Remembering Chris Cornell’s impact on grunge

Chris Cornell, formerly of Temple of the Dog, Soundgarden and Audioslave, was found dead Thursday morning in his hotel room in Detroit, Michigan. At the age of 52, his apparent suicide was sudden and unexpected. His wife has since released a statement saying that his medication played a role in his actions that night.

Following Cornell’s death, there has been an outpouring of emotional goodbyes from his family, friends, fans and peers. Media outlets have been covering this story, though most have just been listing the ‘essential’ hits from his discography (which is all of them.)

Because this has been done time and time again, I wanted to celebrate Cornell’s music and life and success in a different way. It would be easy to focus on the power of Temple of the Dog or the supergroup that was Audioslave, but fans of Cornell already know just how hard those bands could rock. What is being overlooked the most is Soundgarden’s influence on the grunge movement of the 1990s.

Cornell founded Soundgarden in 1984, paving the way for other Seattle-based grunge bands to find commercial success. Before Soundgarden became a household name, however, there was Cornell’s second major musical project: Temple of the Dog, which formed in 1990 as a tribute to a late friend and fellow musician, Andrew Wood. The band was made up of the remaining members of Wood’s band, Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Pearl Jam members Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder. “Temple of the Dog” has always been an emotional, chilling album, but it now has an even more melancholy vibe.

Their self-titled was released in 1991 to critical success, but it was not until the following year when Soundgarden and Pearl Jam rose to fame that it became a commercial success. The album mourned Wood, who died of a heroin overdose. Like Cornell, his death was unexpected.

But, Seattle’s grunge scene was filled with losses during its heyday, mostly due to drug overdoses and suicide.

Grunge started in Seattle, a city with a strong history of music, and an even stronger history of the mundane. At a time when hair metal was ruling the charts, grunge was forming in garages, basements and empty bars. The over-the-top fashion was toned down to casual every-day wear. Screeching vocals became mumbles. Gone were the days of guitar solos. Grunge had crept up on the musical industry, and Soundgarden helped to popularize this anti-pop culture style of music.

With their dark-natured lyrics, heavy instrumentation and Cornell’s signature wailing voice, it is hard to believe that they emerged just as the days of hair metal were coming to an end. Grunge bands offered such a stark contrast to the sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll music that had dominated the scene nearly two decades. Filled with passion and a harrowing sadness, grunge was doomed from the start.

Soundgarden started the short-lived takeover, becoming the first grunge band to sign to a major label company in 1988. Bands like Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and, of course, Nirvana, followed in their footsteps.

The funny thing about the grunge movement is how Nirvana, specifically Kurt Cobain, became the ‘voice of a generation.’  His name is synonymous with grunge, though (warning: unpopular opinion!) Cornell was the epitome of the genre. His vocals were one of a kind (yes, I know he could sound like Robert Plant at times); there is no competition between him and Cobain. There is no way to deny the talent of Nirvana, but people seem to forget that they are not the only grunge band out there.

As the old saying goes, however, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

Nirvana and many other bands grew to despise their idolization. The downfall of grunge was ultimately how little these artists cared about appealing to the mainstream. What they cared about was not fame, but rather the songs they were creating.

You can feel it in their music: the aggressive, pulsing guitar making your hair stand on end; the pounding drums filling your chest with vibrations; the gravelly vocals suddenly morphing into passionate wails. Grunge was not about making something for profit, it was about making something for the soul.

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Cornell performing in 2009. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Andreas Eldh.

This can be heard in the entirety of Soundgarden’s discography. They were a force to be reckoned with, a band filled with passion and a genuine love for what they were doing. The news of Cornell’s suicide hit hard, even though grunge died out less than a decade after it started.

Cornell was not like other grunge artists: he continued to make music, finding success with Audioslave, a supergroup made up of Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, as well as on his own, releasing five solo albums. He had overcome his addiction and was taking medication to combat his anxiety, which ultimately led to his death.

Cornell’s legacy will live on through the works of Temple of a Dog, Soundgarden, Audioslave, his solo career and all of the collaborations and covers he had done over the span of his overwhelmingly successful life. He will be remembered not just as the man who pioneered the grunge movement, but the man who did not burn out, nor the man who faded away; he was the man who tried to live, and live he did.

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