I: Youth, Religion, and Drugs
Christopher John Cornell, best known as the lead singer of Soundgarden, was born on July 20, 1964 to Karen Cornell and Ed Boyle in Seattle, WA. He was one of six siblings in a Catholic family. The religion would be a large influence in Cornell's early years and once again when he became a songwriter.
"I got the whole thing. Me and my sister [Suzy] got kicked out of Catholic school when I was in seventh grade and she was in eighth grade. Actually, our mom pulled us out because we were about to get kicked out for the reason that we were both too inquisitive... With a religion like that, it's not designed for anyone to question … I feel sorry for people who honestly swallow it. To me they're fish. I don't wanna be a fish."1
By the time he was ten, Chris had stopped his music lessons (guitar and piano) and had begun taking drugs, becoming quite familiar with the underground narcotics scene in Seattle. Not surprisingly, by the time he was in his teens, Cornell was withdrawn, socially and emotionally, from the world around him. When he was fifteen, Chris's parents divorced. He would change his last name from his father's surname (Boyle) to his mother's maiden name, Cornell. His mother would also pull him out of Catholic school; Cornell found a job as a cook in a famous Seattle fish restaurant. His reclusiveness began to take on heightened proportions - he nearly lost his job because he barely spoke to his coworkers and rarely acknowledged them.
II: Music and Inspiration
Like so many other of his contemporaries (Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder come to mind), Cornell found the release he sought in music. When he was seventeen, he was in several cover bands that mixed punk, new wave, and metal.
"I annoyed the shit out of them [his parents] by spending my whole childhood beating on things. I drove them to distraction and I never thought they'd give me a drumkit in a million years. By the time I was 15 my mom had just about given up on me. But she must have figured that at least I had an interest in something other than drugs or being a criminal, so she bought me a snare drum. After a couple of days whacking that, I bought the rest of the kit for $50 from a guy I knew. Two weeks later I was in my first band."2
This band was The Jones Street Band, named after some streets near where he lived. According to Chris, they
"played everything from contemporary rock-shit like Rush and AC/DC to whatever punk music was at the time - the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. There were some local punk bands that we would mimic. A band called the Fartz - we'd listen to their records and try to mimic them. And as a drummer I was really into the Police."3
The band's lineup would shift many times over the next few years, but eventually it became finalized and the result would be the so-called "grunge" monster band, Soundgarden. Chris met Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto when the two played for the cover band The Shemps. Both would be Soundgarden members (Kim staying for the entire duration as guitarist). In another lineup change, Chris would also become the frontman because he could hit high notes that none of the others could. This, of course, necessesitated that he learn the guitar - primitively, at least. The band took its name from a pipe sculpture in Sand Point Park in Seattle entitled "A Sound Garden". When the wind blows through the pipes, the resulting sound is vaguely musical.
The band would begin to rewrite punk, slowing it down to older metal bands level while still maintaining the intense abandon of their roots. Like Nirvana, Soundgarden's first releases, Screaming Life/Fopp would be on Sub Pop Records. Ultramega OK would be released by SST in 1988. They were also one of the first Seattle bands to sign with a major record label (A&M) in 1989, releasing Louder than Love.
"They [and Epic] were the only labels left after all our dodging that still had the the patience to pursue us."4
Louder than Love made a lukewarm splash in the market. Their followup, 1991's classic Badmotorfinger would be the one that propelled Soundgarden to fame with bands like Nirvana. "Outshined" gave the band radio play and they never looked back, releasing the highly successful Superunknown (which received two Grammy Awards for "Spoonman" and the MTV favorite "Black Hole Sun") and 1996's Down on the Upside.
IV: Temple of the Dog and Other Side Projects
In addition, Chris would also organize the supergroup Temple of the Dog with several Soundgarden cohorts and some members of a then-unknown Pearl Jam (including Eddie Vedder, who became Cornell's protege for a while) for a tribute album to late Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood. Temple of the Dog released as self-titled album, and received significant airplay with "Reach Down" and "Say Hello to Heaven".
"It was a spontaneous situation, it went quickly and well, so I don't think that we'll ever dare to recreate that."5
Chris also released the solo acoustic composition "Seasons" for the 1992 soundtrack of the movie Singles. He covered Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Baby" on 1993's "Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix" album. Cornell also wrote songs for Flotsam and Jetsam and Alice Cooper and produced Uncle Anasthesia by the Screaming Trees.
V: Fame and the End of Soundgarden
"I think that in a lot of ways the Seattle scene was a turn-the-gun-on-itself scene. It was being born out of the punk rock bible, where being a rock star is a bad thing. So we couldn't enjoy our success because we weren't really supposed to. You had to pretend success was fucked. We all became very self-conscious. I wish now that we'd had a better attitude about it."6
Soundgarden disbanded on April 9, 1997, citing a lack of chemistry and interest in the band. Chris especially didn't like the fact that Soundgarden was becoming more and more about expectations, those of the fans and the artists themselves, than the music.
VI: Euphoria Morning
Chris would start on a solo career soon after and the result would be 1999's Euphoria Morning. A radical departure from the grungy sound of Soundgarden, Euphoria Morning focused on Cornell's vocals and lyrics than the general ambiance of the music (it is a well-known fact that some of Soundgarden's songs, "Black Hole Sun" being the most famous of these, made absolutely no sense but sounded beautiful). After that, Cornell toured across the nation, playing songs from Soundgarden and his solo career, in an effort to promote the album.
VII: Rage Against the Machine
Perhaps the most surprising development in Chris Cornell's career came in 2001 when Zack de la Rocha quit Rage Against the Machine. Within months, the rest of the band started jamming with Chris Cornell and later announced that they would form a new band and (hopefully) release an album in 2002. Chris, we're eagerly waiting!
Update: Nenneth informs me that the new band will be called Civilian. They will play Lollapalooza and tour with Tool to kick of their career. Cool.
Update to Update: The band fell through. Dammit. However, the recordings will be released in CD form, but there will be no Civilian, nor will they perform at Lollapalooza.
Update by Editor: Chris Cornell unfortunately committed suicide in Detroit, Michigan, in the early hours of May 18, 2017, following a Soundgarden concert.
1Request Magazine, October 1994
2Kerrang!, October 1996
3Rolling Stone, 1995/96 (if you know the exact issue date, /msg me)
4Spin, September 1992
5Rusty-Cage.com, http://www.rusty-cage.com/A%20to%20Z/s2t.html#tee - cited January 14, 2001
6Raygun, September 1999