Why Chris Cornell Was the DNA & Soul of Seattle's Rock Scene

Charles PetersonĀ 
Soundgarden photographed at The Arboretum in Seattle in 1987. 

In Seattle on Thursday (May 18) -- the day the world learned Chris Cornell had died -- his music was coming from everywhere: bars, restaurants, coffee shops, office cubicles, marina docks, cars at stop lights, everywhere. People cried. Really. There was no other topic to discuss. No other artist to play.

Here’s why: Cornell, in all his musical forms, was the epitome of our Seattle music scene. He touched every music fan here, and his impact and presence never really waned over his 30-plus years making music. Cornell was, in a sense, Seattle’s musical soul, and it hurt to read that the beloved frontman of Soundgarden had died at his own hand at the age of 52.

Back in 1994, the Emerald City grunge underground had moved decidedly above ground and had splintered: Everybody and their moms (quite literally) loved Nirvana, the Aberdeen-turned-Olympia-turned-Seattle band whose LP Nevermind sold gajillions. Pearl Jam, meanwhile, was accused of appealing to the jocks, as Alice in Chains spoke to the crusty hair metal heshers. Soundgarden, however, had a different appeal. The music made by this local foursome, fronted by powerhouse vocalist Cornell, spoke to the weirdos, the depressives, the outcasts, those who were searching for an undefinable, I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it something. Just like Cornell was his entire life.

“Sad to hear that my friend Chris Cornell has passed away,” Cat Stevens, Yousef Islam wrote on Twitter Thursday. “A searcher of higher truth has entered the eternal hereafter.”

Soundgarden were the most Seattle of the Seattle alt-rock bands. They were the total embodiment of what made the Seattle music scene truly special. While Nirvana paired pop simplicity and punk fury, Pearl Jam delivered Aerosmith-sized sing-alongs, and Alice in Chains brought the dark buzz saw riffs, Soundgarden mixed all the above, but in a way that makes the ingredients unidentifiable. They were influenced by punk, metal, classic rock and more, yet you’d never say they were flag-bearers for any one genre of influence. Their sound was surreal, dark, knotty, and at times aggressive yet still emotional and vulnerable -- the essential DNA of the grunge sound.

They were named for an actual Sound Garden in Seattle, a city-owned park created by sculptor Douglas Hollis in the early ‘80s, whose steel structures produced soft-toned sounds when rotated by the wind. Spoonman, the title of the perhaps band’s best-known song, was named for a street performer in Pike Place Market, who played spoons as instruments (he actually played the spoons in the song and appeared in the music video, too). Unlike Nirvana, who were from the outskirts of Washington State, and Pearl Jam, who weren’t even a band until they drafted in EdVed from San Diego, Cornell was a born and raised local -- he attended Christ the King Catholic school in North Seattle and Shorewood High School in Shoreline. He had five siblings and nearly all were singers at one point or another. He even worked as seafood wholesaler and as a sous chef at Ray's Boathouse, a legendary local restaurant.

Cornell was depressed during his teen years, using drugs as early as 13 years old and dropping out of high school. But in 1984, he formed the band with guitarist Kim Thayil and first bassist Hiro Yamamoto (later replaced by Ben Shepherd). Soundgarden were pioneers in the Seattle scene. They were the first of the iconic bands to form and first to sign to a major label (A&M). And while many see the grunge era groups as an overnight success story, Soundgarden certainly paid their dues. They were a slow burn, releasing their first EP, Screaming Life, on Sub Pop in late 1987. They’d ride the grunge wave, but find real success after Nirvana’s demise, ultimately selling over 20 million albums worldwide. At the height of their popularity, Soundgarden’s 1994 LP Superunknown debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and nabbed a Grammy nom for Best Rock Record. Its singles "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman" won Grammy Awards, while the “Black Hole Sun” music video won a MTV Video Music Award. It was a masterstroke -- and its title still hinted at Cornell’s constant search.

Cornell was a hyper prolific artist, but all his work reflects themes of depression and suicide -- he wanted to blow up the outside world, escape from his rusty cage and hang from his own pretty noose. And he struggled with drugs and alcohol before going sober in 2002. 

Of all the music Cornell released -- four solo albums; three with Audioslave, his group with members of Rage Against the Machine; and six LPs with Soundgarden -- one of his best-loved releases was with Temple of the Dog. Cornell formed the group in 1990 with his friends -- who would soon go on to form Pearl Jam -- with a specific purpose: a communal mourning and tribute to Andrew Wood, singer of Mother Love Bone and Cornell’s roommate, who had died of a heroin overdose. Seattle’s music scene was plagued by the drug.

Temple of the Dog is a shining moment for a musician who had many to pick from. In a sense, it’s a Cornell solo album with help from his pals. He wrote all the lyrics and penned the music for seven of the 10 songs on his own. While Cornell would rightly earn a reputation as a ferocious hard rock singer at the helm of a brute force band, he had a deep, dark sensitive side, too, which is on display with Temple of the Dog more so than any of his other work. “Hunger Strike,” his soaring duet with Vedder, became a massive hit when the Seattle scene exploded, but it’s the mellower tracks that hit hardest. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” is a clean and warm guitar ballad, stripping back much of the hallmark sound Cornell and Pearl Jam would be known for. He sings directly to his dead friend Wood, welcoming him to the afterlife in a beautiful chorus.

“All Night Thing” is just organ and brushed drums, Cornell the main attraction. It’s one of the most stunning vocal performances of his career: the melody is effortless, the emotional range is wide open. It’s just flooring. It’s a tale of escapism, of a woman asking a lover to leave the world behind and to go somewhere warm, where they could be alone. It’s Cornell searching, just like the rest of us, but with that beautiful voice as his compass.