“I feel bad for the next city,” Chris Cornell reportedly shrugged towards the end of Soundgarden’s unusually disjointed performance at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 17. Those in attendance noticed that things seemed a bit off that night, but this is how things go sometimes for rock bands in their 50s, particularly ones as reliant on sheer physicality as Soundgarden.
That statement could easily have been an acknowledgment of how much they truly enjoyed playing in the Motor City. When the band interpolated Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” into the closing “Slaves & Bulldozers,” that too did not seem like anything out of the ordinary; they’ve covered it numerous times in the past. But now, the YouTube recording of this performance will forever serve as the equivalent of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Fans will revisit it with macabre fascination, wondering how any of us could’ve missed what these men were trying to tell us in the final moments that they would be seen alive in public. (Cornell’s death was ruled a suicide; his family has disputed the ruling.)
That next city would’ve been Columbus, Ohio—home of the Rock on the Range Festival, a massive weekend affair serving as unassailable proof that rock is indeed thriving, albeit amongst demographics most mainstream publications actively mock if they give a shit about them to begin with. Soundgarden was scheduled to headline Friday night and they’re bracketed on the festival poster by Live, Bush, Chevelle and Pierce the Veil. Soundgarden belonged at Rock the Range at this point—they’re a fixture on classic rock radio, whereby 1993 constitutes “classic rock,” and they’ve virtually disappeared as an influence on modern bands. As they were, even in their heyday, Soundgarden seemed like the odd men out amongst their Seattle peers—not iconic like Nirvana, not a cultural fixture like Pearl Jam, not as crassly commercial as Alice In Chains 2.0. The past two days have seen a massive outpouring of love for Soundgarden as a formative listening experience, as one of the greatest and most underappreciated bands of their time, a modern analogue of bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones where every member of the band provides a distinct musical personality. And yet, it’s likely that Soundgarden went months or even years without mention in the public sphere.
It’s not enough to call Chris Cornell one of the most indelible vocalists and songwriters of the past three decades. The death of a musical icon typically calls for an appreciation of their complexity, a eulogy in which their contradictory impulses are brought to the fore. On that level, Cornell provides. Though the grunge era to which Soundgarden is subscribed is largely characterized as an allergic reaction to the excess of the 80s, don’t get it fucked up: Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan and Layne Staley are now seen as the charismatic rockstars they truly were. Would Matt Dillon’s Cliff Poncier rank even in the top five of the hunkiest grunge singers?
But of all his peers, Cornell really looked and sounded the part, a guy who could’ve been a rock god in any decade. And despite the revisionist history, metal and alternative rock peacefully co-existed throughout the early-to-mid ’90s, which put Soundgarden in a unique position to succeed. Unlike Nirvana, they were more than happy to open for Guns ‘N Roses. And even if the band would send up the cliches of hair metal on songs like “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Big Dumb Sex” and the “665”/”667” duo, they weren’t above the barely-there double entendres of “Mailman” (“I know I’m headed for the bottom/but I’m ridin’ you all the wayyyyyy!”) or “Flower.” Not to mention that Chris Cornell spent a good portion of the early ’90s totally shirtless, and singing about snakes.
Memorials of Chris Cornell have rightfully picked up on the aspects that were less appreciated in his time—not only the complexity and vulnerability, but the self-awareness that he could be funny in ways most of his peers couldn’t. If Soundgarden were a completely new band when “Outshined” dropped, a Serious Rock Man saying “I’m looking California and feelin’ Minnesota” would’ve suffered the same merciless mocking given to Scott Weiland for assuming people would see the irony in “Sex Type Thing.” “The Day I Tried to Live” is probably more convincingof a snarky slacker anthem than “Loser” or “Longview” because it really does sound like a day where getting out of bed is a monumental undertaking soundtracked by million-dollar Michael Beinhorn production. There’s a Soundgarden song written from the perspective of a “hardcore pissed-off idiot” that uses the word “fuck” 21 times and it’s called “Ty Cobb,” not to be confused with the other fuck-heavy Soundgarden song titled after a sports figure (“Kyle Petty, Son of Richard”). For any of the other rock bands getting MTV airplay in 1994, “Spoonman” probably would’ve been a metaphor for heroin. It was about an actual Spoonman, and the Spoonman plays a spoon solo—the song itself owes its existence to a fake Citizen Dick title.
Chris Cornell’s commercial peak is surprisingly short in terms of his overall career – despite spawning two #1 singles on the U.S. Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, 1996’s Down on the Upside has only gone platinum, an 80% decrease from Superunknown’s sales, perhaps due to Soundgarden breaking up in 1997 and remaining dormant until 2010’s cobbled-together Telephantasm. It remains unknown how many copies of Badmotorfinger were acquired through Columbia House’s sweet and scammable introductory deal. But this leaves a wealth of material from Screaming Life to Scream that can be grouped in any number of ways —Greatest Hits, Greatest Misses, Greatest Moments, it’s all there. Whether or not these are the “best” of Chris Cornell, they’re all bittersweet reminders that we’ll likely never see anything like him again.
“Hunted Down” (Screaming Life)
One of the more fun experiences of being a teenage MTV addict was coming across unexpected hits from bands like Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers, Urge Overkill and the Breeders and working backwards through their discography, digging up their gnarled, unrecognizable indie roots. It’s no different with Soundgarden: Badmotorfinger was actually their second album on A&M and before that, they had been on SST and Sub Pop, two of the most revered indie rock labels of their respective decades. Those intrepid souls who reached Screaming Life heard a nearly unrecognizable version of the band that could very well have been a contemporary of Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction and Living Colour. There was a non-zero possibility that Chris Cornell could’ve worn dreadlocks in the late ’80s. Fortunately, the “Immigrant Song”-esque “Hunted Down” was as funky as they got, and it was funky enough—the “HUH!” alone would’ve been enough to get it on this list.
“Smokestack Lightning” (Ultramega OK)
Soundgarden were compared to Led Zeppelin for a lot of valid reasons, but rarely the most basic one: They liked to cover blues standards too. Not just any blues standard, but motherfucking “Smokestack Lightning.” Unlike Led Zeppelin, they actually credited Howlin’ Wolf. Putting all of that aside, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how those pitch-perfect banshee wails towards the end could’ve been received at the zenith of Our Band Could Be Your Life era.
“Flower” (Ultramega OK)
“All of seventeen/Eyes a purple green/Treated like a queen/She was on borrowed self-esteem.” You could say that the lead single from Ultramega OK was not unlike a number of well-meaning, but problematic PSAs coming from heavy guitar bands in 1988. But maybe that was sort of the point of Soundgarden at the time, creating a bridge between pop-metal and Sub Pop before Lollapalooza came into existence.
“Hands All Over” (Louder than Love)
Louder than Love contained a song called “Big Dumb Sex” and a song called “Full on Kevin’s Mom,” based on a true story about a guy who had big dumb sex with Kevin’s mom. And yet, none of these are sexier than “Hands All Over,” which is actually about Mother Earth being remorselessly fucked by the human race. Want proof? Here’s the first comment on the YouTube: “Chris makes a way better stripper than Miley Cyrus.”
“Rusty Cage” (Badmotorfinger)
There’s a tendency for both writers and artists to genuflect towards Johnny Cash—no matter the quality, if he covers your song, it’s his now. The gravitas of hearing the Man in Black on death’s doorstep pulled alt-rock hits like “Mother” and “Hurt” from the edge of camp, but unlike those songs, it’s not the sentiment of “Rusty Cage” that matters so much as the delivery. Every pause in the build up to the chorus matters: It’s a trick utilized by astute craftsmen ranging from Lit to Bill Callahan – and “Rusty Cage” only works if it sounds like a rabid hyena rather than a supernatural space coyote.
“Jesus Christ Pose” (Badmotorfinger)
This song couldn’t prevent Scott Stapp from happening, but I won’t hold it against “Jesus Christ Pose.”
“Face Pollution” (Badmotorfinger)
Altered tunings, 9/8 time signatures, a chorus of “I don’t feel like feeling/feeling like you.” Soundgarden, secret forefathers of the emo revival?
“Hunger Strike” (Temple of the Dog)
Look, this is “the best Chris Cornell songs,” not hidden gems or whatever. You’ve heard this song a billion times and are probably going to hear a lot more in the next few weeks, if it isn’t overtaken by “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” But when that happens, listen—really listen to the way Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell both sing “I’m going hungry.” This is the difference between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden: Eddie sounds like a monk. Chris is hungry like the wolf.
“Birth Ritual” (Singles)
This Singles cut rarely gets as much love as “Seasons,” possibly because “Seasons” sounds like Led Zeppelin III and this sounds like Badmotorfinger. But when it came time for Cameron Crowe to handpick the kind of song that embodied everything exciting about Seattle’s music scene at the time, this is the one we got to see performed live. Let’s be real here, though—it’s not even close to Chris Cornell’s best part in the movie.
“My Wave” (Superunknown)
The singles from Superunknown are overexposed to the point where you can feasibly make the argument that they’re overrated or underrated because they get called overrated so often. “My Wave” is an exception—it probably got the least amount of MTV and radio airplay and was willfully misinterpreted as a song about surfing so it could be included in the soundtrack to Endless Summer II. But then again, whatever you wanted to do with Alternative Nation’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Cornell would let it slide as long as you did it somewhere. Never has “get off my lawn” sounded like such a cry for freedom.
“Pretty Noose” (Down on the Upside)
Most of Soundgarden’s biggest singles are tough to hear right now, largely because “Black Hole Sun”, “Fell On Black Days”, “Blow Up the Outside World” and “Burden In My Hand” are some of Chris Cornell’s most straightforward expressions of despondence. The title of “Pretty Noose” alone should make it virtually impossible to revisit, and yet it’s pissed off in a way that allows a degree of separation from its terribly unfortunate connotations—one-finger chords being bashed on a guitar tuned to only two notes and about as blunt of a metaphor can be while still being a metaphor, this is four minutes of white-hot, fleeting rage rather than a run of black days. Bonus points for one of the rudest solos of the alt-rock era.
“Burden In My Hand” (Down on the Upside)
Any list of Chris Cornell’s greatest performances will key in on the high notes, the point in any given song where he pushes his vocals beyond the capacity of mere mortals. But notice that these moments always come later in any given song; even a guy with his pipes can’t just barge in with a cold open. He did just that on “Burden In My Hand”, and it could’ve gone very, very wrong: “Folllllllllllllow me into the desert” could’ve just as easily come off as crotchety and caricatured as “just take those ooooooooold records off the shelf.” Instead, one of Soundgarden’s finest pop moments is also one of the hardest songs imaginable to do at karaoke.
“Sunshower” (Great Expectations)
If I ever want to remember 1998 in its most accurate terms, the Great Expectations soundtrack is of great service—collection of off-offbrand trip-hop, “Uncle John’s Band” and post-grunge singer-songwriters looking to be taken more seriously, even if that meant Scott Weiland, Duncan Sheik and Verve Pipe bro. You can blame context if “Sunshower” isn’t taken as seriously as “Seasons”; mind you, I would hear several of these cuts from this disc while working at the Gap. But as a bridge between Down on the Upside and a promise of a new, sleeker and more tech-savvy version of himself, it’s best to think of this as Cornell’s “Talk Show Host.”
“Can’t Change Me” (Euphoria Morning)
Chris Cornell’s solo debut Euphoria Morning was a state of the art alt-rock record in 1999, an expected inclusion in the subgenre of DreamWorks-core, wherein singer-songwriters like e., Mark Linkous and Elliott Smith were decked out with track-stuffing bric-a-brac and “electronic overtones.” (That sure sounds like a record scratch on “Flutter Girl.”) Of course, the song called “Can’t Change Me” fared best, weaponizing some of Soundgarden’s trademarks—sitar-like riffs, offbeat time signatures—in a pop song as dark and stylized as Cornell’s unfortunate new haircut, but far more flattering.
Exciting as it was for Chris Cornell to bring arena-rock vocal pyrotechnics to a particularly po-faced time, there was always the underlying fear that if the cards fell differently, he could very well have ended up being compared to David Coverdale rather than Robert Plant. Those fears were all realized in Audioslave, a band whose sound and name felt designed for Clear Channel playlists. There was a brief period of acceptance because they didn’t seem as cynical as Velvet Revolver, but now they benefit on account of not being Prophets of Rage. But this song, tho: The video is utterly fucking absurd, Tom Morello and the other two steakheads in Rage Against the Machine taking an ATV to some secluded tower in the desert where Chris Cornell has been rocking the fuck out in preparation for hours, if not months. If the first minute of the “Cochise” video isn’t the awesomest shit you’ve ever seen, you have no sense of humor. If the “Cochise Scream” doesn’t do anything for you, you just don’t like rock music.
“Part of Me” (Scream)
Perhaps you’ve heard about Chris Cornell’s bottoming out as a solo artist; abetted by a super-producer, he takes on a style of music that works against every single strength of his, creates a dumbshit cover and makes some profoundly shitty videos to boot. I’m of course talking about Carry On, the long-forgotten rootsy rebrand copiloted by Steve Lillywhite, who helmed some U2 albums, but more importantly, Dave Matthews Band. The first single was “No Such Thing,” which was not a John Mayer cover, but its most infamous track was “Billie Jean,” which definitely is a cover. Look at this guy on the album art, he looks like he’s angling to do gigs with Gaslight Anthem or some shit.
Oh yeah: Scream, the follow-up to Carry On was the sort of record that you sometimes have to double-check actually exists. Yes, Chris Cornell really did make an entire album with Timbaland and indeed, at least 26,000 people decided they valued the promise of this pairing more than money. But unlike anything from Carry On, “Part of Me” is all the way bad, so fully committed to a stupendously bad idea that it becomes essential in its own way. I mean, if Trent Reznor or Billy Corgan had the opportunity to be in the same room with Timbaland, you think they’d turn it down? Even if you last 30 seconds with this, it humanizes Chris Cornell in a way no scholarly dissertation on “Outshined” ever could.