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Chris Cornell – the chief architect of grunge

Chris Cornell was one of the defining voices of grunge music – his bluesy, multi-octave voice becoming Soundgarden’s not-so-secret weapon.

But he spent most of his teenage years a loner, afflicted by agoraphobia and anxiety, until rock music helped him overcome his uneasiness around others.

In Soundgarden, he slowed the frenetic flammery of ’80s metal to a sombre crawl, earning the band comparisons to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

Although they started out on Seattle’s Sub Pop label (their debut EP, Screaming Life was the label’s second release), they were the first grunge band to sign to a major label, and soon scored a major hit with Black Hole Sun.

It remains their most enduring hit. Spotify lists more than 50 cover versions, with everyone from Anastacia to Paul Anka drawn to its pretty melody and surreal, dreamlike lyrics.

Even Cornell wasn’t sure what it was about. “I was just sucked in by the music and I was painting a picture with the lyrics,” he once said. “There was no real idea to get across.”

While the song defined the band, there was no pinning Cornell down.

He wrote for other acts, including Alice Cooper, and formed Audioslave with the remnants of experimental rock act Rage Against The Machine.

With them, he played Cuba’s first ever outdoor concert by an American rock band; while in later years he worked with hip-hop producer Timbaland and released a solo acoustic album, Songbook, which put his remarkable vocals front and centre.

His James Bond theme, You Know My Name for Casino Royale, may not be a classic of the genre – but in framing Daniel Craig as a new, leaner, tougher 007, it was an uncompromising success.

Like all great musicians, he was curious and fearless. His greatest regret of the grunge scene was that Seattle’s experimental bands, the ones playing free jazz and Gothic rock, got left behind because they didn’t fit the music industry’s narrative.

“It’s like somebody came into your city with bulldozers and water compressors and mined your own perfect mountain and excavated it and threw out what they didn’t want and left the rest to rot,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994. “It’s that bad.”

His untimely death means that, after Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and Scott Weiland, yet another of grunge’s leading lights has been extinguished.

To those who knew him, the loss will be even greater.


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