Chris Cornell was a pioneer of grunge music – a founding member if you will. He helped millions of people to channel their angst and troubled feelings through the sounds of his bands Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, and others. He then earned even more fans when he formed his later group Audioslave in 2001. Not to mention that Cornell was an accomplished solo artist in his own right.
But when it was announced that Chris Cornell had been found dead on May 17th, 2017, shockwaves were sent throughout the music industry. Today people are still trying to piece together what happened on that fateful night in Detroit, Michigan. It’s clear to us that Cornell lived a troubled life, but many had no idea just how bad it was. In light of the tragic news of his death, this is a look back at a man who was complicated, passionate, charitable, and one of rock’s signature voices.
First of all, a question that had been brought up many times ever since his death is: was it a suicide? Cornell died on the evening of May 17th, 2017, just after he performed a concert with Soundgarden in Detroit. According to a representative of his, it was “sudden and unexpected,” even mentioning that the singer’s family will be “working closely with the medical examiner to determine the cause.” But more on that later.
It took a matter of hours after his death for the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office to rule Chris’ death a suicide by hanging. Apparently, a family friend found Cornell on the bathroom floor of his hotel room at the MGM Grand. Cornell’s wife, Vicky, was doubtful about his death being a suicide.
Vicky released a statement on May 19th, 2017, casting doubts that her husband’s death was actually intentional. On the day he died, Vicky claimed that they “discussed plans for a vacation over Memorial Day and other things we wanted to do.” She continued to say that “When we spoke after the show, I noticed he was slurring his words; he was different.”
According to Vicky, he told her that he “may have taken an extra Ativan or two,” and so she contacted security and asked them to check on him. “What happened is inexplicable and I am hopeful that further medical reports will provide additional details,” she said. “I know that he loved our children and he would not hurt them by intentionally taking his own life.” They have two daughters together, and Chris has another daughter with his first wife.
Cornell split up with his first wife, Susan Silver, in 2004. Silver was Soundgarden’s manager (to make things even more complicated). The following year, Chris filed a $1 million lawsuit against Silver, claiming that she “had defrauded him of royalties and never returned, among other things, his Grammys and some recordings and journals.”’
As for Silver, she described his claims as “baseless” and “absurd.” In her opinion, there have never been any wrongdoings on her part. She said his claims are as manufactured as [President George W. Bush’s] reasons to be at war in Iraq and this attempt to damage my respected reputation will only prove one thing – he should stick to singing.” One word: ouch.
Their break-up and subsequent divorce got a bit weird. According to reports, Cornell filed a restraining order against someone who he claimed was hired by Silver to stalk him. The next year, he posted on his website, boasting about how he was “dusting off the 15 or so guitars” that he recently had returned to him after a very long lawsuit where “someone” decided that the tools of his trade and the guitars he played on should be in “their possession forever.”
Regarding Susan Silver, she stuck by her story, adding that it never had to be acrimonious. But, she did say that it was “incredibly painful, unnecessary, and expensive when someone is abusing the legal system to try to hurt another person.”
Christopher John Boyle (his birth name) was born on July 20th, 1964, in Seattle, Washington, where he was also raised. His father, Edward, was an Irish Catholic pharmacist and his mother, Karen, was a Jewish accountant and self-proclaimed psychic. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, after which he and his siblings adopted their mother’s maiden name of Cornell.
Cornell had five siblings – two older brothers and three younger sisters – and they all went to a Catholic elementary school. It was there that he performed for the first time in front of a crowd. What did he sing? The 1960s anti-war song, “One Tin Soldier.” But his days in Catholic schools weren’t going to last too long.
When he was in seventh grade, his mother pulled him (and his sister) out of Catholic school. According to Chris, it was because they were about to be expelled for being “too inquisitive.” Cornell later recalled this childhood event in a 1994 interview, saying: “We both sort of made it clear in classroom situations that we didn’t get it.” They would say things like “Explain this to me.”
But Chris said that they couldn’t, and so they “started creating a lot of problems.” It wasn’t long before Chris started suffering from depression. Chris had spent a two-year period, between ages nine and eleven, listening only to The Beatles. It was after he found a large collection of Beatles records that had been abandoned in the basement of a neighbor’s house.
Chris dropped out of high school and basically never left the house. He was only able to deal with his anxiety through drugs and rock music. In a 2006 interview, he blamed his internal pain on a bad experience taking PCP at the age of 14. After that incident, he had to deal with a panic disorder and flashbacks.
By the age of 12, he already had access to alcohol, marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, and prescription drugs. He would use them daily by age 13, after which he stopped for a year. But when he was 15, he got right back into the habit. “From 14 to 16, I didn’t have any friends,” Chris once said. “I stayed home most of the time. Up till then life was pretty great. The world was big and I felt I could do anything I wanted. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. But in the isolation, my imagination really had time to run.”
Chris had taken piano and guitar lessons as a child, and once explained that his mother “saved his life” when she bought him a snare drum. It was the instrument that started his path becoming a rock musician. In the early ‘80s, he was a member of a cover band called The Shemps, and they performed around Seattle.
The band’s bassist, Hiro Yamamoto, left the band, and guitarist Kim Thayil was recruited. But Cornell and Yamamoto stayed in contact, and the pair eventually started jamming together after The Shemps broke up. With time, Thayil joined them. But before Chris ever became a successful musician, he had to make ends meet. He worked as a busboy, a dishwasher, a fish monger at a seafood wholesaler, and even as a sous-chef at Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle.
Cornell reached a near four-octave range, which helped Soundgarden achieve their signature sound. If you listen to grunge era rock, there was lots of mumbling by off-key rock stars. But Cornell defied grunge rock expectations with his operatic pipes and tendency to suddenly switch from falsetto to a raspy scream. Many tributes to Cornell after his death reflected upon his once-in-a-lifetime vocal range.
It was described as “spectacular” and “the greatest voice of his generation.” According to The New York Times, “Chris Cornell sang as if he were bearing the weight of the world… At the bottom of its nearly four-octave range, Mr. Cornell’s voice was a baritone with endless reserves of breath and the seething tension of contained power.”
Cornell was friends with two classic male singers of the ‘90s: Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley. Both of whom had died tragically in 1994 and 1997, respectively. Buckley was described as being “practically a brother” to Cornell. He was also said to have influenced Cornell’s first solo album, ‘Euphoria Morning.’ One of the tracks, ‘Wave Goodbye,’ was written for Buckley.
According to Cornell, Buckley was full of life and had a lot to say in his music. “It’s impossible to say what it is exactly a guy like that has that is so attractive to other people,” Cornell said. “But he had more of it than anyone I had ever met.”
Cornell was devastated when his roommate, Andrew Wood, who was the frontman for the bands Mother Love Bone and Malfunkshun, tragically died. Cornell dealt with the loss by forming the band Temple of the Dog with Soundgarden’s drummer Matt Cameron. He also recruited future Pearl Jam members Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Stone Gossard.
While recording their self-titled (and only) album called ‘Rolling Stone,’ reports were made that future Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, came up to audition for Arment, McCready, and Gossard. At the time, Vedder was a gas-station attendant and night watchman, but he impressed the guys and wound up playing a pivotal role on the song “Hunger Strike.” According to Cornell’s account, “I was singing the chorus in the rehearsal space and Eddie just kind of shyly walked up to the mic and started singing the low ‘going hungry’ and I started singing the high one. When I heard him sing, the whole thing came together in my brain.”
On the same day that the news broke about Cornell’s death, Linkin Park’s lead singer, Chester Bennington, shared a personal note on Twitter addressed to his late friend. “I’m still weeping, with sadness, as well as gratitude for having shared some very special moments with you and your beautiful family,” Bennington wrote.
He spoke about how Cornell inspired him in many ways. He added, “I’d like to think you were saying goodbye in your own way. I can’t imagine a world without you in it. I pray you find peace in the next life.” Bennington then chose to sing “Hallelujah” at Cornell’s funeral. But nobody realized just how influential Cornell was on him. On July 20th, 2017, (what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday) Bennington hanged himself. It was another tragic loss in such a short period of time.
On August 4th, 2017, Cornell’s then 12-year-old daughter, Toni, performed a tribute to her father and to his close friend Chester Bennington on ‘Good Morning America.’ She was joined by OneRepublic, and together they sang “Hallelujah,” which was the same song Bennington sang for Cornell at his funeral.
According to Rolling Stone, the audience that day was left “visibly weeping.” Many people there were also Linkin Park fans who were planning to see the band perform in Central Park that same day. (The show was obviously canceled following Bennington’s death.) The tribute was remarkable as the young girl had lost he father just two months prior. Toni said, “It’s an honor to perform this for my dad and Chester and to sing for them.”
The members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were longtime friends. During a Reddit AMA session, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Stone Gossard were asked what their favorite Chris Cornell memory is. It led them to share a story of a time when Cornell pranked sound engineer Matt Bayles during a mid-‘90s studio recording session.
According to their story, they left a human dummy (nicknamed Safety Man) at the Studio after they recorded 1996’s ‘No Code.’ The dummy was left on the couch and stayed there while Soundgarden recorded 1996’s ‘Down on the Upside.’ But one day, Cornell came in early and put on Safety Man’s clothes. He then succeeded in spending 20 minutes sitting still, like the dummy, before suddenly jumping up and absolutely terrifying the engineer.
Even without hearing the news of Cornell’s death the next morning, fans that were at his last performance could tell that something wasn’t right. It was clear that the 52-year-old was struggling. He was staggering back and forth across the stage, and seemed very weak. After their first two songs, it was as if the energy had already left his body, and all that was left was a shell of a man trying to do his job.
For the nearly two-hour show, it seemed like Cornell wasn’t mentally present. He missed words, letting the crowd sing the parts that he didn’t have the energy for. There were times when Cornell was visibly agitated. But no one complained. In fact, the 5,000 audience members seemed to love it.
Several minutes before playing “Been Away Too Long,” Cornell walked off the stage, causing the band to start over and having to play instrumentals to fill the gap. When he came back to the stage, he made a “move it along” maneuver with his hand. Cornell took then complained to whole arena that he didn’t have a backup guitar, while bassist Ben Shepherd just laughed it off.
Throughout the show, Cornell gave brief backstories to the songs. For the song “My Wave,” he emphasized the importance of doing your own thing, just as long as you don’t harm someone in the process. But things went dark: “You can burn crosses on your lawn, I don’t give a f%$#. You can burn your house down,” he said into the microphone. “Who cares? I don’t. As long as you don’t catch someone else’s house on fire.”
One element of the show that he seemed truly excited about was Detroit. He spoke fondly of the city, over and over again during the night. He talked about how the band loved playing in Detroit Rock City and how the audience was unmatched. And then he said one line that, in hindsight, is quite eerily significant.
He said: “I feel bad for the next city,” over the microphone. That line may have been harmless in the moment, but not it was a much deeper, heartbreaking meaning. His last song fusion was the guitar solo for the “Slaves & Bulldozers”/“In My Time of Dying.” Cornell gave his all, playing the guitar backward, hung over his head. In a cathartic-like moment onstage, the musician let himself shine one last time.
While we will never really know what was going on in the mind of Chris Cornell before he took his life, the Detroit Police have revealed some details of the rock icon’s final moments. A police report reveals that Cornell went to his hotel room soon after the band finished their concert at the Fox Theatre on that Wednesday night (May 17th, 2017) at around 11:15 p.m.
That’s when his wife Vicky called him to see how he was – at 11:35 p.m. Vicky later reported how that conversation alarmed her, as her husband was slurring his words and repeatedly told her, “I’m just tired.” It didn’t sit well with Vicky, so she asked the band’s bodyguard to go check on him.
According to the police report, bodyguard Martin Kirsten worked on Cornell’s computer for a short time and gave Cornell two doses of his prescription anti-anxiety medicine, Ativan. Vicky called Martin around 12:15 a.m. expressing her concern. Martin then walked two doors down to room 1136 to find the door locked and so he kicked it open.
Martin had also called hotel security from a phone in the hallway, asking them for help checking in on the singer. According to the report, “Security stated they cannot let him into the room because he is not registered to that room.” That’s when Martin kicked in the door, went to the bedroom door, but that door was locked, too. Again, he called for hotel security.
Martin Kirsten then was forced to kick Cornell’s bedroom suite door, too, as security wasn’t helping. He then found Cornell on the bathroom floor with “blood running from his mouth and a red exercise band around (his) neck.” By 12:56 a.m., an MGM medic, Dawn Jones, was on the scene. He began performing CPR, but he was not breathing by that point.
Soon after, EMS Unit 42 arrived and also tried to perform CPR, but it was unsuccessful. By 1:30 a.m., Cornell was pronounced dead on the scene. Homicide detectives arrived to investigate as an officer called Vicky to report on her husband’s death. It was later that day that the medical examiner pronounced it a suicide.
After accusations that Chris Cornell‘s doctor overprescribed him with anxiety medication, the doctor has denied them all. Vicky Cornell filed a lawsuit against Dr. Robert Koblin for medical malpractice in November of 2018. She claimed that Dr. Koblin prescribed 940 doses of Lorazepam (also known as Ativan) as well as Oxycodone during the last two years of Cornell’s life.
And that’s without even examining the singer. The toxicology report showed that various prescription drugs were in his system when he died. But Dr. Koblin denied Vicky’s accusations, claiming that Cornell was “well aware” of the “side-effects and perils of taking anxiety medications,” but Cornell asked “not to be informed” of the risks. Dr. Koblin further claimed that he did everything he could to inform Cornell of the dangers of the drugs he was using.
Vicky Cornell sued the surviving members of Soundgarden for missing royalty payments as well as the rights to unreleased music. The file claims that the band is withholding “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in royalty payments that, according to Vicky, are “indisputably owed” to her and their children.
Vicky claims that there were seven unreleased songs that were “solely authored by Chris; contain Chris’ own vocal tracks; and were bequeathed to Chris’ Estate” for her and their children. Vicky offered to share the recordings with Soundgarden, “so they can be released in a way that respects Chris’ wishes.” But the band refused. As for Soundgarden, they say they’ve been “working on the files in a collaborative effort” until Cornell’s death.
Fame and fortune provided many opportunities for Chris Cornell to give back to the community. In 2012, he and Vicky established the Cornell Foundation, aimed to “raise awareness and mobilize support for children facing tough challenges, including homelessness, poverty, abuse and neglect.” In addition, Cornell recorded songs to help various causes.
He made the title track to the 2017 movie ‘The Promise,’ and the proceeds went to the International Rescue Committee. In 2011, Cornell recorded a song for the film ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ to raise money for a children’s charity. For the first 24 hours of its release, the track was exclusively available on the “Donate to Download” campaign for Angels of East Africa children’s charity. The song was even nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
In the aftermath of Cornell’s and Bennington’s suicides, there was some rather unfortunate online commentary, labeling the late musicians as “cowards.” But Slipknot singer Corey Taylor just wasn’t having it. In an interview with LoudWire, Taylor unleashed his anger on those who failed to grasp the struggles of mental illness. “Calling them ‘cowards’ is a very immature way of looking at it,” Taylor said.
“It’s easy for someone to label it like that so they can turn their back on it and pretend that it was something that didn’t happen to them, when inside they’re hurting. People who fight depression are almost in a constant state of hurting,” Taylor explained. He went on to tell listeners: “You’re not alone. Not one person out there who feels that way is alone. It is important for people to know that.”
There’s no doubt that Cornell’s legacy will survive through his music, but Vicky Cornell took it further by commissioning a statue in his hometown of Seattle. Sculptor Wayne Toth showed the family his design, and they loved it. The only thing they needed at that point is to decide on a place for it to stand. And so they turned to fans in the city for suggestions.
The life-size bronze statue of Chris Cornell was erected at Seattle Center in October 2018. His family also committed to providing a $100,000 scholarship for the Chris Cornell Music Therapy Program at Childhaven. According to Vicky, Cornell’s promise was to help the most vulnerable children. And one of the best ways to heal is through music.
Despite Soundgarden’s early hesitation with going mainstream with a major record label, the band soon found critical and commercial success. Cornell and his fellow bandmates hit multi-platinum sales and won two Grammy Awards in 1995. They won for Best Metal Performance for the song “Spoonman” and Best Hard Rock Performance for the song “Black Hole Sun.”
It’s pretty impressive for a musician who couldn’t read or write music. In an interview with NME in 2011, Cornell confessed to having spent his professional career totally unable to read or write music. He said he gave up learning to play the piano when he was a kid. “Unfortunately, I didn’t really have any direction. It just felt like school… I had kind of a mean piano teacher.”
In Soundgarden’s early days during the ‘80s, Cornell and his bandmates really hated the thought of signing with a major record label. They wanted to keep their pride, independence and edge as much as possible with their true fans. So they released their first full album, ‘UltraMega OK’ on their own, despite having already signed with A&M.
Cornell was later dubbed “Rock’s Greatest Singer.” Not only did he have the charisma of a lead singer, but his voice stood out. In 2013, Guitar World readers voted Chris Cornell as “Rock’s Greatest Singer.” Not only did fans love his voice, but they also loved his contemporaries. Singer Scott Stapp, for instance, proclaimed Cornell the “greatest pure rock singer.”
No track that Chris Cornell ever wrote created the same global fascination as Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” The song was a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s rock charts in 1994, which came as a bright spot in a summer when rock fans were reeling from the sudden loss of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
Cornell claimed that he wrote the song to play around with lyrics. “Lyrically it’s probably the closest to me just playing with words for words’ sake, of anything I’ve written,” Cornell once said. “I guess it worked for a lot of people who heard it, but I have no idea how you’d begin to take that one literally.” But despite that, he has since helped fans unpack the layers of meaning…
With the disjointed bars he put together, it all stemmed from his fascination with the misheard phrase “Black Hole Sun.” He explained how he misheard a news anchor, and thought he had said black hole sun, but he actually said something else. “It created this image in my brain and I thought it would be an amazing song title.”
It was a rare incidence where the title came before the music. He explained how the music was the inspiration that came from the images which were created by those words. And if you remember the song’s video clip, the twisted images illustrate this hopeless fantasy, revealing the darkness underneath a smiling face of the typical, white-picket fence American life.
It’s kind of an unlikely pairing, but Chris Cornell has a direct connection to ‘American Idol.’ During the show’s seventh season, future winner David Cook sang a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” But Cook’s version was unusual, making it the highlight of the show. And Cornell fans went crazy because Cook’s cover was actually a take on Cornell’s cover of the same song on his 2007 solo album, ‘Carry On.’
At the time of Cook’s performance, Cornell’s name was never mentioned on the show. But the next day, Cook made a point to give credit to Cornell. Only after that did the hysteria die down. Cornell even praised Cook’s performance and wrote a song that would eventually become Cook’s first platinum-selling, top-20 song called “Light On.” After Cornell’s death, Cook paid tribute to the musician who had such a significant impact on his life and career.
How many of you knew that that Chris Cornell contributed to the James Bond legacy? I sure didn’t! Apparently, Cornell co-wrote the lyrics for the song “You Know My Name” which was made for ‘Casino Royale.’ Cornell also performed the song for the movie’s opening credits. But despite its placement in the movie, the song wasn’t included in the soundtrack.
Daniel Craig, who played James Bond for the first time, told The Mirror: “This is very sad news, my thoughts are with his family.” The song “You Know My Name” was a fan favorite and became the first pure rock ‘n’ roll theme for the Bond series. If you thought James Bond and Chris Cornell had nothing to do with each other, you (and I) were mistaken.
Yes, he did. Cornell’s most recent will was made in 2004, shortly after he married Vicky Cornell. Vicky and the Cornell Family Trust were named as beneficiaries of Cornell’s fortune. But no stipulation was ever made for Susan Silver, the mother of Cornell’s eldest child, Lily. There is, however, an additional document that exists regarding Lily.
Lily was said to be provided for in the event of Chris’ death. His daughter was still a minor when he died. While Vicky is caring for their two daughters, it appears as though there’s bad blood between her and Lily, and, of course, it all boils down to how the family money is being handled.
Cornell has mentioned the names Paul McCartney, XTC, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Ultravox, and Bauhaus as some of the artists he particularly liked. Cornell’s songwriting featured non-standard chord progressions and melodies, like “Black Hole Sun”, which involves many kinds of open chords and many key changes in short sequences.
His multi-octave range, including baritone and tenor range was showcased in various songs, but most notably in the studio version of “Beyond the Wheel.” In the song, you can hear him spanning three octaves. In addition to singing rock and metal with Soundgarden and Audioslave, he sang the blues, neo-soul, and stripped-down acoustic numbers, too.
Cornell moved to Paris in the early 2000s after he met French publicist Vicky Karayiannis, a woman who would become his wife. It was during Audioslave’s first tour. Cornell, Vicky, and her brother opened up a restaurant in Paris called the Black Calavados. The restaurant has since close, though.
Chris also had other interests, like in 2009, when he planned to turn Philip Carlo’s true crime book “The Night Stalker: The Life and Crimes of Richard Ramirez” into a film. He collaborated with Carlo to produce the screenplay. Then in 2011, James Franco came on board to direct the film as well as star in the role of Ramirez.
Toni Cornell shared an acoustic cover of Temple of the Dog’s song, “Hunger Strike,” during LiveXLive’s music festival, benefitting the coronavirus relief efforts. Toni called the song one of her favorites, adding, “I love you, daddy, and I hope to do this song justice.”
The festival took place in April 2020 to help raise money for the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. In her Instagram post, Toni Cornell wrote that the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation will donate $50,000 to the fund. “If my dad were here, I know he would have been the first to donate his time and effort,” she wrote. “Thank you for including me. I am honored to be part of this and to help spread love through music.”