Chris Cornell, Soundgarden Frontman, Dies at Age 52
By Jem Aswad, Shirley Halperin
UPDATED: Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell died by suicide late Wednesday, Variety has confirmed. He died in Detroit after performing with his longtime band Soundgarden on May 17.
The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office issued a statement Thursday confirming the cause of death:
“The Medical Examiner has completed the autopsy on 52-year-old Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden musician who died last night in Detroit. The cause of death has been determined as suicide by hanging. A full autopsy report has not yet been completed. There is no additional information at this time.”
Michael Woody, director of media relations for the Detroit Police, told Variety Cornell’s wife asked a friend to check on the singer, the friend forced opened the door and found Cornell on the bathroom floor. Cornell was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 52.
A rep for the singer issued the following statement in the early hours of May 18: “Chris Cornell passed away late Wednesday night in Detroit, MI. His wife Vicky and family were shocked to learn of his sudden and unexpected passing, and they will be working closely with the medical examiner to determine the cause. They would like to thank his fans for their continuous love and loyalty and ask that their privacy be respected at this time.”
Cornell sent a tweet just hours before his final show, posting a photo of the Fox Theater and a caption complete with a reference to Kiss, a band that influenced him deeply as a teen: “#Detroit finally back to Rock City!!!! @soundgarden #nomorebulls—.”
Cornell, a key figure in the Seattle grunge scene with a powerful four-octave voice, founded Soundgarden in 1984 with guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Hiro Yamamoto. Along with Green River — which ultimately split into two bands, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney — Soundgarden were the vanguards of the movement of long-haired, hard-rocking bands that emerged from the city in the mid-to-late 1980s. Their debut single, “Hunted Down,” was the first release on the soon-to-be deeply influential Sub Pop record label in the summer of 1987, and it was followed by the “Screaming Life” EP in November. The band’s sound, a then-unusual fusion of garagey indie rock with a slightly sarcastic take on the stadium-rock (Aerosmith, Kiss) that its members grew up on, found an audience as the band toured extensively. Yet Soundgarden’s members were wary of the optics of signing with a major label too quickly — even though they were already deep in negotiations with majors — and instead chose to release their debut full-length, 1988’s “Ultramega OK”; ironically, the band had already signed A&M at the time of the album’s release. The following year saw the band’s push for the big time: Its major label debut, “Louder Than Love,” arrived in the fall of 1989, and driven by songs like “Loud Love” and “Big Dumb Sex” (with its profane chorus), the band began finding an audience outside the indie scene that had nurtured it. They toured hard into the next year — notably with fellow rising rockers Faith No More — before woodshedding their next album.
Several key events took place in 1990 and ’91 that profoundly shaped the band’s career. First, in April 1990, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood — a close friend and former roommate of Cornell’s — died of a heroin overdose just weeks before the band released its promising debut album. As a way of grieving, Cornell united with Cameron, Mother Love Bone members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard (both of whom had been in Green River) and a promising young singer named Eddie Vedder whom Ament and Gossard were considering for their next band. The resulting album, “Temple of the Dog,” was released rather quietly on A&M in mid-1991, but took on a whole new dimension when Pearl Jam — the band Ament, Gossard and Vedder went on to form — Nirvana, and the entire Seattle scene vaulted into the mainstream the following year.
Next, Soundgarden released “Badmotorfinger,” which showed vast maturity in both the band’s performance and, via songs like “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined,” its Cornell-driven songwriting; the album was nominated for a Grammy Awards (albeit for Best Heavy Metal Performance) the following year. And in 1992, just as the grunge wave was cresting, came the Cameron Crowe-directed film “Singles,” a celebration of Seattle’s scene and sound, which starred Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda and featured many characters from the area’s rock world. Soundgarden performs in the film and appears on the soundtrack, yet perhaps its most memorable moment in the film comes when Dillon and Cornell briefly groove together to music; Cornell’s presence actually outshines that of the far more famous actor. The film’s soundtrack, which was certified platinum at the time by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), just last week received a deluxe reissue featuring several rare and previously unreleased tracks, including Cornell’s rare solo “Poncier” EP. The group was a highlight on the second Lollapalooza tour in 1992, which also featured Pearl Jam.
The scene was set for Soundgarden to rise to superstardom, and they did not miss their moment. “Superunknown,” which was released in March 1994, debuted atop the Billboard 200 album chart and featured a string of radio smashes from the album, including “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” both of which won Grammy Awards in 1995. “Superunknown” would eventually sell more than 5 million copies, according to the RIAA. The band returned with 1996’s “Down On the Upside,” but tensions between Cornell and Kim Thayil, along with the decline of the Seattle sound and the overall burnout of 12 years together, led to their split in 1997. The band would not play together again until 2010.
In 1999, Cornell ventured out on his own and with the album “Euphoria Morning,” which showed a more introspective and softer side to his songwriting. While critically well-received, the album was not a commercial success, and by 2001 Cornell reverted to his rocker muse and formed the band Audioslave with the members of Rage Against the Machine, who had recently parted ways with singer Zack De La Rocha. The band’s self-titled debut was released in 2002 and yielded another hit, “Cochise.” Audioslave’s “Like a Stone” was also nominated for a Grammy. The band would go on to release two more albums, before calling it quits in 2007.
Cornell’s solo career would kick into high-gear in 2006 with the song “You Know My Name,” written for the James Bond film “Casino Royale.” He would receive a Golden Globe Award for the track.
The following year, Cornell released a solo album, “Carry On,” which was produced by Steve Lillywhite. It was released to mixed reviews. Cornell followed with his most pop effort to date, 2009’s “Scream,” which saw him collaborating with R&B producer Timbaland and Onerepubic frontman Ryan Tedder; Justin Timberlake even appeared on a song. While the album was his highest charting solo release — debuting at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 — Cornell was lambasted critically and by peers including Trent Reznor, who called the album “embarassing.” Around that time Cornell covered the Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean” in an acoustic rendition that gained unexpected currency when Jackson died in June of 2009.
In 2010, Cornell began hinting at a Soundgarden reunion, which would eventually take place at Lollapalooza in April of that year. Over the past few years he generally alternated between solo work, releasing the albums”Songbook” (2011), and “Higher Truth” (2015), Soundgarden (which released its first new album in 16 years, “King Animal,” in 2012, and did a tour around the 20th anniversary of “Superunknown” in 2014) and a Temple of the Dog reunion. In 2014, that group emerged from hibernation when Cornell joined Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit to perform “Hunger Strike,” and the band did a rapturously received reunion tour in 2016, marking the 25th anniversary of Temple of the Dog’s debut album.
With Soundgarden, Cornell won two Grammy Awards from 14 nominations, and a 1994 MTV Video Music Award for “Black Hole Sun.”
According to Nielsen Music, across his entire catalog (Soundgarden, Audioslave and solo) he sold 14,865,000 albums, 8,808,000 digital songs and had 300,091,000 on-demand audio streams.
The top sellers were Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” (3,859,000), “Badmotorfinger” (1,615,000) and 1996’s “Down on the Upside” (1,606,000); the band’s top songs were “Black Hole Sun” (1,044,000 sold, 45.4 million streams), “Spoonman” (431,000 sold, nearly 15 million streams) and “Fell on Black Days (420,000 sold, 13.7 million streams).
Audioslave sold 3.5 million copies of its self-titled debut and 1.2 million of its “Out of Exile” follow-up; its top song was “Like a Stone” (908,000 sold, 31.8 million streams). Cornell’s solo albums “Out of Exile” sold 1.2 million, while his debut “Euphoria Morning” moved 393,000 units. His top songs were “You Know My Name” (323,000 sold, 3.5 million streams), “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” (“5.5 million streams) and his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (125,000 sold).
Cornell had struggled with substance abuse throughout much of his life, including a bout with Oxycontin for which in 2009 he admitted had sent him into rehab. He had been sober since 2002.
He is survived by his wife, Vicky Karayiannis, and three children: Lillian, Toni, and Christopher.