A lot has been written about Seattle and grunge over the years – too much, probably – but something that really doesn’t get remarked upon enough is how unlikely it was for so many great vocal talents to emerge from that one city at the same time: Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, Layne Staley and Chris Cornell, to say nothing of transplanted Californian Eddie Vedder, or those harmony-singing maestros Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies, or of charismatic, characterful yowlers like Mark Arm and Andy Wood. All of them, all at the same time.
It wasn’t an unprecedented flowering of talent or anything (Detroit and Motown provides an even more staggering example of the same phenomenon), but it’s not recognised and celebrated in quite those terms. Nowadays we remember the heavy guitars, the drugs, the media hype and if we’re lucky we remember the great songs, but not enough attention is paid to how much sheer vocal talent came to the fore in the service of those songs.
None of these singers, not even Chris Cornell, emerged fully formed, but once he hit his peak on Badmotorfinger, Cornell matured into one of the absolute greatest rock singers ever. He could do anything. He could outscream Cobain and outwail Gillan and Dickinson. He could sing with a vibrato-heavy operatic intensity that Freddie Mercury would have envied. The sound of Cornell really going for it was addictive. On Rusty Cage, his slide up to the high note on the word “cage”, which he held with a powerful vibrato, is the main hook of the song. It’s why Johnny Cash’s cover – cute as it was as a concept – was so disappointing in practice. Cash couldn’t do the thing that made everyone love the song.
As time went on, as we heard Seasons, Black Hole Sun, Blow Up the Outside World, Preaching the End of the World and the wonderful When I’m Down – on which Cornell proved that Mark Lanegan wasn’t the only singer from Seattle who could conceivably make a move into jazz and blues – it became clear just what range this guy had, not merely in terms of pitch, but it terms of range, mood, feel, timbre.
Chris Cornell died today aged 52. We don’t know yet how he died, and it would be impertinent to speculate when the facts will make themselves known soon enough. Compared to his friends Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, he lived a long and productive life. Hopefully it was mostly a happy one too. What’s certainly true is that his music made an awful lot of people happy, me included.
Like most any other day, today I listened to KEXP’s morning show, and it was pretty much wall-to-wall Cornell. What a body of work the man leaves behind. It will be remembered, and so will he.