I most likely bought Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden through Columbia House. If you are younger, maybe under 30, you probably don’t know what Columbia House was, but let me tell you, for a teenager in the midst of a music feeding frenzy, starving to get his hands on everything he could, Columbia House was the best thing in the world, even if the math never quite made sense. You got like, eight CD’s up front, you only had to pay maybe a penny. All you did was stick what albums you wanted (each album cover was like a stamp) onto a post card, send it in and within a few weeks, you got a cardboard package filled with eight brand new CD’s. It was wonderful.
Of course you then had to pony up money for additional albums and those discs were more expensive than your local music store, but it was a small price to pay for that initial windfall, which is what everyone who used Columbia House would say to this day.
It was through Columbia House that I got a lot of my early favorites, as well as albums magazines like Rolling Stone told me I should get. One of those albums was Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden’s third album, which was released on October 8, 1991, a month after Nirvana dropped Nevermind and two months after Pearl Jam released Ten. Those two albums were the shiny objects, the ones most people’s attention were drawn to, myself included. Badmotorfinger was next level though, for those brave souls willing too venture further west into the dark, scary confines of the Pacific Northwest. Soundgarden was bigger, louder and not nearly as accessible as it’s Seattle friends and it wouldn’t be until they released their next album, Superunknown, in 1994 that they would drop an album that would be welcomed with open arms by the general public.
First it was “Spoonman,” a rock ‘n roll safari highlighted by the spoon playing of West Coast street performer Artis the Spoonman. That song opened the door for “Black Hole Sun,” the album’s third single and arguably their biggest and most recognizable song. “Black Hole Sun” filled a void left by Kurt Cobain’s suicide and walked a flannel-clad America into the next phase of grunge. The song won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance (“Spoonman” won Best Metal Performance, something that highlighted the shared musical existence Soundgarden occupied) in 1995 and ended up being the band’s high water mark, a peak they wouldn’t get too again.
Down on the Upside was released two years later and as far as the metal side of the band, it was largely absent from the record, which was not nearly as heavy and dirty as past albums, albeit still very much a rock record. Yet after the massive success that came with “Black Hole Sun” and the tension of producing Down on the Upside themselves and embarking on another world tour, the band walked away in 1997.
In the years that followed, Cornell first turned toward solo material, releasing his first solo album Euphoria Morning in 1999. He attached a couple songs to some movies and was nominated for some awards. His solo material lacked the punch and muscle of Soundgarden; instead capturing more of a Jeff Buckley vibe. It was nothing that hardcore Soundgarden fans were going to get behind.
Yet those same knuckleheads could get behind what came next, Cornell’s new project with three members of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave. Despite having one of the worst band names ever and coming in hot with fairly high expectations, the band sounded like each member’s past bands run through a Led Zeppelin Instagram filter. Their first album, the self-titled “Audioslave” was certainly the product of strangers feeling one another out and experimenting with what worked, but it definitely produced some highlights, notably “Cochise,” and the song’s video, a video that could be one of the greatest introductions to a new band ever.
Other great songs on the album were”Gasoline” and the road weary anthem “I Am the Highway.” Audioslave were in a tough spot though, seemingly always playing from behind. As good as they were, they would never be as good as Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, two bands that had disbanded, not fallen apart due to the death of a member. It would have almost been easier if that were the case, but instead, Audioslave ended up being a good yeah, but band. They were good, but yeah but, couldn’t those other two bands just get back together?
Rage Against the Machine wouldn’t, but Soundgarden eventually would. Following two rather unfortunate solo releases, including one produced by Timbaland that we will now agree to never talk about again, the four members of Soundgarden pulled the plug on their break and got back together in 2010. They played some shows and contributed a song to the first Avengers movie, finally releasing a new album in 2012, King Animal. King Animal was surprisingly good. There really wasn’t any rust or tones of unfamiliarity. It sounded like Soundgarden, something all fans of the band had been wanting for over a decade. As of last summer, the band was said to be working on a follow-up, with six songs recorded by August.
Now, with Cornell’s sudden passing, those songs will most likely be released as part of a compilation, maybe with some live tracks that truly highlight just how powerful Cornell’s voice and how dynamic he was as a frontman. Cornell was rock ‘n roll in it’s purest sense and his voice soared like a rocket blasting into orbit after a fiery take-off. There’s been plenty of bands that were almost like Led Zeppelin, but Soundgarden was the one that probably got the closest to reaching that Zeppelin style.
But for as much as they were like Zeppelin, they were like Black Sabbath and the Stooges and the Sex Pistols. I once wrote a breakdown of the history of grunge and while a lot of the bands that came up through that scene were influenced heavily by punk, the Melvins in particular, Soundgarden was the exception, finding inspiration in the arena rock gods of the 1970’s. It was one of the many ways they were different than their contemporaries, but also how they were of that same lineage. They didn’t run from their icons or their inspiration. They embraced them and used them as diving boards.
We deserved to see Cornell in old age, commanding stages with his unique and powerful voice. On a day like today, when the shock of waking up to see the alert that he had passed is still fresh, it’s easy to think about what we’ll now miss with him gone. But come tomorrow, or even now as we inch towards the early afternoon, we should look back and be thankful for what he gave us.
Chris Cornell gave us loud, driving rock ‘n roll, something we don’t get nearly enough of anymore. He was not just one of a kind, but one of the last members of a dying breed. A good chunk of rock ‘n roll died with Cornell Wednesday night in Detroit, a chunk that won’t be replaced anytime soon.
And maybe it shouldn’t.
Chris Cornell was 52.