The death of Soundgarden‘s Chris Cornell has obviously hit people quite hard. There will be plenty of pieces on Cornell’s musical legacy and the role Soundgarden played in Seattle’s emerging grunge scene. There will no doubt be too many words speculating and commenting on the cause and reasons for his death. This article does none of these things…
We were spoilt for choice when it came to guitar music in the 90s. As a particularly impressionable ten year old, I spent most of 1995 chopping and changing between claiming a multitude of bands as my “very best favourite band ever ever”. From Smashing Pumpkins to Manic Street Preachers, Faith No More to Therapy?, I was smug with what I thought was a very private and secret access to some of the 90’s most iconic bands.
I owed it all to a single CD – a compilation album, put out by PolygramTV. It was called Rocks Off and it changed my life. Among tracks from the likes of Sonic Youth, The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, and all of those aforementioned bands, stood a track that, for a time, became an obsession of mine – ‘Black Hole Sun’.
Unaware of the massive hit it had become both sides of the Atlantic the year before, I thought I had unearthed the musical equivalent of the Holy Grail. It was darkly melodic, solum, but sounded massive – it was quite unlike anything I had ever heard at that stage of my childhood. It was inevitable that by the time Christmas rolled around my letter to Santa would include “that album with ‘Black Hole Sun’ on it”.
The first thing that hit me when listening to Superunknown in full, for the first time, on Christmas Day 1995, was just how incomprehensible the vocal performance was. As a child with no concept of multi-track recording I was absolutely convinced there were two vocalists. It was around the 2 minute mark of the opening track, ‘Let Me Drown’, when this confusion first set in. The vocal range on display couldn’t possibly be coming from one person. Except it was, this was Chris Cornell (and 10 year olds are fucking stupid). From here on in, Superunknown became a constant companion of mine; via walkman, discman and minidisk player it would accompany me on school trips to France and a family holiday to Disney World (I’ll forever associate queuing for Pirates of the Caribbean with ‘The Day I Tried To Live’). It was an album that was truly ‘mine’. To me no one else had heard it before. No one else knew it exited.
However, despite my Superunknown obsession, I never really transitioned into full Soundgarden fandom – only ever taking a passing interest in other albums like Badmotorfinger and Down On The Upside. My relationship with the band was only ever about this one album and the things Chris Cornell’s voice did during tracks like ‘Superunknown’, ‘Head Down’, ‘4th of July’, ‘Like Suicide’ and (of course) ‘Black Hole Sun’.
As a result (cause I’m a loyal kind of guy) I would be routing for Chris Cornell over the next 20 years; hoping his solo efforts were well received, defending his fake tan period, and even refusing to slag off Audioslave. I was relieved when his Bond theme wasn’t totally shit. I was ‘pleased’ when Soundgarden got back together in 2010, and bought King Animal on its release – giving it a customary spin or two. But it would always come back to Superunknown – all roads lead to ‘Spoonman’ (or something like along those lines).
Fast forward 20 (ish) years to 2014, and I finally get my first chance to see Soundgarden live for the first time, at Hyde Park, as part of a line up that included Faith No More and Black Sabbath. I was fully aware that it was the 20th Anniversary year of Superunknown‘s release, so was only partially surprised when Chris Cornell came on stage to announce they would be playing the album in its entirety – it was one of the happiest moments of my live music life. It was like I had come full circle stood in Hyde Park that day, realising a dream of my 10 year old self.
After Cornell’s final vocal flourish of “she lived like a murder but she died, just like suicide” I made my way out of Hyde Park (shamefully not sticking around for Black Sabbath), knowing that I would never see Soundgarden live again. I didn’t need to. But on a day when we have to face up to the fact that Chris Cornell is no longer with us, I really wish I could.
Losing a childhood hero has a weird effect on you. And as vivid memories come back and a sense of re-appreciation hits, it becomes hard to fully comprehend what has happened. But it has happened. So just like I have countless times over the past 22 years, I’ll just go back to Superunknown and find some familiar comfort there.
RIP Chris Cornell: July 20, 1964 – May 17, 2017.