Evan Schiller didn’t know Chris Cornell very well — when it came down to it, few people really did — but the drummer for the ’90s Seattle band Sadhappy cherishes one particular memory of the late Soundgarden frontman. It was December 1991, and their mutual friend Soozy Bridges was throwing a party at her beachfront house in West Seattle. On what was perhaps the coldest day of the year — “19 degrees out, snowing,” in Schiller’s recollection — he and about 10 others gathered outside around a roaring bonfire. Around midnight, Cornell showed up.
“He didn’t make a big production of it, but he proceeded to rip off his shirt and pants and jump into the pitch-black Puget Sound,” says Schiller. Cornell quickly swam out so far that no one could see or hear him. “We were all freaking out, going, ‘Holy shit! What do we do? Call 911?’ ” recalls Schiller. “Then Soozy says, ‘Oh, he always goes out swimming in the Sound at night.’ But he was out there for five minutes, then 10, then 15 or 20 — it could have been as long as half an hour.”
Schiller couldn’t imagine how anyone survived that long in those frigid waters. “Finally, Chris emerges like Neptune,” he says. “And then he starts picking up people from the party — he was lifting 200-pound guys and carrying them down to the water and throwing them into the Sound, laughing maniacally the whole time.”
This was Chris Cornell in what Van Conner, guitarist for Cornell’s contemporaries Screaming Trees, calls “commando mode.” Two months earlier, Soundgarden had released Badmotorfinger, its third album — and the first to hit the market post-Nevermind, in the bloom of grunge mania. (It has sold 1.6 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music.) Commando mode was more than a party persona. It was one way that Cornell, reserved and enigmatic in everyday life, transformed himself into a rock god — which, in the small, do-it-yourself Seattle scene of the ’80s, was something of a radical act. When Soundgarden, which formed in 1984, performed at clubs like the Ditto and the Central Tavern, Cornell would stomp his army boots, flail his beautiful long hair, fling himself into the crowd and, of course, unleash that massive voice — a multi-octave miracle of modern rock.
That instrument is now permanently silenced — Cornell hung himself in a Detroit hotel room after the May 17 stop on Soundgarden’s spring tour — but its sound remains etched in the consciousness of those who knew him before he became a global star.
“Chris’ vocals were flawless,” says Bruce Pavitt, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, “but flawlessness in punk rock isn’t honored. Doing the Robert Plant thing was literally the uncoolest thing you could do back then. But when I heard ‘Hunted Down,’ what I heard was the flawless juxtaposed with the atonality of the guitar. I said, ‘There’s something going on here.’ ”
The then-fledgling Sub Pop released “Hunted Down” as a single in 1987 and put out two EPs by the band before Soundgarden moved on to SST in 1988 for its debut full-length, Ultramega OK. From there, it was off to the majors: A&M put out Soundgarden’s second album, Louder Than Love, in 1989, and by Badmotorfinger’s release, the band’s final lineup was in place: Cornell on vocals and guitar, Kim Thayil on lead guitar, Ben Shepherd on bass and Matt Cameron on drums. In 1994, Soundgarden would release its best-known hit and first Mainstream Rock Songs No. 1, “Black Hole Sun,” off Superunknown, which topped the Billboard 200 and has sold 3.9 million copies.
But in the pre-major-label days, Cornell’s rock-star act transfixed a scene that was theoretically against such things. “For me, it was like a revelation,” says Kurt Danielson, who played bass for Bundle of Hiss and later TAD. “At this one gig, I remember Chris had on cut-off jeans, no shirt and black army boots. He was stomping around the stage in a ritualistic fashion. There was a mystical, shamanistic element to it.”
And crucially, Cornell was Seattle’s most unapologetically sexy performer. “When Soundgarden were starting to take off locally, there was always some part in the show where he would tear the T-shirt off of his gorgeous torso,” remembers Daniel House, the former bassist of Skin Yard and head of C/Z Records. “One time he told me he used to go to thrift stores and find cheap T-shirts just for the purpose of tearing them off. He understood it for what it was in terms of marketing and crowd-pleasing, and he also understood that it was kind of funny. But it worked. Every woman I knew in Seattle was like, ‘Oh, my God, Chris!’ ”
“At first I was like, ‘This person that I have seen onstage is nothing like the person in reality,’ ” says Candlebox singer Kevin Martin, who met Cornell through the Seattle scene in 1985. “But over the years of getting to know him and being in an environment where I could hang out with him, I realized that the person onstage was the person in reality — he was just very good at switching it off. Offstage, the charisma was still there, the star was still there.”
Larry Reid, who managed Seattle proto-grungers The U-Men, saw Cornell’s effect on the opposite sex up close in New York in the fall of 1986. “His then-girlfriend [and later first wife] Susan Silver and my wife were going shoe shopping, so Chris and I repaired to a little dive in the East Village called King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut,” recalls Reid. “It’s the middle of the afternoon, and a parade of attractive young ladies were blatantly hitting on him. He clearly was used to it, and he dealt with it with a really good sense of humor, like, ‘Well, I’m supposed to meet my girlfriend in about 15 minutes.’ One of them said, ‘OK, that’s enough time,’ gesturing toward the bathroom.” says Reid with a laugh. “He just had this magnetism.”
Everyone who knew Cornell in those early years describes him as kind and good-humored, but also somewhat distant. “I remember talking to Kim and Matt at some point in the ’90s, and the conversation was about how they had been in this band with Chris for all these years and they still didn’t feel like they really knew him that well,” says House. “It didn’t seem like he was shy per se, but there was just a big part of him that he kept to himself.”
Former Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel, who says he looked up to Cornell like a big brother, echoes House. “Like Kurt Cobain, Chris often kept his cards close to his chest and gave the bare minimum when it came to socializing publicly,” says Pickerel. “He didn’t want to be the center of attention unless he was onstage. There, he could give the people the show that they came to see — and turned into the animal that they wanted to enjoy.”
Cornell did show some dark inclinations at an early age. “I went from being a daily drug user at 13 to having bad drug experiences and quitting drugs by the time I was 14 and then not having any friends until the time I was 16,” Cornell once said. “There was about two years where I was more or less agoraphobic and didn’t deal with anybody, didn’t talk to anybody, didn’t have any friends at all.”
He would experience substance-abuse issues again later in life, but Cornell went to rehab in the early 2000s and reportedly stayed clean. His suicide, at the age of 52, “doesn’t make any sense to anyone,” says Scott Crane, an early scenester and the founder of Seattle’s 25-year-old Soundhouse studio. “It’s so out of left field that it feels like a dream.” (In a statement, Cornell’s family disputed “inferences that Chris knowingly and intentionally took his life”; the singer’s wife, Vicky, speculated that the incident may have resulted from Cornell taking too much anxiety medication.)
Crane spoke to Cornell on the phone less than two months ago and says he and the singer were reminiscing and cracking each other up. Cornell seemed optimistic, even putting a positive spin on how Seattle has gentrified in the years since his band was playing to audiences of 40 people at some dingy club.
“We talked about how you can’t recognize the Seattle skyline anymore — if it wasn’t for the Smith Tower or the Space Needle, you could be in any super-modern city,” says Crane. “The whole demographic is changed — it’s gone, it’s guys in suits. And he was trying to convince me not to be so dark and pessimistic about the world. He said, ‘I travel all around the country, and I see a lot of cities where there’s no economy, and they’re just ghost towns. So while it’s sad that what we knew as kids is gone, it’s actually really hopeful because there’s at least progress.’ ” And after all, even a seemingly flawless cityscape conceals mysteries.
This article originally appeared on Billboard.