Chris Cornell’s triumph and tragedy, five years after his death

During the encore of the Soundgarden show at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 17, 2017, Chris Cornell – in all his grunge god glory – seemed ready to rock the next stop on the tour.

But it was to prove sadly prophetic when they wove in a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” during the band’s final number, “Slaves & Bulldozers”. In a macabre twist, Cornell was pronounced dead just hours after the concert at 1:30 a.m. on May 18. His death at the age of 52 was ruled a suicide by hanging.

Five years after the “Black Hole Sun” singer’s death, fans are still trying to understand why Cornell suddenly ended up in the darkest place. Despite struggling with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as drug problems, the man with one of rock’s biggest voices – which has a four-octave range – seemed to have escaped another tragic loss of grunge.

Chris Cornell
Chris Cornell blows up during a Soundgarden show, circa early 90’s.

“His death was a complete shock,” Mark Yarm, author of Everyone Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, told The Post. “We lost out of these four main grunge bands [Nirvana’s] Kurt Cobain, we lost [Alice in Chains’] Layne Staley, and we lost Chris Cornell. Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam is the only survivor.”

“You felt like Chris had made it to the other side — he was happily married, he had a family and everything,” said Chris Celona, ​​who co-hosts the Grunge Bible podcast with Ethan Shalaway. “Because he was persistent and thrived well into his 40’s and 50’s, you felt like he was really starting the second or even third act of his career as a kind of older rock ‘n’ roll statesman.”

In fact, in a 2015 interview, Cornell said he plans to rock well into his golden years: “I would look at older blues players that just go into the ’70s. They do this until they drop dead. And I’ve always felt like I want to do that… I intend to do that forever.

Soundgarden at the 1994 Grammys
Chris Cornell and Soundgarden won two Grammys in 1994.
AFP via Getty Images

After having a bad experience smoking PCP when he was 14, Cornell suffered from major depression and panic disorder as a teenager. But music helped him emerge from his isolation, and he became a founding member of Soundgarden in 1984.

“He started out as a drummer,” says Yarm. “He sang behind the drums. But that didn’t last long because he had such natural frontman charisma.”

But behind the roaring song hid a kind, gentle soul. “I don’t think anyone can say anything bad about Chris. Really not,” said photographer Chris Cuffaro, who photographed Cornell and Soundgarden in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Chris was just the nicest guy.”

Chris Cornell in 2012
Chris Cornell performing at the 2012 Download Festival in Donington Park, England.

And even after the success of Soundgarden’s 1991 breakthrough Badmotorfinger catapulted him from Seattle grunge to rock stardom, Cornell remained a bit of a loner at heart. “He was quite reserved,” Cuffaro said. “He wasn’t outgoing.”

After Soundgarden disbanded in 1997, Cornell began taking drugs like OxyContin and drinking heavily, a vice he’s struggled with in recent years. He finally went into rehab in 2002 as the frontman of his new band Audioslave.

And when a reunited Soundgarden hit the road in 2017, Cornell’s dark days seemed far behind. “As far as the public knew, he was clean and sober,” Yarm said.

Chris Cornell in 1996
Chris Cornell performing with Soundgarden at Lollapalooza in 1996.
Getty Images

But after the concert that fateful night five years ago, Cornell called his wife Vicky, slurring words while repeating, “I’m just tired.” He also admitted to taking “an extra Ativan or two” for his anxiety before he hung up. Shortly thereafter he was found dead.

After his death, Cornell posthumously won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance (“When Bad Does Good”) in 2019, and the two youngest of his three children – Toni, now 17, and Christopher, now 16 – accepted the award at their father’s house in honor . And last month, Toni performed her dad’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U on The Late Late Show With James Corden.

Chris Cornell and Vicky Cornell
Chris Cornell with his wife Vicky Karayiannis in 2012.

Celona believes that if Cornell had lived, “we would have seen some collaborations between him and his kids, which would have been really special.”

Unfortunately, Cornell couldn’t escape the demons he sang about in songs like the Soundgarden hit “Fell on Black Days”: “Whatever I feared has come to light / And whatever I fought became my life. “

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