Chris Cornell, frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave — and a pillar of the grunge-rock movement — has died unexpectedly at 52, reports the Associated Press. The musician was found dead at the MGM Grand Detroit Hotel on Wednesday night, following a Soundgarden concert earlier that night. A medical examiner determined that Cornell killed himself by hanging; a full autopsy has yet to be completed as of Thursday afternoon.
Along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden was instrumental in shaping the Seattle rock movement that would come to be known as grunge in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Co-founded by singer and rhythm guitarist Cornell, who was born in Seattle, Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign to a major label, A&M Records — a move that some grunge purists looked at askance, but that also helped facilitate the group’s ascension to the rock mainstream.
The apex of that mainstream success was 1994’s Superunknown, an album that “both redefined and transcended grunge.” The group’s fourth album, Superunknown propelled Soundgarden to enormous commercial success, on the back of No. 1 singles like “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” which dominated modern-rock radio and earned the band two Grammys.
Part of what made Soundgarden stand out amid the era’s swelling grunge-rock hordes was Cornell’s voice, an extraordinarily powerful instrument with a four-octave range — he could pivot between a crystal-clear wail and a gritty rumble seemingly in the same syllable. Listening to the isolated vocals of “Black Hole Sun,” it’s easier to appreciate the astounding dynamism and control Cornell brought to a genre that was rarely associated with pristine vocals:
Soundgarden disbanded in 1997 but reunited in 2010 and has been playing shows regularly since then, including the concert the night of Cornell’s death (where Cornell’s voice was reportedly still on fine display). In the interim, Cornell formed Audioslave in 2001 alongside members of Rage Against the Machine, after that band’s frontman, Zack de la Rocha, departed the group. Audioslave’s first release, the self-titled 2002 album, went triple platinum in the US and was succeeded by two follow-ups, Out of Exile and Revelations, before the band broke up in 2007.
Cornell released several solo albums following the dissolution of Audioslave, to varying degrees of success. (2009’s Scream, produced by Timbaland, was a particularly notorious flop — Trent Reznor famously called it embarrassing, provoking a feud between the two frontmen — but even the critics savaging it usually had a kind word for Cornell’s vocals.) His last full album was 2015’s generally well-received Higher Truth, which found the singer living comfortably in the territory he’d staked out in recent years: stripped-down, intimately arranged acoustic rock that allowed his vocals to take center stage.
But Cornell’s solo career never consistently hit the commercial or critical highs of his work with Soundgarden and Audioslave, which is perhaps why the singer kept returning to the rock band model via other projects. In addition to reforming Soundgarden, Cornell reunited with Audioslave earlier this year at the Trump-protesting Anti-Inaugural Ball, the band’s first performance in more than a decade.
Cornell famously struggled with both drug abuse and alcoholism throughout his career; he claimed in 1994 to have been a daily drug user by age 13, and reportedly sobered up and relapsed multiple times over the years. In 2009, he dryly described himself as a “pioneer” of OxyContin, an addiction to which nearly torpedoed his life and career until he went to rehab in 2002. He had reportedly remained sober from then until his death.
While the details of Cornell’s death are still coming to light, the music world is loudly mourning a man, and a voice, who helped redefine modern rock music. Despite a restless career and personal life, Cornell was a near-constant, almost comforting presence in the rock scene, consistently bouncing back and releasing new music and performing live — literally up until the night he died.
RIP Chris Cornell— Jimmy Page (@JimmyPage) May 18, 2017
Incredibly Missed. pic.twitter.com/pKNI4tKiXz
Chris Cornell. Damn. Was legit just playing "Outshined" yesterday. Such a loss.— St. Vincent (@st_vincent) May 18, 2017
Chris Cornell? Doesn't even seem possible. What an incredible talent. Me and teenage me are both heartbroken.— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) May 18, 2017