Chris Cornell, Existential Theologian

Christianity Today had a great analysis of some Chris Cornell lyrics back when they reviewed the first Audioslave album:

“In your house I long to be/Room by room patiently/I’ll wait for you there like a stone/I’ll wait for you there alone”
— from “Like a Stone”

The album’s single “Like a Stone” has enough content to warrant its own essay. The chorus (excerpted above) is a strong plea for salvation and to be in God’s presence. No doubt many will be hung up on the lyric, “On my deathbed I will pray to the gods and the angels/Like a pagan to anyone who will take me to heaven.” In the song’s context, however, it seems more like a desperate plea than an actual strategy or worldview, akin to the rich man asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Chris also qualifies it with the contrite third verse, “And on I read until the day was gone/And I sat in regret of all the things I’ve done/For all that I’ve blessed and all that I’ve wronged.”

It’s not the only faith–inspired track on the album. The prayerful “Show Me How to Live” is fairly self–explanatory: “Nail in my hand from my creator/You gave me life, now show me how to live.” One of the album’s softer tracks, “I Am the Highway,” could be interpreted as what God is and isn’t–present in everything and bigger than we imagine: “I am not your rolling wheels/I am the highway/I am not your carpet ride/I am the sky/I am not your blowing wind/I am the lightning/I am not your autumn moon/I am the night.”

“Exploder” illustrates how spiritual freedom helps us reconcile the hurts of a sinful world, and “Hypnotize” reminds us to show love and compassion to our fellow man. The most stunning example of faith comes in “Light My Way,” which at times rivals most other prayerful anthems you hear in Christian music: “In my hour of need, on a sea of gray/On my knees I pray to you/Help me find the dawn of the dying day/Won’t you light my way.” Some even wonder about the album’s cover, incorporating the band’s logo of a fire blaze. Maybe it’s just my Christian worldview, but it strongly reminds me of an extremely huge representation of Moses and the burning bush.

The shocking death of Soundgarden’s legendary Chris Cornell [Updated]

Chris Cornell at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. (Wikipedia)

Update: There are now reports from the medical examiner that it was a suicide. Baffling and confounding.


I awoke this morning to two texts from close friends. The first was terse and direct: “Chris Cornell has died.” The second:

“Just heard about Chris Cornell. Sad day for the music world. I’m in Detroit on my way to Florida. It’s all over the news here. Soundgarden played here last night. I doubt he killed himself.”

The first friend had accompanied me to Cornell’s stunning July 2016 concert at The Hult here in Eugene. We both agreed it was a remarkable show; it was even better than a solid 2013 show at a smaller venue just five minutes from my house. We marveled at Cornell’s range, presence, lyrics, musicianship.

Now we are both stunned by his sudden death in a Detroit hotel, not long after a Soundgarden concert that reportedly concluded with Led Zep’s “In My Time of Dying”—a staple in recent solo shows by Cornell.

There are reports that the death may have been a suicide. If so, that would be even more shocking. There had been ups and downs, but Cornell had avoided the deep dives into oblivion that eventually swallowed up Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood, and Layne Staley. And had, over the past two decades, thrived both personally and professionally.

Cornell was a drug user in his early teens, then drank heavily (and apparently used drugs on occasion) during the heyday of Soundgarden in the 1990s. He hit bottom in the late ’90s as the band broke up and then his first marriage unraveled. Even then, however, he produced his (arguably) finest solo album “Euphoria Morning” (later updated to “Euphoria Mourning”), which demonstrated that he was not just about grunge, but could dip into gospel, blues, and folk. After a stint in rehab, he joined up with three members of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave, one of the finest supergroups in recent memory, producing three studio albums of muscular, confident rock that further demonstrated Cornell’s prowess as a songwriter. Several songs for movie soundtracks followed, including “You Know My Name”, the theme song to the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale. And Soundgarden’s 2012 “King Animal” was a solid, often brilliant, return for the legendary band.

Since the early 2000s, Cornell’s personal life appears to have been thriving. He married Vicky Karayiannis in March 2004, and by all accounts was a devoted husband and father. His most recent solo album “Higher Truth” was well received, revealing a mature and confident artist who was still trying new things as a songwriter and musician. In interviews, Cornell was thoughtful and funny; he seemed to embrace his fame without taking himself too seriously, which is not an easy thing to accomplish amid the fame and challenges of being a musician.

Again, I’m simply stunned. My God grant Chris Cornell peace and provide solace to his family during this most difficult time.

Rockin’ genius to the Hult: Chris Cornell’s magical evening in Eugene, Oregon

Waiting for the show to commence….

Nearing the end of his stunning two-and-a-half hour concert last night at the Hult Center here in Eugene, Oregon, a clearly delighted Chris Cornell noted that while he had enjoyed his two previous stops in Eugene, this particular night was “special”. He was quite right. I was at his October 19, 2013 show at The Shedd—a smaller and more intimate (that is, cramped) venue—and while it was a very good show, Cornell topped it last night with a generous mix of newer and older tunes—a total of 26 songs in all— the occasional accompaniment of Brian Gibson on keyboards and cello, and a vocal performance that rivals any I’ve heard from him—and I’ve listened to numerous live performances on albums and via YouTube.

Simply put, Cornell’s songs are demanding, requiring the sort of range, strength, stamina, and flexibility that very few singers can pull off on a regular basis. And there have been times when the strains of traveling and performing have taken a toll on Cornell’s voice, especially on Soundgarden tours. But the legendary singer and songwriter (Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple of the Dog, solo) is, without doubt, in a wonderful place as an artist, making great new music and embracing his older songs with unashamed enthusiasm. Late in the set, introducing “Black Hole Sun”—a huge hit that he has sung countless times—Cornell mused that he didn’t understand why some artists end up “hating” those defining hits. “If you don’t want to sing it,” he said, “don’t write it and record it in the first place.” And then he tore into the song as if he had written it just last week, clearly thriving on the interplay between his acoustic guitar riffs and Gibson’s dynamic cello excursions.  Continue reading “Rockin’ genius to the Hult: Chris Cornell’s magical evening in Eugene, Oregon”

Zac Brown + Chris Cornell = Southerngarden

Chris Cornell cemented his reputation long ago as one of the greatest rock vocalists ever, first with Soundgarden in the 1980s and ’90s (and currently), and then with Audioslave in the early 2000s. But Cornell, who is now 50 years old, has a rather intriguing history of crossing genres, beginning with “Temple of the Dog” (1991), which was certainly rock, yet with hints of gospel and folk. His surprising 1997 version of “Ave Maria” (on “A Very Special Christmas 3”) indicated an interest in music far outside the usual grunge/metal arena. And with his 1998 song “Sunshower” (on the “Great Expectations” soundtrack), which became a hit without ever being released as a single, and “Euphoria Morning” (1999), his first solo album, Cornell further demonstrated his ability to sing (and write) within numerous genres. His 2009 album, “Scream,” caused plenty of screams—from fans who welcomed the electro-R&B-Timbaland-produced songs and from those who hated it and saw it as a sign of the apocalypse.

In recent years, Cornell has written and performed a hit song for a blockbuster movie (“You Know My Name”, the theme song for the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale), sang lead on the funky, Euro-fusion tune “Lies” with Gabin, and crooned a mellow, old-school duet (“All I Have To Do Is Dream”) with Rita Wilson on Mrs. Tom Hanks’s 2012 solo album, “AM/FM.” And in his various solo acoustic tours [see my October 2013 review of one such show], Cornell has always played some left field tunes, such as Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” which he first played unplugged many years ago as a slow-burning blues song (and inspiring a similar take from “American Idol” winner David Cook in 2008).

There are more examples, but that’s enough of an intro to Cornell’s latest collaboration, which was released last week: the single, “Heavy Is the Head,” with the Zac Brown Band, which appears on ZBB’s forthcoming album, “Jekyll + Hyde”. I’ve enjoyed the ZBB’s past albums, which are a mixture of Souther-country-rock, traditional country, and some Jimmy Buffet-type tunes, and I expected I would enjoy the tune. In fact, I think it is a great cut; it is far heavier than expected and is a near perfect marriage of Southern/country rock and grunge, hence my use of the word “Southerngarden”. The song is built on a distorted, grungy bass line, which leads into some distorted guitar and Cornell’s somewhat menacing vocals; it builds over some fine riffs and, at the 3-minute mark, a nifty Soundgarden-ish breakdown and some trademark wailing. Here is a recent performance for SNL, marred only by a bad mix (the vocals are pushed too the back):

The Winery Dogs (Best of 2013 — Part 10)

Coming in the #10 slot (in alphabetical order) on my Best of 2013 list is this supergroup’s eponymous bolt of lightning:

The Winery Dogs

Wow. This album blew me away.

One of my all-time favorite prog drummers, Mike Portnoy, teamed up with Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan this year, and they demonstrate to us all the unbeatable power of the power trio when it is done right.

The thrill of listening to these catchy songs, and to the virtuoso musical chops on display in them, evoked a lot of happy musical memories of musical “first encounters” for me.

First, there is the rush of listening to Rush. Like I say, there is nothing quite as exciting as the hard rock power of the power trio when it is done right. The Winery Dogs evoke for me the musical joy I experienced when first listening to Rush in high school. Of course, the greatness of Rush is still there to be savored with every listen. But there is nothing quite like the first ten times that you listen to a truly great album. With this release from The Winery Dogs, we get to experience that kind of magic again, as for the first time.

Second, there is the sonic adrenaline that I love to tap into by listening to Chris Cornell and Audioslave. Therefore I am dedicating my Winery Dogs nomination here for the Best of 2013 to Carl, my fellow Soundgarden aficionado in the republic of Progarchy, in case he has not heard it yet. It’s remarkably satisfying, for those of us who can’t get enough of such upper-echelon vocal stylings, how well Richie Kotzen can recreate the thrill of listening to Chris Cornell.

Third, there is the undefinable excitement that skilled musicianship can bring to enhance and elevate any genre’s tropes. Suddenly, as you round what seems to be a familiar musical corner, you are blindsided and pleasantly surprised by an unexpected display of virtuosity that showers you with musical grace. When Billy Sheehan works his otherworldly magic here on bass guitar, or when Richie Kotzen transports us into ordinarily inaccessible dimensions of guitarcraft, or when Mike Portnoy muscles his way out of the speakers and right into the room next to you, I am reminded of those magical younger days when my friends and I first began listening to all those great, lesser-known albums by “musicians’ musicians.” Those discs opened up musical pathways that most of our schoolmates were missing out on. For some reason, when listening to The Winery Dogs, memories of listening to The Steve Morse Band come to mind for me. But each of you will find that your own personal memories of your first listens to “the greats” will be evoked by this album’s dazzling display of virtuosity.

Best of all, this album is a perfect cure for the dragon sickness of any nascent prog tendency to become a tribal, self-enclosed musical world. It makes the joy of music available to anyone with the ears to listen.

This disc is a perfect illustration of how musical men with prog chops can quite simply put their musical skills in the noble service of simply rocking out. Anyone with a heart can relate to this cause. I invite you to happily endorse it with the simplest of gestures, like a fist pump or an air guitar solo.

Rock on, gentlemen.

Review: Chris Cornell at The Shedd (Eugene, Oregon) on October 19, 2013:


No “Black Hole Sun”? No “Billie Jean”? No electric guitars or drums? No ten-minute versions of “Slaves and Bulldozers”?

No problem.

Chris Cornell, the once-again front man of Seattle’s legendary Soundgarden (see my review of King Animal) and one-time front man of super group Audioslave, walked onto the stage without any introduction at 9:00 pm promptly, setting off an eruption of applause and whistles from the sold-out crowd. The Shedd is an intimate (and somewhat cramped) venue that seats around 700 or so, and my wife and I had excellent seats: dead center, front of the balcony. The lanky Cornell is fit and relaxed; he acknowledged the crowd with a warm grin, placed the needle on the record player set up in front of seven guitars, and launched into “Scar On the Sky,” from his second solo album, Carry On (2007), which happens to be the first full Cornell album I ever heard.

Although Soundgarden achieved fame while I was in college, I didn’t pay attention to Cornell until years later, having mostly ignored the entire grunge movement during the 1990s, mostly because of a dislike for the music of Nirvana—a dislike I maintain to this day, without apology. Nirvana may have sold more albums, and Kurt Cobain may have attained a semi-mythical status because of his suicide at the age of 27, but Cornell, who is now nearly 50 years old, has earned respect the old-fashioned way: by staying alive, writing songs about suicide rather than committing suicide, producing a steady stream of good to great albums and songs, and by touring often in recent years in support of the same.

Some rock stars burst onto the scene as bright stars and then become fading, falling stars—or drug-addled recluses, muttering nut-cases, or sad shells of their former selves. But others, such as Cornell, start slowly, build steadily, hesitate for a while (oddly enough, I think of Sinatra going silent in his late 30s before embarking on his stunning albums for Capitol in the ’50s), and then find their footing at a decisive point in mid-career, and demonstrate that they are, in fact, real musicians and not just brands and products.

Cornell’s two-hour-plus long set this past Saturday was a case in point, for it highlighted both the legendary voice—which was in exceptional form—and the stellar and varied songwriting. The former is the immediate draw, for there is nothing quite like Cornell’s multi-octave, raw, amazingly textured voice, which can move from face-melting howl to falsetto sweetness to blurred darkness to startling, clear heights—often all in the course of a single song. But the acoustic show brought out facets of Cornell’s songs not always obvious in full studio dress: the unusual chords and progressions, the subtle shifts in tempo and tone, and the masterful balance of melody and rhythm. “Sunshower”, for example, is a ballad-like number that slowly builds and morphs into a series of gospel-ish chords full of longing and a sense of rhapsody.

Conversely, the rocker, “You Know My Name” (from the 007 film, “Casino Royale”) is one of Cornell’s most straight forward (and popular) tunes, albeit with some sly humor: “I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights/But you yourself are nothing so divine/Just next in line…” While he is not a finger-picking virtuoso, Cornell is a more than capable guitarist, energetically wringing out walls of sound at one moment and then playing delicate, swirling lines the next.

Between songs, Cornell’s banter was often quite funny and self-deprecating, as when he recalled that he had only played in Eugene once before, with Soundgarden in the late 1980s, “in somebody’s basement, with two people in the crowd: the guy who booked the show and the janitor. No one even bothered showing up just to get drunk!” He noted that his first solo acoustic show, so to speak, was a small event in Sweden while touring with Audioslave; although it was “nerve wracking,” it was also surprisingly enjoyable, like walking a tightrope without a net: “If you screw up, everyone knows!” While the younger Cornell sometimes seemed intent on playing rock god—and unleashing his aggressive, freakish wail on audiences—the middle-aged Cornell seems to truly enjoy digging into the songs and revealing their more subtle riches.

Crowd favorites included the beautiful “Seasons,” the Temple of the Dog classic, “Hunger Strike” (with opening act, Bhi Bhiman, performing the vocal part originally performed by a certain Eddie Vetter), and Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days,” which featured the full range of Cornell’s vocal powers.

Somewhat surprisingly, the huge hit, “Black Hole Sun” did not make the evening’s set list, despite plenty of screamed requests. Nor did Cornell’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” although he did joke of how one reviewer thought it was an “ill-advised” song to record. But it was a delight to hear under-appreciated gems such as “The Day I Tried to Live” (one of my favorite Soundgarden songs, from the classic album, Superunknown), the Audioslave tune, “Like a Stone”, and the piano-driven, gospel-ly “When I’m Down” (from Euphoria Morning, Cornell’s first solo album). An unusual twist came when Cornell played U2’s “One”—but using the lyrics from Metallica’s “One,” a mash-up that proved the value of combining musical talent and a wry sense of humor.

For an encore, Cornell played a new song, the blue-inflected “Misery Chain,” written for the upcoming film, “12 Years of Slavery,” and concluded the show with an extended version of “Blow Up the Outside World,” the dreamy-to-screamy, controversial hit from the 1996 Soundgarden album, Down On the Upside.

Here is video of Cornell singing “Fell On Black Days” at The Shedd:

Who said it? “I was a nerdy shut-in who listened to prog-rock…”

Surprise, surprise, the lead of singer of Soundgarden (and Audioslave), in this April 2012 interview in Details magazine:

DETAILS: What were you like growing up?
Chris Cornell: Wild. And reclusive. Sometime between 12 and 14 I smoked PCP and had a real bad reaction. By the time I was high-school age, I didn’t want to do drugs anymore, so I went a couple years without having any friends. I got in touch with the creative process between the age of 14 and 16, mainly because I was alone so much.

DETAILS: And yet you became a frontman. Did playing music change you?
Chris Cornell: I was a nerdy shut-in who listened to prog-rock—and then I got on stage. Most frontmen are not born hams like David Lee Roth. We’re more like Joey Ramone: awkward geeks who somehow find our place in the world on the stage. Nobody ever said a positive thing to me, ever, in my life, until they heard me play music.

DETAILS: I bet it helped you meet girls, too.
Chris Cornell: Oh yeah. Initially I was a drummer, and I remember standing somewhere in public with a pair of drumsticks, and these cute girls came up and started talking to me. We hadn’t even played yet! It was actually uncomfortable. I thought, “Is that all I have to do? Just hold drumsticks?” It immediately made me not like the girls.

Ha! Gotta love the sense of slightly twisted humor. Cornell also has this to say about the state of rock music:
DETAILS: There’s been a lot of talk recently, most of it negative, about the current state of rock music. What’s your take? Is rock dead?
Chris Cornell: It’s definitely lost its place at the center of the musical universe. Rock never meant the same thing to everyone, but when I was growing up in the late seventies, everyone could identify the five, ten bands that formed the center. Even if you preferred the fringe—the Clash over, say, Van Halen—you still knew what the center was. Now kids turn on the radio and hear Eminem or Kanye, so that’s what they gravitate toward. They’re making music on iPhones. Everything’s fractured. The reason there’s no modern-day Shakespeare is because he didn’t have anything to do except sit in a room with a candle and think.
So, what Cornell song is most proggy? That’s nearly impossible to say, as the “prog” elements (strange chords, odd time signatures, epic and semi-mythical lyrics) used by Cornell and Co. are seamlessly mixed into a delicious musical stew that also draws on early metal, Krautrock, punk, pop (the Beatles, to be exact), blues, gospel, and even Middle Eastern music. But here is my choice: “Limo Wreck” from Soundgarden; it is one of my 5 favorite Soundgarden songs, but was never a single or a hit: