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Chris Cornell Was His Era’s Greatest Frontman

No one sang like him, and now he’s gone

In a memory, I am 10 years old and up past my bedtime in the first moments of my summer vacation in 1994, watching the music video for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and feeling like the world could end if I closed my eyes long enough to fall asleep.

There is something to be said for the period when one is old enough to know they are going to love music, but still too young to find delight in all of the dark oddities that music can carry with it. The “Black Hole Sun” visuals, watched now, are still jarring, though not as terrifying. It is a fairly literal translation: A black hole descends on a suburban neighborhood and opens itself up above the houses and the people inside, all engaged in their own small corner of excess. As the black hole begins to drink people in, their eyes bulge and stretch, their faces become cartoonishly deformed. It is the apocalypse in a suburbia that could be anywhere. Left standing, at the end of it all, is Chris Cornell in a field. His arms spread wide, his guitar slung low to his waist, and the ruins and wreckage blow around him, bandleader at the end of the world.

This is all to say that I first understood Chris Cornell by the fears he could introduce me to, and isn’t that the best start to all rock-and-roll stories? Sneaking an indulgence that terrifies you just enough to bring you back to the well a second or third or fourth time?

I want to talk about Chris Cornell — today, tomorrow, and always — in the same way I hear people older than me in record stores talking about Freddie Mercury or Janis Joplin. I want to pick up a Soundgarden LP and lightly slap the cover while locking eyes with someone younger than me and saying, “This guy. This fuckin’ guy was one of the last real rock stars.” Because he was. Or at least, every generation names their rock stars as the last, and he was one of the handful out of my generation who outlasted all the rest. Cornell was, of course, aesthetically rock: In any era, his look and comfort at the front of the stage seemed effortless. But he also approached the genre with care and reverence.

The best thing anyone who writes can do is write to a person as if they are looking that person in the eyes. So many of us often fail, but even the attempt to do this closes the distance between a performer and the act that they are performing. Chris Cornell was an experimental songwriter, but an honest and emotive lyricist. It is difficult to find someone who walked that line as delicately and gently as he did, particularly in his often-maligned solo work. Soundgarden’s songs would often fit runs of key changes, tone shifts, and interval jumps into small spaces, creating an urgent and frantic vibe around the band’s early work. But underneath all of that, in his best moments, Chris Cornell was opening honest dialogue with a listener about fear, anxiety, romance, and small revolutions. He was, first and foremost, an image conjurer — one so sharp that he could paint a picture, carry it into your home, and know exactly where to hang it.

The mark of any great poet is finding the balance between showing and telling, and knowing when to pull back from saying out loud what an image can say for you. Chris Cornell was, among other things, a great poet. On “Outshined,” he sings, “I just looked in the mirror / And things aren't looking so good / I'm looking California and feeling Minnesota.” Even if I knew nothing of California or Minnesota, I would understand both the look and the feeling that I am meant to understand.

While most fans and critics dismissed Cornell’s solo career, I found myself thrilled with it. The songs weren’t always great, and I won’t pretend otherwise, but the risks taken were thrilling. On 2009's Scream, he worked with Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Tedder, and John Mayer. It was a mess of an album, panned by critics, his fans, and his peers. Some could say that it sounded like a titan bowing to the times instead of letting the times bow to him. I love the album because it makes me think of the joy it might have given Chris Cornell to reach across this imagined line of genre, to try to push a door a little bit wider.

He took big swings in his solo efforts, and they didn’t often land, but they did often seem to make him happy. In 2006 he took an acoustic guitar to Sweden and played an unplugged show. He covered “Billie Jean” and “Redemption Song.” He played largely isolated on the stage, just his magnetic and booming voice and an acoustic guitar, to an audience lightly cheering him along. Being a rock star, it seems, is both lonely and not. My favorite part of this recording isn’t the music itself, but the start of the show, a statement of poetics for Cornell’s entire career. Nervously mic checking, you hear him ask the somewhat tentative audience, “Can you hear me?” After a tepid response, he asks again, “Am I loud?” And then, after a pause: “… We’ll get there.”

Chris Cornell was going to come to Columbus, Ohio, this Friday to play a show with Soundgarden. When a friend asked me last week if I was going to check it out, I brushed them off. Yeah, maybe, who knows. Seen the band a buncha times. Hell of a show, but ain’t nothing new for me to see.

And that’s the way of it, isn’t it? How a friend is suddenly gone and we scroll through our phones reading the last text we didn’t reply to when we surely could have. The trip to visit a loved one that we put off and put off and put off until we go to watch them buried. Death, among many things, is a field of blooming regrets.

Chris Cornell is dead today, and I am sad because no one could sing like him. I would listen to him front any band, anywhere, as long as he was singing words out loud, and there are few people in the history of rock that I can say that about. Chris Cornell could sing anything — the kind of person you would drag to a karaoke bar and have the DJ run through every song on the list. His vocals were big, so wide that they helped kick-start an entire genre and then allowed him to find ways to reinvent himself when that genre became less profitable. He was daring enough to stay relevant, but still (mostly) true to his roots. He could have lived another 30 years and still found a way to make good songs.

But it was not to be. Chris Cornell died last night after singing to a crowd and walking offstage in Detroit. A generation’s greatest frontman, blessed with one last opportunity to answer his calling before answering another.

I watch the video for “Black Hole Sun” now and it makes sense in the worst ways. I think I am less afraid now of whatever any apocalypse looks like, but I will never forget how Chris Cornell once dragged me to the window seat at the end of the world. In the tapestry of rock-and-roll memories, I will hold a large place for the image of me in the dark, bathing in the glow of a television with Chris Cornell’s imagined redemption raining down fire on the suburbs. Chris Cornell is gone, survived by the way he cared for the music he made. Survived by being unafraid to write about that which was destroying him, and that which he wanted to see destroyed. Survived by the home he made for all of us with his warm and echoing voice.

Is it loud enough / Is it loud enough / We’ll get there.