Chris Cornell, the dynamic vocalist and guitarist whose versatile showmanship as Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog’s frontman was a signpost of the grunge era, died by suicide Wednesday night. He was 52.
Cornell killed himself by hanging, according to the Wayne County Medical Examiner (via Associated Press). A full autopsy report was still being completed as of Thursday afternoon.
Police received a 911 call at approximately 12 a.m. from a family friend, according to Michael Woody, Director of Media Relations for the Detroit Police Department. When the friend went to Cornell’s hotel room at the MGM Grand Detroit to check on him, he “made it inside the hotel room, where he found Mr. Cornell unresponsive laying on the bathroom floor,” according to Woody. EMS workers pronounced Cornell dead at the scene.
Earlier on Wednesday, the singer had played a show with Soundgarden, who were midway through their tour. “His wife, Vicky, and family were shocked to learn of his sudden and unexpected passing, and they will be working closely with the medical examiner to determine the cause,” his publicist said in a statement.
Cornell’s peers and influences posted numerous tributes to the singer-guitarist on social media. “A shining voice in music has left us in the midnight,” Perry Farrell tweeted. “He was a complex and gentle soul. Chris Cornell has flown into the black hole sun.”
Jimmy Page called the singer “Incredibly talented. Incredibly young. Incredibly missed,” Elton John wrote, “Shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Chris Cornell. A great singer, songwriter and the loveliest man.”
Cornell’s artistry was marked by his impressive multi-octave vocal range that displayed a rare sensitivity within heavy music. With Soundgarden, he could shift between raging metal declarations (“Jesus Christ Pose”), somber mood pieces (“Fell on Black Days”) and psychedelia (“Black Hole Sun”) with ease.
After years of playing generally aggressive music in the Eighties, his full range of musical expression showed in 1991 when he created Temple of the Dog – a supergroup featuring Soundgarden and eventual Pearl Jam members – to pay tribute to late Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. He later explored heavier territory with members of Rage Against the Machine in the supergroup Audioslave and his delicate side as a solo artist, with frequent acoustic shows in recent years. Between Soundgarden and his other projects, Cornell reportedly sold nearly 15 million albums altogether in the U.S.
Born Christopher John Boyle in Seattle on July 20th, 1964, Cornell – who took his mother’s maiden name after his parents divorced – was the son of a pharmacist father and accountant mother in Seattle. He had two brothers and three sisters and jokingly likened his family to The Brady Bunch in interviews. Cornell eventually carved a path for himself after taking piano and guitar lessons before finding his way to the drum kit, which he played in an early incarnation of Soundgarden.
The band formed in 1984 after a period where Cornell and bassist Hiro Yamamoto played together in a band called the Shemps, eventually inviting guitarist Kim Thayil to play with them. They chose the name Soundgarden in tribute to a public organ-pipe sculpture that created sounds in the wind. With the arrival of drummer Scott Sundquist, Cornell moved to singing and playing guitar full-time. The next year, they recorded three songs for the pivotal Deep Six compilation, which placed them alongside fellow grunge architects Melvins and Green River (the latter of which contained future Pearl Jam and Mudhoney members). Soundgarden put out their debut single, the trippy, ominous “Hunted Down,” and EP, Screaming Life, in 1987.
After the release of another EP – 1988’s Fopp, whose title track is improbably an Ohio Players cover and marked the arrival of drummer Matt Cameron – Soundgarden came into their own on their first full-length, 1988’s Ultramega OK. That record featured the brooding, dramatic Cornell standout “Beyond the Wheel,” which showed off his impressive vocal ability and the band’s proclivity for coupling heavy-metal riffing with shuddering noise affectations, foreshadowing grunge. They would later streamline this sound on 1989’s more metallic Louder Than Love, a locomotive onslaught of chunky riffs, alpha-male fantasies and quirky humor.
On March 19th, 1990, Wood, Cornell’s former roommate, died of a heroin overdose. The death shook the Soundgarden frontman, who wrote the songs “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” as a visceral reaction to Wood’s death. Cornell asked Wood’s Mother Love Bone bandmates, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, if they would record the songs with him. With the addition of local guitarist Mike McCready, an unknown guest vocalist at the time named Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Cameron, the group became Temple of the Dog. Their lone self-titled album came out in 1991 and eventually went platinum; the group, sans the Soundgarden members, subsequently re-formed as Pearl Jam and issued their debut, Ten, the same year.
Meanwhile, Cornell and his bandmates were picking themselves up after the exit of Yamamoto, whom they replaced with bassist Ben Shepherd. Feeling energized creatively from Temple of the Dog, Cornell wrote several songs that would become singles on their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger. “Jesus Christ Pose,” a charging Cornell-penned number, was banned on MTV, but “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage” – the latter of which would be covered by Johnny Cash – became MTV hits and part of the momentum that propelled Seattle to music’s forefront at the time, along with releases by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The album eventually went double-platinum.
The group’s follow-up, 1994’s Superunknown, would be their biggest release: a Number One album that would go on to be certified five-times platinum thanks to a string of hits. A creepy video for the psychedelic number “Black Hole Sun” helped the tune become the group’s most enduring song, while “Spoonman,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “My Wave” and “Fell on Black Days” dominated both the mainstream-rock and alternative charts that year.
Despite his success, Cornell felt ambivalent about the attention his hometown was getting, especially after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. “It’s hard not to be a little bitter about it,” he said in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview. “We lost good friends in the process. And all of a sudden you realize that it’s turned into something that’s considered a fashion statement. It’s like mining. 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. It’s that bad.”
Decades later, he looked back on the period surrounding Superunknown in a 2014 Rolling Stone interview and revealed he’d been going through depression around the time he wrote the song “Fell on Black Days.” “I’d noticed in my life there would be periods where I would feel like things aren’t going so well, but they weren’t based on any particular thing,” he said. “There wasn’t a catastrophe, there wasn’t a relationship split, nobody got in a car wreck. My outlook just changed. It was kind of a terrifying thought. I wanted to write a song about that.”
1996’s Number Two–charting Down on the Upside, contained several hits (“Pretty Noose,” “Burden in My Hand,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” all written by Cornell) and a Cornell-written outtake from that album, “Bleed Together,” featured on the band’s A-Sides comp would be the group’s final hit before their 1997 breakup.
Cornell’s first solo album, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, contained the hit “Can’t Change Me,” with the musician forming the supergroup Audioslave two years later with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. As with Soundgarden’s mid-Nineties high point, the band’s self-titled 2002 debut contained several hits – their moody “Like a Stone” went gold – and their follow-up, Out of Exile, went to Number One on Billboard on the strength of the multi-textured Number One single “Be Yourself.” The band issued another full-length, Revelations, in 2006 and split up the next year, prompting Cornell to return to his solo career. Both 2007’s Carry On and 2009’s critically maligned collaboration with Timbaland, Scream, made it into the Top 20 of Billboard’s album chart.
After periods of drug and alcohol abuse throughout various points of his early career, Cornell managed to get sober in the late 2000s after a stint in rehab. “It was the most difficult period of my life,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “I’m lucky I got through it. I’m not sure if [rehab] was the best place for me, but it worked.”
The latter part of Cornell’s life was marked by reunions. Soundgarden reactivated in 2010, issuing King Animal in 2012, while Temple of the Dog came together to tour in 2016. Audioslave played a one-off gig on Inauguration Day of this year. All the while, Cornell continued his solo career, putting out the live acoustic album Songbook in 2011 and studio record Higher Truth in 2015.
In 2014, he explained to Rolling Stone how Artis the “Spoonman,” the performer who prompted the Soundgarden song, inspired him to do his acoustic tours. “I remember sitting in a room, with eight or 10 people, and he walked in with this leather satchel that he always carries and took spoons and stuff out of it,” Cornell said. “And everyone’s jaw dropped. I thought, ‘This guy can walk into a room and get that reaction.’ And I suddenly felt kind of embarrassed and smaller, ’cause I felt like I call myself a singer, a songwriter, a musician – and I’ve sold millions of records and toured the world – but I can’t just walk in a room, pick up an instrument and entertain everyone and their jaws drop. That stuck in the back of my mind, and at some point I started to pursue that.”
Most recently, he’d recorded an orchestral number, “The Promise,” for the movie of the same name and had been discussing writing for a new Soundgarden album.
At the time of his death, Cornell was married to Vicky Karayiannis. They had a daughter, Toni, in 2004 and a son, Christopher, the following year. He’s previously been married to Susan Silver, who had at one point managed Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. The couple had a daughter, Lillian Jean, in 2000.
Even at the height of fame, Cornell kept an even head about his success. “I can’t say that we’re motivated by anything but achievement,” he told Rolling Stone in 1992. “And the achievement isn’t based on things like Grammy nominations or chart positions. It’s based on what we do musically and how we personally feel about it. Nothing could be worse for us, I think, than if we made what we thought was the worst record we’d made, and it ended up selling a lot. I think we’re all so self-conscious and prone to disillusionment that that would really make our lives hard as far as wanting to make another record after that.”
Additional reporting by Jason Newman