Chris Cornell, the phenomenal vocalist who fronted Soundgarden and Audioslave through tens of millions of sales across almost three decades, is dead.
Cornell committed suicide shortly after returning to his hotel room following a sold-out Soundgarden concert at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on May 18, 2017. He was 52 years old. Police reports appear to confirm his wife Vicki’s concerns that an overdose of the anxiety medication Ativan led to his death. One of the known side effects of Ativan usage is suicidal thoughts.
Born in Seattle Washington on July 20, 1964, Cornell struggled with anxiety and depression from an early age and was using heroin regularly by the time he was 13; by 16 he had conquered his substance abuse to play music and despite the Seattle scene being mired in the abuse of hard drugs, Cornell stayed addiction-free for the next seventeen years. Forming Soundgarden in 1984 with Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, originally as a drummer, he soon became the band’s frontman and primary songwriter. Soundgarden developed an idiosyncratic musical style that featured extensive use of alternative tunings, constant key and tempo changes, odd time signatures and free-form structures. The band’s first EP, Screaming Life, was released in October 1987; Soundgarden’s star would rise with 1991’s Badmotorfinger that featured further development of their songwriting. Earlier that same year saw the release of the self-titled album by Temple of the Dog, Cornell’s tribute to his friend Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone and featuring that band’s members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and lead guitarist Mike McCready. Many fans still consider this to be among Cornell’s best work. 1994’s Superunknown was a masterpiece and led by the success of the singles “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun” charted at #1 on the US Billboard chart and in Australia, selling 5 million copies in America.
Creative tensions tore Soundgarden apart in 1997 and Cornell, facing divorce and without a band to support him, turned to addiction once more, this time the prescription opioid Oxycontin but two years later resurfaced with his first solo album Euphoria Morning, after which he joined Audioslave in 2001 and entered rehab, cutting out all drinking, smoking and drug use by the time of their third album in 2006.
Audioslave re-established Cornell as a star and his sobriety continued even after that band ended in 2007. He issued two more solo albums before Soundgarden reunited in 2010 and another two in 2011 and 2015. The band was touring and working on songs for a seventh album at the time of Cornell’s death.
Chris Cornell was one of the greatest frontmen of his generation, and one of the finest rock vocalists of all time. His voice was one of immense power and incredible range and his lyrics a form of dark and fragile existentialist poetry that transcended the standard rock fare. He was also a philanthropist, forming a foundation with his second wife Vicky that worked for homeless and abused children. He leaves behind a body of work that is among the most influential and important rock music of the last thirty years.
That Cornell took his own life is tragic enough. That his decision was caused by a commonly-prescribed psych drug makes the tragedy even more profound. The rock world will never see another like him.