Chris Cornell, frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave and a pioneer of grunge, died suddenly Wednesday at age 52 after performing a sold-out show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. The Associated Press reports that he died by suicide.
What Cornell meant to grunge, and to the Seattle sound, cannot be overstated. Soundgarden defined the genre, while Cornell’s bluesy wail, spanning four octaves, defied boundaries. In 1988, a time when grunge acts Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains were just starting out, Soundgarden became the first grunge band to sign with a major label.
Cornell said he knew they were “on to something” when, in the mid 1980s, Soundgarden was playing a show in Vancouver, British Columbia, and an audience member threw a glass ashtray at his face.
“I remember thinking right at that moment, ‘Ah, we know something they don’t. We’re on to something and they don’t get it yet ’cause they’re afraid of it,’” he told the Observer. “I remember loading the van and everyone was really down and I was giving this huge pep talk, because I understood that this weird combination of what we were doing was ‘the way.’ And now it has a name to it.”
Grunge was different because, for the first time, it mixed punk and metal, relying on distorted guitar and powerful riffs. And its lyrics of social alienation perfectly reflected that sound. Cornell, whom the BBC said grew up as “a loner, afflicted by agoraphobia and anxiety,” knew a little something about that.
Perhaps his most famous song, “Black Hole Sun,” released in 1994, had a pretty melody but dark lyrics: “Black hole sun / Won’t you come / And wash away the rain … Times are gone for honest men / And sometimes far too long for snakes.”
Cornell, a master songwriter, has said he wrote the song in about 15 minutes. He was amazed that it became a major hit — and also that people misinterpreted it as a happy song. Instead, he said, it was about how “it’s really difficult for a person to create their own life and their own freedom.”
After leaving Soundgarden in 1997, Cornell embarked on a solo career and later joined Audioslave, a rock supergroup that also involved three members of Rage Against the Machine. Over the years, Cornell collaborated with numerous other rock artists and groups, including “Temple of the Dog,” an early project that also drew in Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
Throughout all of these, Cornell struggled with addiction, though he said he never wrote music while under the influence. In 2006, after going through rehab and releasing several albums with Audioslave — whose members discouraged his drug use — he went clean. In later years, he and his wife set up the Chris & Vicky Cornell Foundation, which helps vulnerable children impacted by drugs, poverty and neglect.
Though Cornell rejoined Soundgarden in 2010, his most recent album was a solo record released in 2015, called “Higher Truth.” He performed the album stripped down, not at all in the style of his bands’ volcanic power; he said in interviews that he continuously tried to push himself to do something different.
That same year, he also performed a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which showed off the way his vocals could stretch; it topped charts the Thursday morning after his death.
According to CNN, the last song Cornell played at his show Wednesday night was a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying.”
“In my time of dying, I want nobody to mourn,” the song goes. “All I want for you to do is take my body home.”
Tributes have already come in from major names in rock, punk and grunge:
RIP Chris Cornell
Incredibly Missed. pic.twitter.com/pKNI4tKiXz
— Jimmy Page (@JimmyPage) May 18, 2017
— BlackSabbath (@BlackSabbath) May 18, 2017
Sad 2 hear of Chris Cornell passing..great singer and artist… another blow…RIP
— Billy Idol (@BillyIdol) May 18, 2017
Rest …Peace pic.twitter.com/YcN7QECCo0
— Chuck D (@MrChuckD) May 18, 2017
SO SO stunned to hear about Chris Cornell! Such a terrible and sad loss! Thinking of his family tonight! RIP
— Dave Navarro (@DaveNavarro) May 18, 2017
— rage against the machine (@RATM) May 18, 2017
Note: This article has been updated to read that Cornell’s influence could not be overstated.