Cornell’s voice falls silent, leaves questions echoing

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Chris Cornell possessed one of the great rock voices of his or any other generation, a powerful, plaintive wail that could cut through stone.

That howl was one of the signature sounds of the 1990s alternative rock movement, where Soundgarden was one of the key outfits from the Seattle grunge scene that also produced Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.

Chris Cornell performs on stage during Conde Nast's Fashion Rocks show, Sept. 5, 2008 in New York.

Fans clamored to hear that voice Wednesday night during Soundgarden’s sold-out show at the Fox Theatre, though nobody knew at the time the show would become a sad part of Motor City rock ’n’ roll history.

Hours after Cornell was found dead Wednesday night in his hotel room at the MGM Grand Detroit shortly after the concert’s final encore, the Wayne County Medical Examiner ruled his death a suicide by hanging. Cornell was 52.

A full autopsy report has not yet been completed, a medical examiner spokesman added in a statement.

News of his death spread quickly Thursday and shocked fans and peers across the globe.

The question “why?” that follows any apparent suicide was amplified on a rock star’s scale. Why Wednesday, in the midst of the band’s 18-date spring tour? Why Detroit? They are questions that are unanswered for the time being, and perhaps forever.

At Wednesday’s show at the Fox, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to some fans.

“The show was honestly great,” said Allanah Wills, 26, of Windsor. “Nothing seemed off or anything, as far as I could tell.”

Cornell, Wills said, was praising the Detroit crowd and saying the next city on the tour had a lot to live up to. She said Cornell was lively and mobile and interactive with the fans.

“That voice, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime voice,” Wills said.

A candlelight vigil for fans, organized by the Metro-Detroit Political Action Network, is planned for 9 p.m. Friday at the Fox Theatre.

The band was due to perform at Columbus, Ohio’s Rock on the Range festival Friday. The remaining six dates on the tour have been canceled.

Reports surrounding Wednesday’s incident indicated Cornell’s wife, Vicky, asked a friend to check on Cornell after the concert. When that friend entered his hotel room, Cornell was found dead.

Cornell’s last several messages on Twitter were upbeat, with messages from the tour and Mother’s Day greetings for his mom and wife.

The singer’s final Tweet was a shout-out to Detroit, with a picture of the Fox Theatre marquee. “#Detroit finally back to Rock City!!!!” he wrote. It was posted at 8:06 p.m. Wednesday.

The kings of grunge

Cornell was a born rock star: magnetic, mysterious, dark. He could bark at the moon over mud-caked riffs and produce a sound that could make your foot slam down on your gas pedal, or he could sing in a quiet, melodic tone that could make your heart ache with longing.

Among the other giants in his peer group — Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan — Cornell had far and away the most distinctive instrument: that voice. It was pure and mighty and towered above the field.

Soundgarden channeled in heavy, punishing guitar rock that always seemed to have a black cloud hanging over it. It didn’t make light music for happy times; Soundgarden made hard music for a dense, rainy day, making it a perfect soundtrack for a Seattle state of mind.

Over the years, the grunge rock community has been hit with several high-profile deaths. In April 1994, Cobain died by suicide at the height of his career at age 27. Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, another grunge pioneer, died a drug-related death eight years later, on the same date. The most recent notable death of this group was in late 2015 when Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland died of a drug overdose at age 48.

Cornell had struggled with drug abuse in his lifetime, both in his teen years and during adulthood. But in recent years, he had spoken up about his sobriety, a change he said came with his 2005 marriage to Vicky Karayiannis.

Soundgarden, which formed in 1984, hit its commercial and creative peak with 1994’s “Superunknown,” which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart, one spot ahead of Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral,” which was released the same week. “Superunknown” spun off the hit singles “Spoonman,” a tribute to a Seattle street performer, and “Black Hole Sun,” the literally eye-popping video that was one of the key visuals of the grunge years.

Soundgarden disbanded after the release of 1996’s “Down on the Upside,” and Cornell teamed with the refugees from the breakup of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave, a supergroup that pumped out three albums between 2002 and 2006. After churning out a pair of solo albums — Cornell released five solo sets over his career — he reunited with Soundgarden in 2010, and the band was a steady touring presence. It released its sixth studio effort, “King Animal,” in 2012.

Cornell’s most recent solo album was 2015’s “Higher Truth,” featuring the song “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” which went to No. 5 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. The video for the tune stars Cornell and actor Eric Roberts as two men waiting to be hanged in in the Old West. Cornell’s character is sent to the noose but is saved by two women.

Showman till the end

Cal Cagno, former morning show host at CIMX-FM (88.7), interviewed Cornell when the singer performed at a small listening session for a group of about 20 contest winners at Pearl Sound in Canton in 2013. One of the songs from that performance, “Halfway There,” ended up on an expanded edition of “King Animal.”

“I wasn’t sure what to expect because he has this aura about him. He’s an innovator and an originator, but he was warm, he was very engaged, and he gave thoughtful answers to all the questions. He wanted to be there,” Cagno said. “He stayed around, met everyone, took pictures with each person — he had no problem meeting fans. He was very aware of how much Soundgarden meant to people, which was refreshing, and so cool to see. In the end he knew Soundgarden, more than any of his other projects, was such a big deal to people.”

Local fans remain shocked by the news of Cornell’s death.

Jamison Mosshart, who attended Wednesday’s Soundgarden concert at the Fox, said watching the frontman’s final show “will be forever burned in my memory.”

“He was a true showman ‘til his last breath,” said Mosshart, bass player for the Erers and an employee at Third Man Records in Detroit.

“We lost a man who traversed four octaves of pitch with more ease than most of us tie our shoes. His ability to write, execute and simultaneously sing and play odd time signatures in a coherent way for the rest of us to enjoy was second to none.

“I hope wherever he is, peace gently follows; he deserves it for bestowing it on so many.”

Natalie Mouyianis, who lives in Ferndale, was a fan from the beginning of Cornell’s career and followed him through his solo output and his work with Audioslave. “His voice was incredible, someone that, when you hear it, you knew it was him,” she said. “This is truly tragic.”

Greg Aubry, a musician in Metro Detroit, said he was “stunned” by Cornell’s death. “His mix of range, soul and raw power were always exciting to listen to,” he said.

“My jaw hit the floor when I saw Soundgarden do ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ and he nailed every note, every nuance 20 years after the original recording.”

Soundgarden had a long history with Detroit, with concerts dating at least back to a January 1990 show at Saint Andrew’s Hall.

The band performed in June 1994 at then-Pine Knob and returned 20 summers later on a joint tour with Nine Inch Nails.

As a solo performer, Cornell visited Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater in December 2011, performing a mix of solo material, covers and songs from Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple of the Dog, his one-off project with members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

Audioslave logged several concerts in Detroit, including a February 2003 show at the State Theatre and a November 2005 performance at the Fox.

Among those paying tribute Thursday was Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. In concert, Cornell was known for performing a heartbreaking cover of Zeppelin’s “Thank you,” and Wednesday’s final song at the Fox included pieces of Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying.”

“RIP Chris Cornell,” Page wrote. “Incredibly Talented. Incredibly Young. Incredibly Missed.”


(313) 222-2284

Staff Writers Melody Baetens and James David Dickson contributed.

Chris Cornell candlelight vigil

9 p.m. Friday

Fox Theatre

2211 Woodward