The brute power of Chris Cornell‘s four-octave voice belayed an inner strength that battled drugs and depression since his earliest days. The voice that brought the music of Soundgarden and Audioslave to millions was silenced on May 17th, when Cornell was found dead in a Detroit hotel room following a concert.
He was born and raised in Seattle, the city that would become the epicenter of early ‘90s rock thanks in large part to his music. By his own estimation, his neighborhood was far from idyllic, low rent and ravaged by addiction. “We were all selling drugs by the time we were 12, or doing them,” he recalled in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone. “Pot or pills or anything that was easily available.
Cornell abstained from drug use for a time following an adverse reaction to the hallucinogenic PCP, but the frightening, dissociative experience, coupled with the trauma of his parent’s divorce, plunged him into a severe depression. “I went from being a daily drug user at 13 to having bad drug experiences and quitting drugs by the time I was 14 and then not having any friends until the time I was 16. There was about two years where I was more or less agoraphobic and didn’t deal with anybody, didn’t talk to anybody, didn’t have any friends at all.”
Rebellious and a loner, he loathed the conformity of school, particularly, as he once described, “the concept that they’d take a group of us and make us all do the same thing and make us exactly the same.” After being kicked out of seventh grade once—and eighth grade twice—he transferred to an alternative high school. “It was mainly for degenerate young people. It was the last ditch for kids that couldn’t go anywhere else.” By age 16 he had dropped out, taking a series of odd jobs before landing in a restaurant, working his way up from dishwasher to sous-chef.
It was then that music began to replace the void drugs had left in his life. As a child he had taken piano and guitar lessons, but in these early bands he manned the drum kit. “It’s like a blur of playing,” he told Rolling Stone of these early days. “I’d look up local want ads for bands and audition and play in these bands. And every band I’d audition for and play in, I’d play in for about a week, until I thought it was bulls–t. The first band I was ever in, I sang lead vocals behind the drums, and I would get good reactions. And I started thinking, ‘S–t, maybe I should just try this.’”
An early cover band, The Shemps, brought him into contact with bassist Hiro Yamamoto and guitarist Kim Thayil, and with Scott Sundquist in 1984 they formed Soundgarden—their name taken from a local public art sculpture that played music when wind passed through it. By 1987 they were signed to the seminal Seattle label Sub Pop, and the release of several EPs and their debut full-length, Ultramega OK, cemented their status as one of the most promising bands on the scene. His personal life was also looking bright, and in 1990 he married Susan Silver, who acted as the band’s manager. Together they had a daughter, Lillian Jean, in 2000.
Cornell’s success was marred by the loss of his close friend and former roommate, Andrew Wood, a major light in the Seattle music scene, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Wood’s band, Mother Love Bone, was just days away from releasing their long-awaited debut album, which would have undoubtedly catapulted them into national prominence. “When Andy died, I couldn’t listen to his songs for about two years after that,” he told Rolling Stone. “His lyrics often seem as though they can tell that story. But then again, my lyrics often could tell the same one. In terms of seeing everything as a matter of life and death — if that’s what you’re feeling at the time, then that’s what you’re going to write. It’s sort of a morbid exchange when somebody who is a writer like that dies, and then everyone starts picking through all their lyrics.” The band Pearl Jam formed from the ashes of Mother Love Bone.
Cornell was deeply shaken by the death, writing the songs “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” in the aftermath. He asked several of Wood’s former bandmates to record the songs with him, also enlisting new Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and a then-unknown vocalist named Eddie Vedder. Together they called themselves Temple of the Dog, releasing a single self-titled album in 1991—dedicated to Wood’s memory.
Soundgarden released a pair of albums—1991’s Badmotorfinger and 1994’s Superunknown— which both went multiplatinum. The later boasted their best known singles, “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” which were in constant rotation on MTV.
But the Seattle music scene would be dealt another serious blow in April 1994 when Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The death left Cornell feeling further disillusioned with his role as Seattle’s rock ambassador. “It’s hard not to be a little bitter about it,” he said in Rolling Stone. “We lost good friends in the process. And all of a sudden you realize that it’s turned into something that’s considered a fashion statement. It’s like mining. It’s like somebody came into your city with bulldozers and water compressors and mined your own perfect mountain and excavated it and threw out what they didn’t want and left the rest to rot. It’s that bad.”
Soundgarden disbanded a year after 1996’s Down on the Upside, during which time Cornell returned to serious drug use, abusing alcohol and the prescription opioid OxyContin. “It was the most difficult period of my life,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “I’m lucky I got through it.” He ultimately got clean after a two-month stay in rehab in 2002. “I’m not sure if it was the best place for me, but it worked.”
In 2001, following the departure of Rage Against the Machine’s lead singer Zack de la Rocha, Cornell joined remaining members Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk to form the supergroup Audioslave. The band would deliver three chart-topping albums between 2002 and 2006.
Still, he struggled with his demons. His marriage to Silver had dissolved by 2004, leading to ugly legal disputes, including a four-year battle to recover 15 of his prized guitars. “When you’re in a miserable relationship there are fingers pointed all the time, but the point is, that happens,” he said in an interview at the time. “You’re young, you meet someone, it ends up that it just becomes extremely dysfunctional, abusive and a horrible idea.”
In 2005 he married his second wife, Vicky Karayiannis, with whom he had two children, daughter Toni and son Christopher Nicholas. The second half of the 2000s saw Cornell settle into peaceful family life without substance abuse. “It was a long period of coming to the realization that this way is better,” he told Rock N Roll Experience in 2007. “Going through rehab, honestly, did help…it got me away from just the daily drudgery of depression and either trying to not drink or do drugs or doing them. They give you such a simple message that any idiot can get—it’s just over and over—but the bottom line is really, and this is the part that is scary for everyone, the individual kinda has to want it. Not ‘kinda’—you have to want to not do that crap anymore or you will never stop and it will just kill you.”
Even with his drug and alcohol issues behind him, Cornell admitted to struggling with depression for many years. “You’ll think somebody has run-of-the-mill depression, and then the next thing you know, they’re hanging from a rope. It’s hard to tell the difference. But I do feel that depression can be useful,” he told Guitar.com. “Sometimes it’s just chemical. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. And whenever I’ve been in any kind of depression, I’ve over the years tried to not only imagine what it feels like to not be there, but try to remind myself that I could just wake up the next day and it could be gone because that happens, and not to worry about it.”