to him, “You let your wife dress you?” And he laughs and goes, “Ah, what the fuck?”
Are the photos going to be for sale at some point?
I haven’t yet released these for sale, other than one image twice for a charity auction. Some of them will appear in my coffee table book Artist of Light coming soon, and I’m sure a few will be in galleries to launch the book. They’re timeless images.
Since they were only shot on film, as is most of my work still, I only offer silver gelatin and platinum prints.
How can someone purchase one?
Now they can be purchased through my art broker at Serrins Fine Art: [email protected]. Vicky and I are also talking about an exhibit in Paris, with some of the proceeds going to the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation [started in 2012 to help vulnerable children in the global massive refugee crisis].
She said Chris would love that.