Chris Cornell has died. The New York Times reports that the longtime Soundgarden frontman passed away on Wednesday night in Detroit after playing a Soundgarden show. According to a rep for Cornell, his death was “sudden and unexpected,” and its cause has yet to be determined. Cornell was 52.
Cornell was born in Seattle, and he battled severe depression as a kid. As a teenager, he formed a cover band called the Shemps with some friends, and that band, which also featured Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, eventually broke up and reconstituted itself as Soundgarden. Cornell and his bandmates formed Soundgarden in 1984, and he started out playing drums and singing before giving up the drums and moving to the front. The band’s first recordings appeared on Deep Six, a legendary 1986 compilation that also featured Melvins, Green River, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, and the U-Men — the core of bands whose members would define what would become known as Seattle’s grunge sound.
The band released their first single, “Hunted Down” b/w “Nothing To Say,” on the brand-new Seattle indie label Sub Pop in 1987, following it shortly with the EPs Screaming Life and Fopp. In 1988, they released their debut album Ultramega OK on SST, the label founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, which was the dominant underground rock label of the time. The band’s sound, deeply heavy and metal-infused, sounded like nothing that was happening in the American rock underground, at least outside of Seattle. Ultramega OK was nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 1990, the sort of thing that didn’t happen with underground rock records. Even back then, Cornell was emerging as a serious rock star, a messianic belter with a ton of Robert Plant in him. They were helping to define their city’s sound, but Soundgarden were a weird fit on the underground, and they wouldn’t stay there for long.
In 1989, Soundgarden signed with the major label A&M and released their sophomore album Louder Than Love. They followed it up with 1991’s Badmotorfinger, an album that was already huge by the time Nirvana’s Nevermind came out and really kicked off the Seattle feeding frenzy. That same year, he also worked on the self-titled album from the side project Temple Of The Dog, which also featured members of Pearl Jam; their one album was a goodbye to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood. Soundgarden had already been moving toward the mainstream, opening for bands like Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row on tour. Things really exploded when they joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Ice Cube, and others. They appeared in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie Singles and on its soundtrack, and they toured tirelessly.
With the release of their next album, 1994’s Superunknown, Soundgarden became one of the main rock bands of their era. Superunknown was an absolutely colossal album, debuting at #1 and eventually selling some nine million copies worldwide. It expanded the band’s sound, making it more tuneful and psychedelic, and the contemplative ballad “Black Hole Sun” became one of the most iconic songs and music videos of its era.
The band released one more album, 1996’s Down On The Upside, further pushing their sound away from its thunder-stomp roots. They toured with the Lollapalooza festival again that year, at the request of headliners Metallica. But conflicts within the band, especially between Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil, proved to be too much, and Soundgarden broke up in 1997.
Cornell went solo after that, releasing his debut album, the Jeff Buckley-influenced Euphoria Morning, in 1998. In 2001, he teamed up with three former members of Rage Against The Machine to form the new band Audioslave, and while it seemed like a bit of an odd combination, they proved to be a successful unit, recording three albums together. While he was in Audioslave, Cornell was battling problems with alcohol and drugs; he spent some time in rehab. Cornell announced his departure from Audioslave in 2007, and the band broke up soon after.
Cornell went back to his solo career, releasing the album Carry On in 2007. He followed it up with 2009’s fascinating and disastrous Scream, a full-length team-up with producer Timbaland, and then with the acoustic live album Songbook in 2011. In 2010, Cornell reunited with Soundgarden, touring and releasing the robust reunion album King Animal in 2012. They’d lately been at work on another album.
Cornell continued to work on his own, releasing the solo album Higher Truth in 2015 and contributing music to movies like Machine Gun Preacher and The Promise. He reunited with Temple Of The Dog and played a mini-tour last year. Earlier this year, he played a one-off reunion show with Audioslave. He had a lot going on, and his death comes as a real shock.
Below, watch some of the videos that Cornell left behind.