When Soundgarden snuck on the scene in 1984, frontman Chris Cornell almost singlehandedly brought back the excess and drama of 1970s arena rock. He had all that a rock star required: mighty lungs, impeccable phrasing, androgyny and manly magnetism — the kind of looks that made women and men scream themselves hoarse. But Cornell, who died by suicide Wednesday in Detroit, wasn’t just about sex appeal; early Soundgarden shows were pure pandemonium on every level. But what’s even more remarkable is that the guy held on to all the gifts that made him special for three decades. Here’s the proof.
Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun” (1996)
One of the best grunge anthems ever, “Black Hole Sun” represents the moment when Chris Cornell took Soundgarden to the mountain-high level of their inspirations. For this MTV Live & Loud performance, the washed-out, ultra-sunny yellowness of this 1996 performance bleeds the pain of the song’s plea for sweet oblivion. He flexes his substantial vocal vocabulary – mournful sighs, impatient growls, raging cries. His dynamics and pacing are so impeccable, it beats the classic studio version. It feels slower — because it digs deeper.
Soundgarden – “Jesus Christ Pose” (1992)
Seattle, Lollapalooza, 1992: It doesn’t get much more grunge than this. “This one’s for Jesus,” Cornell announces in an orange windbreaker — because that’s how the Northwest rolls. He’s not so much playing guitar as extracting venom from it as his enviable locks fall down, up, over, and around his saintly-devilish face. Here, there’s absolutely no attempt at sexiness, which conversely proves that Cornell positively exuded the stuff. The kids in the mosh pit go so crazy they send off steam.
Soundgarden, “Fell on Black Days” Acoustic (2013)
Recorded on the roof of L.A. alternative rock station ALT 98.7, this 2013 acoustic clip attests to Cornell’s unfailing intensity – even at low volumes. At this point, he’s undoubtedly sung this weighty Superunknown ballad several hundred times, and so there’s a casualness here that actually conveys the song’s depression theme far more effectively than the album version; after all, it’s the worst when, day-in-day-out, bad feelings become completely ordinary. Here, it’s just him on an acoustic with Soundgarden’s Ben Shepherd on electric bass – nothing else necessary.
Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” (2006)
Co-written with John Barry acolyte David Arnold, this theme to 2006’s Casino Royale carries the James Bond legacy of moody cabaret like “Goldfinger” into hard rock territory, and does so without sacrificing melody. The very opposite of the aforementioned clips, this allows us to watch Cornell thinking hard while delivering the tune – far trickier than his norm – with offhand charm. He’s winging it and holding back and then right at the end wailing the way we know and love.
Soundgarden, “Fopp” (1988)
By covering the Ohio Players — a quintessential ‘70s funk band known for sexy album covers and even sexier jams like “Love Rollercoaster” — this early incarnation of the band became even more like Led Zeppelin than when doing their own material. Cornell’s about 24 here, around the time of Ultramega 100, but he looks more like a teenage surfer. Everything here is ultra-raw, including his vocals, which hadn’t quite matured. “FOPP AND ROCK!!!” he implores. How could we do otherwise?
Audioslave, “Your Time Has Come” (2005)
Yes, this is the studio version, here mixed with live footage from Audioslave’s historic 2005 Cuba performance. It’s essentially a trailer for the band’s Live in Cuba DVD, which exists only on Youtube as a paid stream. Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine bring the bluster, Cornell matches it with his larynx, and we get to see the band being ordinary guys in an unordinary place. This much isn’t mere advertising: As much as he flexed hardcore, Cornell was also approachably down to earth.
Chris Cornell, “I Will Always Love You” (2012)
Recorded for a 2012 Obama fundraiser, this crude but essential multi-angle fanclip captures the San Francisco audience freaking out when they collectively realize that, “Oh s—, that Soundgarden dude is actually singing Whitney and Dolly!” Cornell prefaces this cover by warning them he’s likely to mess up. But he doesn’t. He nails it.
Soundgarden, “Big Bottom/Earache My Eye” (1990
From the 1990 VHS release Louder Than Live, Soundgarden cover Spinal Tap and then Cheech & Chong not as if they’re comedians, but like they’re the early ’90s incarnation of early ‘70s prime-era Black Sabbath – i.e. just about as heavy as humanly possible. But what’s really funny – even better than how the editing takes Cornell’s shirt (or is that a torn ladies’ blouse?) off him, puts it back on, and removes it over and over again with strobe-like quickness – is to watch him stage dive with his guitar, nearly get molested, and still play the thing.
Chris Cornell, “Thank You” (2016)
At the height of his popularity, Cornell strutted with the undeniable confidence of a guy both physically and spiritually born to rock. Captured last year in Israel by a lucky fan, this acoustic cover presents the Led Zeppelin classic with just folk guitar, classical cello, and a heaping dose of humility. He’s much, much more than a fan, yet he remains one. Little wonder why the crowd here sings along.
Soundgarden, “Outshined” (1991)
Thanks to Guns N’ Roses and the weight of its history, Los Angeles in 1991 was still swimming in big-haired sleaze when these young Seattle sons brought a wave of grunge boasting even more substantial manes – and of course, their own sweaty scuzz that permeates this definitive early Soundgarden anthem. While the camera work and edits are awkward, this clip nevertheless shows what is was like to witness a legendary band on the way up.