By Gillian Gaar
The music world was shocked by the sudden and unexpected death of Chris Cornell, who was found dead in his hotel room in Detroit, Michigan, on May 18, 2017. Cornell, who was in the middle of a tour with his band, Soundgarden, was 52 years old. The medical examiner’s verdict was suicide by hanging, though Cornell’s family has raised questions about the exact circumstances of his death.
Cornell was born Christopher John Boyle on July 20, 1964, in Seattle, Washington; he took his mother’s maiden name, Cornell, after his parents’ divorce. At the age of 18, he joined his first group, the Jones Street Band, playing drums and singing. In 1982, he joined the Shemps, again playing drums and serving as a vocalist. The band’s lineup also featured Hiro Yamamoto on bass, later replaced by Kim Thayil. When the Shemps fell apart, Cornell, Yamamoto, and Thayil formed a new group in 1984: Soundgarden, named after a sculpture in a local park.
It was obvious that Cornell was a much stronger singer than he was a drummer, and he became Soundgarden’s lead singer. With his astonishing vocal range, which was nearly four octaves, Soundgarden was frequently compared to Led Zeppelin in general and the band’s lead singer, Robert Plant, in particular. But Soundgarden’s take on hard rock also threw punk into the mix — the sound that would come to known as grunge.
Soundgarden’s first appearance on record was on the “Deep Six” compilation, released in 1986. The band recorded for Sub Pop and SST before signing with A&M, releasing their first album for the label, “Louder Than Love,” in 1989. “Badmotorfinger” (1991) cracked the Top 40, and “Superunknown” (1994) and “Down on the Upside” (1996) reached #1 and #2, respectively. The group sold over 20 million albums worldwide.
Soundgarden split in 1997 due to inner band tensions. Cornell released his first solo album, “Euphoria Morning,” in 1999, eventually releasing a total of four solo albums. From 2001 to 2007, he was lead singer and guitarist with Audioslave, joining forces with members of Rage Against the Machine; the group released three albums.
Then, in 2010, Soundgarden reformed. They played their first show on April 16, 2010, in Seattle, and released what would be their final album, “King Animal,” in 2012. Cornell last played Seattle on November 20 and 21, 2016, as part of a Temple of the Dog reunion. Members of Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone had recorded a 1991 album under that name (also featuring guest vocalist Eddie Vedder), in honor of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, who died of a drug overdose in 1990. Most of the remaining Mother Love Bone members would go on to form Pearl Jam.
On May 17, Soundgarden performed at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. After the show, Cornell spoke to his wife, Vicky, on the phone. She later told police she became concerned when he started to slur his words, saying he had taken “an extra Ativan or two” and was tired. Cornell had a prescription for the drug, to relieve anxiety.
At 12:15 a.m., when Vicky could not reach her husband at his hotel, she asked a bodyguard to check on him. The bodyguard broke into Cornell’s room and found him on the bathroom floor. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:30 a.m.
Kirk Pasich, an attorney representing the family, later stated there were concerns about the side effects of the drug Cornell had taken. “The family believes that if Chris took his life, he did not know what he was doing, and that drugs or other substances may have affected his actions,” Pasich said.
Cornell had a well-documented history of depression and substance abuse, though he maintained that he was clean and sober after going through rehab in 2002. At the time of writing, a full toxicology report on Cornell’s death had not been completed.
Tributes from fellow musicians followed the news of Cornell’s death. “A shining voice in music has left us in the midnight,” Perry Farrell tweeted. “He was a complex and gentle soul #ChrisCornell has flown into the black hole sun.”
“RIP Chris Cornell,” Jimmy Page tweeted. “Incredibly Talented. Incredibly Young. Incredibly missed.”