Remembering Chris Cornell, who was larger than life and louder than love

Photo: Michael Christopher for Vanyaland

I once stood three feet from Chris Cornell.

It was March 7, 2003, backstage at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, where Audioslave had just played the eleventh show of their inaugural North American tour. The only thing standing between meeting the legendary frontman was a towering personal bodyguard who was well north of my six foot height and outweighed me by at least 150 pounds.

“That’s not the right pass,” he growled, eyeing the sticker on my chest. “I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”

How I had even gotten this far was an adventure in itself. I was on the list for the show already and the publicist asked me if I needed a photo pass. Of course, I said yes, having never been given a photo pass before, and ignoring the fact that I didn’t even own a camera at that particular point. This was all uncharted territory.

Stopping at the CVS as I walked across town to the venue, I picked up a disposable for $12.99. Cut to the show, there are all these serious photographers with their ridiculously long zoom lenses in the photo pit between the guardrail and the stage. Then there’s me, with a half cardboard, half plastic piece of junk that has 24 exposures. Oh — and it’s three songs — no flash. There’s no on/off switch for the flash on a disposable camera from CVS. So here I am, doing the best I can to temper the flash with my thumb over it like a fucking idiot as Audioslave rips into “Gasoline.”

Chris Cornell, live in Philadelphia. Photo by Michael Christopher.
Chris Cornell, live in Philadelphia. Photo by Michael Christopher.

Still, I was on cloud nine, not only being this close to Cornell and three quarters of Rage Against the Machine as they rocked out, but thinking maybe I got some not so terrible pictures out of it. When the show was over, and seeing how security wasn’t giving a second look to the passes, I helped the road crew breakdown the stage setup in an attempt to get in good with them and blend in seamlessly with those who were supposed to be in the venue after the crowd cleared out.

This wasn’t just trying to creep my way backstage, it meant something else, and is why the news of Cornell’s death is even more striking than losses of both recent musicians and of his own generational peers over the years. Though no less tragic, the others didn’t affect me nearly as much as this one. Cornell was found dead in his Detroit hotel room last night in what the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office is calling “suicide by hanging.”

David Bowie was rumored to have been sick. Prince was a shock, but he was on another level of superstardom. Lemmy smoked and drank with reckless abandon and was to the point where he couldn’t even get through part of a Motörhead gig anymore. Scott Weiland had been in everyone’s dead pool since the late ‘90s. Layne Staley hadn’t left his house in years and appeared to have given up on life. Kurt Cobain allegedly tried to kill himself by intentionally overdosing on pills one month prior to his own death by suicide.

Chris Cornell weathered the storm. He made it through. He lost a close friend and former roommate in Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood to an accidental heroin overdose in 1990 and turned that tragedy into a gorgeous musical eulogy in Temple of the Dog. He survived a nasty divorce. He helped finish another close friend’s final album when Jeff Buckley drowned in 1997. He watched as Cobain, Staley and Weiland passed — even dedicating “Say Hello to Heaven” to the latter when news broke of his death in late 2015.

Cornell was open about his own, sometimes severe, battles with depression. In an interview with Guitar, around the time his solo debut Euphoria Morning was released in 1998, he made a now chilling comment about the struggles people face.

“The problem is, no one really knows what run-of-the-mill depression is,” he said. “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.”

Unless you dug deep enough into his lyrics, you wouldn’t surmise all of the pain Cornell suffered. He was the only true rock god to come out of the grunge explosion. While all the other singers were staring at their Doc Martens, moping, he was wailing away ferociously, with his muscular chest bared, long curly locks flowing and stage diving into the audience. He bridged the gap between late-’70s cock rock and early-’90s introspection, keeping the aura of the sex symbol frontman alive but never coming across as inauthentic.

That legitimacy coursed through his lyrics, check “When I’m Down,” “Like a Stone,” “Preaching the End of the World” or “Fell on Black Days” — there you’ll find the answer to every “Why?” that people are going to have in the coming days, months and years. He wasn’t singing about death and darkness to be morbid; it was coming via constantly plumbing the depths of his soul.

Personally, I was drawn not just to the absurd number of octaves he could hit, but to those very lyrics. An overwhelming breakup hit me right in the middle of college, concurrent with Cornell’s first post-Soundgarden solo track, “Sunshower” for the soundtrack to Great Expectations. Hearing the line, “Crawl like ivy up my spine/Through my nerves and into my eyes/Cuts like anguish or recollections of better days gone by” is just one aspect of the song that got me through each day. I suddenly identified with his lyrics in a way I didn’t as a kid in 1991 when I saw Soundgarden open for Guns N’ Roses.

“The problem is, no one really knows what run-of-the-mill depression is. 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.” — Chris Cornell to Guitar magazine

Generation X rock fans grew up with Chris Cornell. He was the angry and aggressive soundtrack to our youth, the co-conspirator to our latter day heartbreak. When adulthood came and responsibilities mounted, he showed how to juggle multiple things at once; be it coexisting musical acts, family, charitable endeavors — even having stake in a restaurant in Paris. This was our guy.

There are a lot of people out there who knock Audioslave; it’s become the hot take thing to do so in recent years. Is it because it didn’t sound enough like Rage Against the Machine or because it didn’t sound enough like Soundgarden? If anything, fans of Cornell should be happy that it got him back to showcasing his powerful caterwaul for the first time in years.

When Audioslave did breakup in 2007, Cornell went back to his solo career. It was then I got to interview him properly for the first time, and he mostly talked about how happy he was not just with his then new album Carry On, but where he was headed next. The future. That journey wound its way back to Soundgarden, resurrecting Temple of the Dog for their first ever tour; he even made an appearance with Audioslave earlier this year at a benefit show.

Most strikingly, Cornell began doing “Songbook” tours where he would rifle through his entire catalog with little or no accompaniment from a backing band. Those stripped down affairs had him as his most affable and relaxed. During one of those shows in November of 2013, at Boston’s Shubert Theatre, a drunken heckler yelled out “Free Bird!” Cornell shut him down in the most incredible way possible; he started playing the song, happily.

Seeing someone go the way Cornell did is heartbreaking. On the surface, he had everything; a successful musical career, three children ages 16, 12 and 11. His wife said he showed no signs of depression. But something was there. The intangible, hidden thing gnawing away at his insides.

Seconds before his bodyguard physically removed me from the backstage area in Philadelphia, in a last ditch effort I shouted out, “Hey Chris! Can I get a picture real quick!” Cornell looked over at me and told the security guy I was ok. He thanked me for coming out and supporting the band. I thanked him for writing “Sunshower.” On the way out of the venue, I grabbed one of his wrecked microphone stands — he would go through about six or seven a show — as a souvenir. Today, that’s not the only thing broken.

All photos by Michael Christopher; follow him on Twitter @MickChrysalis.

Chris Cornell, live at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. Photo by Michael Christopher.
Chris Cornell, live at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. Photo by Michael Christopher.