Alive in the Superunknown: Chris Cornell and the Wonderful Doubt of a Demigod

June 22, 2017
Andrew Blissenbach

You are the music while the music lasts.

-T.S. Eliot, The Four Quarters

Chris Cornell started in Soundgarden as a drummer.

I still have a problem wrapping my head around that fact. Sure, there are plenty of examples of drummers becoming prominent front men. Dave Grohl. J Mascis. That guy from Godsmack. And, dude, Phil Collins! But the thing that separated Chris Cornell from his other drummer-turned-vocalist brethren I listed was the fact that…well, he wasn’t just a front man. He didn’t just get by on song-writing genius (Grohl), badass fret magic (Mascis), tough-guy posturing (Godsmack guy), or…Sussudio (dude, Phil Collins). Unlike the aforementioned kit-to-spit rockers, Chris Cornell could actually sing. But “sing” is a pretty weak verb here. Chris Cornell’s voice could go from a wounded velour drone to a soulful opiate-spiked croon to a Mount Krakatoa eruption of molten-rock bombast with an ease that was both technically precise and authentic. So why did Chris Cornell start as a drummer? Most talented front men practically fall out of the womb strutting around, shouting at some roadie to tie more scarves on their mic stand. And 99.999999999% of those womb-to-strut front men don’t have Chris Cornell’s vocal chops.

I know that Chris Cornell enjoyed drumming and was a solid, if unspectacular, skinsman. And, as a drummer myself, I know there’s a yeoman-like satisfaction in smashing stuff with sticks. But Chris Cornell’s initial focus on the drums instead of singing is akin to Mike Trout piddling around as a middle-relief pitcher instead of being a perennial MVP candidate. There’s something more to the story. Chris Cornell started behind a drum kit because a sizeable chunk of his neurons thought he could never belong in front of one. I’m fairly certain such doubts informed his success. And, as crass as it is to speculate, perhaps such doubts led to his death. But I know, as iron-shod truth, that Chris Cornell’s doubts are the reason why I love him so much.

On the surface, Chris Cornell appeared as a prototypical God of Rock, bereft of conflict. There was, of course, the voice that was eager to pounce on a song’s climactic crescendo. Combined with a performing presence that was energetic without appearing unhinged, Chris Cornell owned every inch of the stage he roamed. But he was also absurdly handsome. And, more importantly, in prototypical God-of-Rock fashion, he fully realized and embraced his good looks. There were the deep-set eyes the color of sensitivity and a melted glacier, the long black hair so full and wavy that it resembled a monochromatic tapestry made of some rare variety of Pacific Northwest flax. He possessed a brow that was in a perpetual ‘90s furrow of hip, tragicomic recognition and the manicured facial hair framing sensual lips that were the definition of Elton John’s (or, rather, Bernie Taupin’s) “pirate smile.” Furthermore, judging from nearly every Soundgarden video from 1991 through 1994, Seattle must have had a shortage of shirts, because Chris Cornell, with the lithe, fit musculature of a European soccer star, was perpetually sans torso clothing. So how could this man, this earth-bound deity with an unmatched musical skill set, also seem so…embattled?

It would have been easy for Chris Cornell to be the next Robert Plant or Axl Rose, men who could blast-furnace belt about fantasy realms or their unmatched bad-assery. But he embraced the inward turn of the 1990s and joined his scene brothers Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Layne Staley (of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, respectively) in revealing himself as thoughtful, troubled, always searching, always questioning. Chris Cornell, despite preternatural gifts that his contemporaries couldn’t hope to equal, decided to reveal his weakness and make it personal.

There’s a difference between the artist and their art. Even the most contrite and revealing creators concoct a persona in order to best disseminate their notions of the human condition. Yet it’s musicians who come closest to bridging the gap between consciousnesses. Although some develop personas much more fully than others, the musician’s twin assault of pre-conceived composition combined with a personal, performative aspect lends itself to a perfect mixture of extemporaneous artistic output. This is why a three-minute song at a concert can hit us as hard as a lengthy novel or movie. Great music, more so than any other artistic medium, feels like it’s just for you.

Now I’ve read thousands of great books and watched just as many excellent movies, plays, musicals, and television shows. While the aforementioned artistic forms certainly have a distinct time stamp and evoke memories of specific people and places, the music that touches me in the most profound manner practically bleeds with an aura of singular and unmistakable temporal relevance. Indeed, music roots us to an identity, a “self,” more so than any other form of communication, let alone art. As Oliver Sacks relates in his wonderful book, Musicophilia, while describing patients with Alzheimer’s disease, “Familiar music acts as a sort of Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had long been forgotten, giving the patients access once again to moods and memories, thoughts and worlds that had seemingly been completely lost.”

Music also has the advantage of a compact delivery system, listenable pretty much anywhere, delivered by a person (or people) who (usually) isn’t playing an explicit role conceived by someone else. Although it might be an illusion, with music, there doesn’t seem to be as many layers between the artist and their art. How many times have you listened to your favorite album or song? Hundreds of times? Maybe thousands? Although I’m a voracious reader and an ardent watcher of my favorite shows and movies, I’ve read David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster (probably my favorite book) about fifteen or twenty times and watched every episode of Game of Thrones (absolutely my favorite show) about a half-dozen or so times. In comparison, I’ve listened to my favorite Soundgarden albums (Louder than Love, Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, and Down on the Upside) hundreds of times, and that doesn’t even include what I’ve heard on the radio or Chris Cornell’s output with Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, or his solo work (also, listened to hundreds of times). To sum up this lengthy diatribe, what I’m trying to say is that music affects us in a unique and brilliant way; it gets to our hearts and souls without much distance or defense and thus leaves us with an imprint that is wholly definable and memorable. As Leo Tolstoy adroitly said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” The fact that Chris Cornell, a man of undeniable artistic assets, brought his god-like persona down to our level, bestowing upon us a human fallibility, branded my consciousness with a distinct imprint that is not only noteworthy. It’s laudatory. And this is how his music became wonderfully personal.

It was 1994. I already owned two Soundgarden albums, Louder than Love and Badmotorfinger, and their brand of post-punk infused with a fresh take on the blues-inspired sludge of Black Sabbath left me enthralled. MTV had been a-glut with their music videos; “Rusty Cage,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” and “Outshined” (in which Chris Cornell equates the doldrums of life to “feeling Minnesota,” thus forever endearing him to a teenage boy who grew up in St. Paul), blasted a unique brand of rock into my eyes and ears, forcing Soundgarden into consistent CD rotation, a rotation that was being aggressively colonized by a brutal, metallic subspecies. The fact that Louder than Love and Badmotorfinger could compete with the searing volume and tempo of Napalm Death, Metallica, Sepultura, Pantera, and Slayer spoke to their relevance and their ability to make metal accessible (yes, I think Soundgarden are “metal,” and I would also argue that their Seattle-based contemporary Alice in Chains are “metal,” while Nirvana was more of a punked-up Pixies/Melvins hybrid and Pearl Jam hewed closer to 70s rock, albeit with a modern attack and socially conscious mindset; the fact that the “Big Four” Seattle bands of the 1990s were pigeonholed as “grunge” has always struck me as a lazy and simplified classification, but I’m a music nerd who takes genre specification far too seriously and I realize such sanctimonious judgments can alienate those of you who just want to appreciate good rock and roll). But it was Soundgarden’s Superunknown (released in 1994) that wedged a slip of ironic, strange, jet-black parchment into the most personalized and primitive recesses of my cerebellum.

It was the summer before my sophomore year. Reputable mainstream metal was nearly irrelevant. Kurt Cobain had been dead for a few months and record labels were already growing weary of trying to find his heir-apparent by throwing gobs of cash at unkempt youngsters. Alternative stations were on shaky ground and starting to fold. In two years, after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, deregulated radio stations would degrade further and become cookie-cutter, risk-adverse conglomerates. Mainstream experimentation would mostly cease and thus good rock and roll would be forced further underground (yes, it’s up to you in all your subjective glory to define what “good rock and roll” is, but feel free to do some research on the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and then take a look at the Billboard Top 40 lists that follow, especially by the summer of 1997, because there aren’t many genre-redefining guitar/bass/drum bands in those numbers). In June of 1994, the world of “good” rock and roll (alternative, punk, grunge, metal, indie, college, whatever-you-want-to-call-it) was at a crossroads. And so was I.

I was a few days removed from the termination of a flavorless freshman year of high school. I had become a pretty good football player and a year in the weight room was starting to show. Acne was on the wane and I was a respected student-athlete who was well-liked with a supportive family. But, at least at my high school, I didn’t really have anything that would qualify as a close friend. The jocks weren’t creative enough. The eggheads weren’t assertive enough. The burnouts weren’t active enough. And the videogame and Dungeons and Dragons players were all kinds of awkward. I dabbled with all the cliques and their ample cross-sections, but I had yet to find anyone who…got me. With my social life resembling a vortex, I decided to visit my friend from elementary and middle school, Scott. He lived in Austin, Texas with his mom during the summer.

“Austin isn’t like the rest of Texas,” my dad said with a knowing smile. “That’s a good thing.”

We hadn’t seen much of each other over the previous two years, as he and I attended different schools. But we kept in close contact. And we attacked Austin like a pair of PG-13 hooligans. We vivisected the streets on dirt bikes built for middle schoolers. The pell-mell city planning of Texas sprawled before us. Residential next to light industrial next to a strip mall next to wild geometric plots of red rock and mesquite. The brick and pavement, pissed-off and brittle, seethed in the sun and hissed in the rain. Everything was fenced, but, in Texas-style rebellion, holes the size of a compact car (made from shotgun blasts? machete hacks? chainsaws?) abounded and shortcuts were hastily devised. Our days consisted of riding to comic book stores, debating the merits of Knightfall-era Batman. I spent most of my money on a platinum edition of X-Men #25, the one where Magneto (finally!) pulls the adamantium off Wolverine’s skeleton. A cute girl who worked at a nearby Taco Bell gave us Extreme Nachos for free every time we stopped in (EXTREME!!!!!). We played the Rifts role-playing game outdoors, at Butler Park, a few blocks away from the famous Congress Avenue Bridge (the one with all the bats underneath), drawing curious stares from onlookers whenever I loudly described the brain-splattered carnage of a recently deceased alien. At some man-made mud hole that qualified as a beach in Texas, Scott and I even convinced (i.e. brazenly lied to) a clutch of big-haired, soon-to-be high school seniors that we had traveled from Minneapolis to Austin to play in the Elite Amateurs Baseball Championship Series. “Basically the World Series of high school summer baseball,” I remember saying. Somehow, our virginity survived intact. At night, we’d play NHL ’95 on the Sega Genesis, using the Vancouver Canucks (love you, Pavel Bure, Geoff Courtnall, and Cliff Ronning) to win the Stanley Cup against the heavily-favored Detroit Redwings. After hoisting the cup, we’d sneak out into the June bug miasma and smash garden gnomes or huck eggs at steroidal Ford pickup trucks.

“Careful,” Scott said. “In Texas, it’s legal to shoot you for just about anything.”

Of course, such a glorious vacation needed a soundtrack. I brought my black Sony Discman wherever we rode (skipping, be damned!) and we cranked tunes on Scott’s parents’ CD-changing stereo. The airwaves were thick with mentionable rock. Weezer’s self-titled “Blue Album,” Pearl Jam’s Vs., Stone Temple Pilot’s Purple, and thus pretty much everything on The Crow soundtrack. Even Toad the Wet Sprocket came out with some good songs. But the CD that almost never left the Discman or stereo was Soundgarden’s Superunknown. To this day, whenever I think of Scott or Texas or that summer or a sun strong enough to liquefy a rattlesnake on blacktop or even the O.J. Simpson trial (the white Ford Bronco debacle occurred while I was in Austin), the first thing that comes to mind is Chris Cornell’s perfect voice singing “Black Hole Sun.” The song’s melodramatic, suicide-apocalypse, so self-aware and winking, expertly encapsulates the thoughts of an empiricist’s epic finality. But “Black Hole Sun” is undercut by Chris Cornell’s subtle tone of mockery at how silly such grandiose posturing about suicide actually is. While I was traversing the tattered ribbons of Austin’s infrastructure on a bike with my best friend, I felt like a demigod on two wheels with the song sounding big and defiant. Empowering, even, in that “fuck-you-I’m-not-kidding-I’ll-kill-myself-and-the-world-will-follow” kind of way that is a pastiche of teenaged willfulness and vulnerability. After coming back from Austin, the power of “Black Hole Sun” was still there, but, alone and feeling smaller and more prone to reflection while mowing the lawn with my Discman (that was always devouring batteries and in need of constant lens cleanings), the song’s blackened humor and self-ridicule rose to the forefront in that adolescent manner of a serious notion turned hyperventilating gag, one taken too far. The lyrics that close the song’s final verse before the chorus, “Hang my head/ Drown my fear/ ‘Til you all just disappear/”, are saturated with the resigned petulance inherent in most young adults. It was funny because the world was deranged and overblown and I was in on the joke that you couldn’t reveal such notions without seeming deranged and overblown yourself. Chris Cornell’s words, and the way he knowingly delivered them, got to me. Because, at least to a fifteen-year-old, they were true.

“Black Hole Sun” wasn’t alone in its lyrical themes of confusion, duality, paradox, and the triumph of understanding. Although Chris Cornell was a better vocalist, performer, and songwriter than he was a lyricist, the words he put forth (with a persona that felt inches away from his true self) spoke volumes about his doubts that belied his status as an unparalleled God of Rock. Let’s look at a few examples from his output.

“Loud Love” (Soundgarden’s Louder than Love, 1989): “Well that’s right/ I want something to explode/ I’ve been deaf/ Now I want noise/”

“Say Hello 2 Heaven” (Temple of the Dog’s Temple of the Dog, 1991): “The words never listen/ And teachers, oh they never learn/ My warmth from the candle/ Though I feel too cold to burn/”

“Hunger Strike” (Temple of the Dog’s Temple of the Dog, 1991): “I don’t mind stealin’ bread from the mouths of decadence/ But I can’t feed on the powerless when my cup’s already overfilled/ But it’s on the table, the fire’s cookin’/ And they’re farmin’ babies, while the slaves are all workin’/ Blood is on the table and the mouths are all chokin’/ But I’m goin’ hungry/”

“Rusty Cage” (Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, 1991): “Hit like a Phillips head into my brain/ It’s gonna be too dark to sleep again/ Cutting my teeth on bars and rusty chains/ I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run/”

“Outshined” (Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, 1991): “Someone let the dogs out/ They’ll show you where the truth is/ The grass is always greener/ Where the dogs are shitting/ I’m feeling that I’m sober/ Even though I’m drinking/ I can’t get any lower/ Still I feel I’m sinking/”

“The Day I Tried to Live” (Soundgarden’s Superunknown, 1994): “Words you say/ Never seem to live up to the ones inside your head/ The lives we make/ Never seem to ever get us anywhere but dead/”

“Superunknown” (Soundgarden’s Superunknown, 1994): “If this doesn’t make you free/ It doesn’t mean you’re tied/ If this doesn’t take you down/ It doesn’t mean you’re high/”

“I Am the Highway” (Audioslave’s Audioslave, 2002): “I am not your rolling wheels/ I am the highway/ I am not your carpet ride/ I am the sky/”

“Doesn’t Remind Me” (Audioslave’s Out of Exile, 2005): “I like gypsy moths and radio talk/ ‘Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything/ I like gospel music and canned applause/ ‘Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything/”

Taking this lyrical sample into account, Chris Cornell shows us that the world isn’t the way it presents itself, even to the freakishly talented scion of ‘90s rock, much less to us regular folk. His words reveal that the beauty of subjectivity, free will, and individualized enlightenment is also encumbered by the baggage of estrangement, of being alone in your own head the vast majority of your existence. Such liberation in realizing the universe’s paradoxes is also tarnished by the singular quest to never fully understand or articulate your findings. So why would he disclose his self-critical bouts of wrestling with uncertainty when it could easily be misconstrued as navel-gazing weakness in the hyper-masculine arena of rock and roll? Especially when a front man’s ultimate success of sexily strutting and caterwauling doesn’t require such appurtenances? For starters, it’s kind of endearing when an elite craftsman deigns to expose themselves as insecure and flawed. “Hey, maybe they’re just like us,” we say about such artists, in our reassuring, tabloid-esque craving to humanize celebrity. But it goes deeper than a surface-level want to mingle with our betters on some type of leveled playing field. Chris Cornell, like all great artists, wanted to go beyond the sensuality of feedback and musk. He wanted to make a connection. By wallowing equally in conflict and conquest, Chris Cornell did his damndest to communicate the human condition and validate the strange feeling of power and knowledge when it’s met with vulnerability and indecision. When delivered in a resplendent electrum package of unsurpassed vocal talent and raw emotion, it feels like…goose bumps. You realize the necessity of personalized art. Personalized music. For a fraction of your life, you get it because they get it. They see the warts and halos you see. Someone else, they know. They know exactly how you feel.

I’ll let you in on a secret I learned about writing. Maybe it’s in one of those manuals on how to churn out respectable creative nonfiction. Perhaps a great professor could let you in on it, too. Wherever I learned it, I’ll give it to you now, free of charge; a parting gift for reading this far. So here goes: give your subject the last word. It lends credence to the illusion that the subject carries more importance than the writer. Is it true? I guess you’ll have to let me know.

So this last part won’t be about how I play “4th of July” every Independence Day. It won’t be about how I sing Eddie Vedder’s part on “Hunger Strike” while making my wife sing Chris Cornell’s part because, well, who can ever really hit the million notes on his final “HUUNNNGGRRYYYY!”? It won’t be about how I put my hands together and look up at the sky (every. single. time.) when I hear the lyrics “In my bed/ A Walking sleep/ And my youth, I pray to keep/” from “Black Hole Sun.” And it definitely won’t be about how I played Rockband the day after Chris Cornell died and wouldn’t stop until I got 100% and the top score on drums for the song “Rusty Cage.” (My Matt Cameron impression (he’s the drummer from Soundgarden) took eight aborted tries and about forty-five minutes, but I did it; I can’t sing like Chris Cornell, so, as a fellow drummer, I figured he would find the solipsistic tribute amusing). The last few paragraphs will be about the first time Chris Cornell stepped out from behind the kit to sing (also costarring his band mates in Soundgarden’s initial incarnation, guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto). No, it’s not the factual account of how it went down. I wasn’t in the room and certainly wasn’t privy to Chris Cornell’s thoughts. And I’m only about 10% sure that I’ve earned the creative license to tell such a tale. But sometimes you have to work through your doubts. Get out from behind the kit and take a risk. Show me the power, child! Right? Because the story is never about us. Until the artist assures us that it is.

*          *          *

“Just get up there and sing, Chris,” Hiro said, tuning his bass. It was late. Humid. The top string was being stubborn. “We’ll play it without you drumming.”

Two naked light bulbs hung from an outlet on a wooden beam. One of them was flickering, about to go. It was just three friends, jamming. In shadow-flashes, Chris Cornell stood up. He wasn’t heavy, but the floorboards whined like a moody toddler anyway. Flies suckled at the top of an empty beer bottle. They were exultant nubs of hushed electricity. Kim’s guitar amp spoke in hiccups of reserved feedback. And there was the mic stand, plump and black and wired at the top. Chris Cornell could feel the static from the microphone as it comingled with the currents of instruments and little wing beats and heartbeats. Even the snare drum joined the quiet chorus, its miniature ball bearings vibrating in unison. Chris Cornell froze. There were still the flies, the light bulb spasm, the heat in his lungs. Kim and Hiro’s patient eyes. Their smiles. He dared to touch the top of the snare, that glorious piece of rapture and skin, the thing that saved his life, he used to say. His fingertips touched the top of the snare and it said, rattling, “Go. Go. Go.” Chris Cornell felt the current, the claustrophobic crush of bodies and musical equipment. It was white bolts of dread, all of it. And a familiar tickle. Something that felt good. He squinted, looked again. Maybe the beer bottle was full. His fingers slid off the snare. Chris Cornell, pushed by invisible lightning and his own roguish smile, moved his feet from behind the kit. He stepped up to the mic.

Hiro and Kim had asked him before. To sing while he wasn’t playing the drums. Because he could sing. Man, people knew that. “Like a bluesy Rob Halford,” he was told. But it always felt incorrect, like a spell missing a somatic component. Chris Cornell couldn’t explain it, really. Why he was so hesitant to be the focal point while grappling with the abyss of rage and suicide and victory. He needed to explain it tonight, though.

So Chris Cornell wrapped his left hand around the stand’s bar. Fiddled the mic with his right. He heard his breath through the monitor. Even a soft exhale contained the potential, the glory, the gigantic winged deity with lungs flexed and blood on the tongue. He was in front of them all, Seattle a cataract of headlights and ripped denim outside the window of their practice space. Chris Cornell felt like his feet were on the ledge of some glass and steel obelisk, still in front of them all, looking down a thousand feet.

Kim mucked around on the fret board, making a cock-rock riff. Hiro added a goofy bottom on his bass. Just stuff they always made fun of. Chris Cornell, so sure he would succeed, so sure he would fail, just stood on the ledge. Everything was beneath him, in front of him, behind him.

“Okay,” Chris Cornell said into the microphone. His jaw was locked, his eyes set in concrete.

How can you stand on the ledge, knowing you’ll remain steady while also knowing you’ll fall to your death? Another breath, stronger this time, a grunt of electric projection. He grabbed onto the sonic wavelength leaving his throat. After all, it’s not the fall that will kill you. It’s the ground you have to worry about. He’d let his voice tell that story.

“Kim. Hiro,” Chris Cornell said, nodding at his band mates, smiling, dying while his heart beat. “Let’s take a ride.”