Rock Fans Stunned By Death of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell at UH's Cullen Performance Hall, November 2015
Chris Cornell at UH's Cullen Performance Hall, November 2015
Photo by Eric Sauseda
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[Update (2 p.m.): According to The New York Times, the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office has ruled Cornell's death a suicide by hanging.]

Without a doubt, Chris Cornell had one of the great voices in rock history. In terms of raw power, range, and expressiveness, he was easily in the same class as Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, and his vocals were a vital reason (though not quite the only one) Soundgarden's early records have aged better than many of their grunge-era peers.

According to Rolling Stone, citing a representative of the band, Cornell was found dead after Soundgarden's show Wednesday night at Detroit's Fox Theater. Of the four Seattle bands most responsible for the so-called "grunge" sound that revitalized rock and roll in the early '90s — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden — three original front men have now passed away. A fifth band, California’s Stone Temple Pilots, was often mocked as a copycat/combination of those groups; that band’s singer, Scott Weiland, died in December 2015 at age 48.

Factoring in his solo albums and his work with Audioslave, the group Cornell and the remaining members of Rage Against the Machine formed after singer Zack de la Rocha's 2000 departure, and even Temple of the Dog, the ad hoc group Cornell and members of Pearl Jam formed after the death of their fellow rocker Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, the list of rock anthems bearing his unmistakable vocals is a long one indeed: "Hands All Over," "Outshined," "Rusty Cage," "Jesus Christ Pose," "Hunger Strike," "Seasons" (from the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's 1992 film Singles), "Spoonman," "Black Hole Sun," "Fell On Black Days," "Blow Up the Outside World," "The Day I Tried to Live," "Pretty Noose," Burden In My Hand," "Can't Change Me," "Cochise," "Like a Stone," "Set It Off," "Doesn't Remind Me," and even "You Know My Name," the theme song of the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale. Included on 2007's Carry On, his acoustic cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" became a fan favorite and caught on with a younger generation after American Idol contestant David Cook performed it during the show's 2008 season.

Soundgarden broke up after 1996 LP Down On the Upside, reunited in 2010 and recently began work on their first album since 2012's King Animal. The band was scheduled to play Houston's Revention Music Center next Thursday; it would have been their first show in Houston since their co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails, which stopped at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in August 2014. (Refund information is still TBD, but should be announced soon on the venue’s website and social-media accounts.)

Cornell also performed at UH's Cullen Performance Hall in November 2015, touring behind his fifth solo album, Higher Truth. Reviewing Soundgarden’s penultimate Houston show in May 2013, when the same venue they would have played Thursday was still called Bayou Music Center, the Houston Press picked up on a disturbing note near the end of an otherwise “pulverizing” set:

Cornell took a few songs to achieve a full-on rock-god wail, but even before that he made the slithering "Gun" invoke both sex and danger. The pace quickened through "Drawing Flies" and "Hunted Down," and by "Ty Cobb" he was prowling the stage like a prizefighter.

But then, at the beginning of "Black Hole Sun," Cornell suddenly seemed very tired and vulnerable, almost frail. (He certainly didn't sound that way, so maybe it was just my imagination.) But in the encore, after "Like Suicide," he also slipped in a little of Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" to the laborious, feedback-soaked "Rowing," which made for a jarring, somewhat unsettling closer.

Chris Cornell was only 52 years old. RIP.

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