This cover story by Jonathan Gold first appeared as in the December 1996 issue of Details, photographed by Albert Watson.
On a soundstage done up to resemble a demented interrogation chamber, Chris Cornell is shackled to a perforated metal dentist’s chair of a sort you imagine Trent Reznor has stored in his garage somewhere. Frances Farmer-grade Velcro restraints bind his wrists to a dull gunmetal crossbar that projects from the chair’s back; his temples sprout shiny plastic things that are supposed to be electrodes, but which more closely resemble bubble-packed Drixoral tablets with wires coming out of them. His baggy sharkskin suit is puckered with exertion and sweat.
On Stage 2 of L.A.’s Occidental Studios, the new Soundgarden video is being filmed. Jerry Casale, who used to play bass in Devo but specializes now in directing apocalyptic videos for guitar bands, gestures toward a P.A., who begins to wrap a thick leather strap around Cornell’s forehead, immobilizing the singer in a position halfway between Malcolm McDowell’s posture of repentance in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and Cornell’s own patented Jesus Christ pose.
The video is for Soundgarden’s Beatles-tinged agony epic, “Blow Up the Outside World,” and Casale intends to blow up as much of it as possible on this soundstage. Beavis and Butt-head are going to like this one.
“Is it too warm for you in here?” a gofer asks Cornell. “Would you like a drink of water? Can I get you some cookies to munch on while they set up the shot?”
“Is there going to be a grip nearby?” Cornell cracks, avoiding her eyes to the extent that it is possible for him to do anything at all in three hundred pounds of bondage gear. “I mean, in case I need somebody to scratch my nose.”
The P.A. cinches the strap tight across Cornell’s scalp. He shudders with pain.
“When I give the signal, could you twitch a little?” asks Casale. “To make it look as if you’re really being shocked.”
Cornell strains to flip Casale the finger, but the restraints on his wrists limit his gesture to a mile spasm.
“Hmmmmm,” Casale says. “Perfect.”
If you were Chris Cornell, you would have two Grammys, six albums (seven, if you count Temple of the Dog), and three Pomeranians. Posters of your bare chest would be on the walls of teenagers all over the world. You would spend your mornings wake-surfing near your cabin on Puget Sound; your afternoons snowboarding in the Cascades. Your last album would have sold over five million copies in the United States; your current one, the splendid if art-damaged heavy-rock opus Down on the Upside, would already have sold two million in six months. With Aerosmith imploding, Pearl Jam threatened by willful obscurity, and Metallica slumping into boogie-band senescence, you would be the lead singer and principal songwriter of what is poised to be the Greatest Hard Rock Band in the World.
And sometimes—for days, maybe weeks on end—you would be afraid to leave your house.
It’s not that Cornell has been necessarily wounded by fame or anything—he’s not pulling a Billy Corgan. It’s just that he’s much more comfortable at home with his guitar than he is out in the world. He rarely enters the Seattle scene: When I mention Linda’s, the bar that used to function as the Elaine’s of Seattle rockdom, he has trouble placing the name. On the infrequent occasions he does go out to dinner, it is often as the plus-one of his wife of six years, Susan Silver, who manages Soundgarden as well as Crackerbox, Sweetwater, Sponge, and Alice in Chains. (He has been with Silver, who was his first real girlfriend, since 1984; they occasionally seem like separate parts of the same superorganism.) Random Cornell sightings in the Northwest are almost as rare as sightings of Bigfoot.
You’ll never read about Cornell in a gossip column. Until now, he’s never agreed to be the subject of a major magazine feature by himself, has never had his adolescent traumas limned by the teen magazines or been psychoanalyzed by the slicks. Though he’s probably granted more than a thousand interviews, his prejudices, neuroses, his views on music are less known than those of less accomplished guys—Scott Weiland or Layne Staley, say, or even Eddie Vedder, who technically doesn’t do interviews at all.
This low media profile is partially due to the fact that Cornell has always wanted Soundgarden to be seen as a band, and partially because guitarist Kim Thayil is so garrulous and opinionated that it’s easy to let him do the press work. (When I was supposed to interview Cornell for Doug Pray’s Seattle-scene documentary Hype! a couple of years ago, he slipped out of the building while the camera crew was still setting up its lights, so that Kim and the drummer Matt Cameron ended up being the only band members talking about Soundgarden in the film.) But it’s also because Chris is so obviously less himself when he’s talking than he is when he’s shut in some room of his own devising, a thousand miles wide. Although in person he’s rarely less than charming, to strangers Cornell can be so shy, so scant of words, that he can seem practically autistic.
I have never seen him smile more broadly than the moment he was told that an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics described happiness as a psychiatric disorder.
Cigarettes help. So do a couple of cranberry and vodkas on the terrace of his hotel room late at night, high above the Sunset Strip, and a view that stretches for miles.
“I’m lucky I get to go out and sing,” Chris says, fumbling for a cigarette lighter, “because when I’m at home, I don’t talk to anyone; I don’t go out socially. My one outlet is that I get to stand in front of five thousand people and sing ‘Outshined.’ When I’m alone between tours, writing songs, I might not speak a word to another human being for a week or two or three.”
Chris gives up on the cigarette lighter and begins toying with the leaves on a ficus.
“People just don’t realize how much fun it is to be depressed,” he says with a grin—this from the man whose moods may have had as much historical impact on the gloominess of Northwest rock as the surfeit of negative ions in the air.
Once, Chris Cornell was a fairly normal kid in a working class Seattle neighborhood, with decent grades in Catholic school, the usual number of friends, five brothers and sisters, piano lessons, then a drum set. The year his parents split up, the year he turned fifteen, Chris dropped out of school and went to work—”already a blue-collar laborer,” as he puts it—as a cook in one of Seattle’s most famous fish restaurants.
Sometimes he would perform experiments on his coworkers: surreptitiously turning off the radio, fading it out between Bad Company songs, timing how long it took for the other cooks to become agitated. Or, when he noticed that all his colleagues were eating breakfast at the end of the restaurant, he would sit alone at the other. Then he would wait to see how long it would take for them—one by one, day by day—to drift over to his side, at which point he would switch ends again. And once, when he was the head line cook, Chris stopped talking altogether. For two months. It drove his coworkers to distraction. That one almost got him fired.
Chris liked that job. It almost didn’t depend on people skills. And he had his music. “A lot of the people in bands looked at me as a whippersnapper greenhorn for working in a restaurant,” he says, “but these same guys couldn’t afford a pack of smokes. They lived like transients in stairwells and garages, and to make money they’d play Billy Idol songs in some new-wave bar for twenty-five bucks a night.”
In 1984, when he was twenty, music became pretty much a full-time job. By then, he’d hooked up with a bass player named Hiro Yamamoto, who introduced him to guitarist Kim Thayil. The three hit it off pretty well, wrote fifteen songs together in a couple of weeks, songs not unlike a couple of the ones that current bass player Ben Shepherd wrote for Down on the Upside. Chris played drums and sang.
One day, Soundgarden were learning a new song Hiro had written, sort of an angry song with a lot of screaming in it. Chris started to scream the chorus piercingly high, the way Hiro had shown him, but something funny happened. Instead of his voice breaking up, he hit the note. Over the next few weeks, Chris explored the upper register he hadn’t known he had—a superb natural instrument, with a power, an expressive, open-throated grace at the top of its range: the pipes of Robert Plant, maybe, or even Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was like waking up and discovering not only that the old fiddle you had been using to play “Turkey in the Straw” was a Stradivarius, but that you knew how to play Brahms. Chris gave up drums soon after that.
The first time I saw Chris Cornell onstage was about ten years ago at a dingy East Hollywood punk-rock dive called the Anticlub. The twenty-five or forty kids watching him were probably there to see an L.A. punk band like Saccharine Trust or somebody. Soundgarden weren’t particularly loud, but seemed huge somehow—mountain-sized. The crowd clumped around the perimeter of what was usually the slam pit. They didn’t dance. They didn’t sway. They just stared at Chris as if he were a train wreck, not some shirtless guy singing about the flower, the snake, and the wheel.
The next time I ran into him, backstage at another Hollywood club a couple of years later, amber light seemed to ooze from his face and bare shoulders as he squeezed by in the dark hall, and a dozen conversations stopped short until he found the door to a dressing room and slipped inside.
“What was that?” I asked a friend who had done some of the band’s early promotion.
“That was just Chris,” I was told. “Sometimes he affects people that way.”
“Chris is especially sexual onstage,” Thayil once told me, trying to explain Cornell’s dark-star charisma, “but after the show he’s unavailable. He doesn’t belong to you.”
“Every time I know we have to go out on tour, there’s about three or four weeks where I’m terrified—where I start thinking: That’s not me. I’m not Freddie Mercury. Then I go out onstage and it’s like diving into the cold Puget Sound after spending five weeks in Hawaii—there’s a shock to the system, but the fear goes away.”Chris Cornell
Jimi Hendrix had his mojo. Chris Cornell has his hair. It used to be the best in rock—a thick, healthy, jet-black mass that seemed to begin somewhere in the middle of his forehead and cascade for half a mile over his face and nearly to the floor when he lunged forward with his microphone stand, whipping back over his bare shoulders when he straightened up again. Its kinetic energy, as captured in stop motion by Sub Pop’s house photographer Charles Peterson, was for a long time practically the trademark of the new Seattle rock, a wave of purest motion that announced the scene’s distance from the bulging-eyed, bald-guy conventions of traditional punk rock before you’d so much as heard a note.
Like Soundgarden’s heavy, riff-laden tuneage, the hair was a wink at the testosterone-soaked conventions of ‘70s rock—simultaneously mocking heavy metal while being more or less heavy metal itself. Like Soundgarden’s music, the hair, at least on Chris, seemed young and powerful and somehow angelic, and just kind of totally rocked.
The photo of Chris, or rather of Chris and his hair, ended up on the cover of Soundgarden’s Screaming Life EP, which was the first important relic both of Sub Pop and what became known as the Seattle sound. Chris and his hair were part of the package Sub Pop used to sell Seattle to the world—the sizzle that sold the steak.
“The rest of the band,” Cornell says, “thought it was silly of the press to concentrate on the beefcake when I was writing songs, singing, and playing guitar for the band. Even now, some people will stick a paragraph about my hair in the body of a review.”
Cornell flicks his head, which is now crowned with a black, curly, thickety sort of buzz cut that looks a little bit like Marcel-processed African-American hair. “A certain scenario kept repeating itself. The people from the magazines would take two or three shots of the band. They’d start to pack up. And then they’d sort of take me off into a corner by myself. After about the thirtieth time that a photographer asked me to take my shirt off, I started to get the picture.”
Then, in ‘93, when the whole world began to smell like teen spirit, Chris went bald.
“Susan was really busy with one of her bands,” Chris says, “and there was about a month where I never left the house. I didn’t go out in public; I didn’t talk to anyone on the phone—I went a little psycho. If I hadn’t been alone so long, I would not have gone as far as I actually went. But one day, I went from wondering what I would look like with a shaved head to ‘That’s pretty cool.’ Then I put my hair in a big envelope and mailed it off to my wife.
“The funny thing was, I did this really silly, personal thing for no reason, and then all of a sudden it was on MTV News and in Newsweek, and I still hadn’t left the house. I thought it was strange, because I don’t know how anyone found out about my hair, and I don’t know why they cared.”
It’s Cornell’s second night in L.A. He’s been trussed up all day for the video, and now he’s agreed to try on clothes for his impending tour, so we’re at the house of Henry Duarte, a leather designer who has dressed, among many others, Aerosmith, Page and Plant, and Tori Amos. Duarte lives in a spooky old Spanish house above Sunset Plaza, and tonight the air is thick with incense; the living room is littered with Gothic armchairs, Indonesian dolls and screens. The tabletops drip swatches of buttery leathers and rich silks; the armchairs groan under their load of skinny suits and Jim Morrison pants and jackets, designed to telegraph a slice of bare chest out to the forty-seventh row of the balcony.
Proto-grunge diva Natasha and bandmate Alain from Eleven wander in, Natasha in the kind of tight plaid suit Pat Buckley might have worn to La Côte Basque in 1964. Alain sits down and whips through the gigue of a Bach lute suite on a classical guitar. Duarte’s angelic two-year-old drifts down the stairs followed by his mother, and together they regard a toy dump truck with the Zen-like detachment of the old guy on the Nissan commercials. Susan Silver and Jim Guerinot, who between them probably manage a third of the bands on modern-rock playlists nationwide, sip mineral water. I feel as if I’m at the crossroads of all things rock.
And in the middle of the living room, oblivious to the tumult around him, Chris drops his pants again and again, flying in and out of his trousers and shirts, calculating the jut of his hips and the thrust of his legs, feeling the weight of the fabric, luxuriating in the cool smoothness of leather against his bare chest, imagining five thousand people listening to “Outshined,” tuned to him, his voice, his clothes. I look at him and think that this is someone who is almost biomechanically engineered to be a rock star.
It is 2:30 A.M., room service has yet to arrive, and Chris is back on the hotel balcony, still worrying the ficus. The day after next, he’ll be in London, filming MTV specials, dodging the nosy questions of dozens of journalists who still want to know what he thinks about Kurt Cobain.
“Every time I know we have to go out on tour, there’s about three or four weeks where I’m terrified—where I start thinking: That’s not me. I’m not Freddie Mercury. Then I go out onstage and it’s like diving into the cold Puget Sound after spending five weeks in Hawaii—there’s a shock to the system, but the fear goes away. You get used to it, which is pretty cool, because if I stopped performing, I could just disappear and end up being some weird chattering man that walks the streets in rags, staring only at the pavement.
“Reclusivity can become self-perpetuating,” he goes on. “At first you rationalize that going to a club where people recognize you is a bad idea; then going to a neighborhood bar becomes a bad idea, too. Going to the grocery store becomes a bad idea. Answering the phone becomes a bad idea. Then every time the dog barks, you think the National Guard is on your roof ready to drill holes in the shingles and shoot at you. So I have to deal with the outside world on sort of a maintenance level—go out to a bar every so often and just be around people.”
If you were a therapist, you might describe Chris’s behavior as severely antisocial. Then again, Axl Rose pushes pianos out of windows. A proper rock star is supposed to rub against societal niceties—supposed to do whatever it takes to make your parents uncomfortable. In 1961, it was enough that the Beatles had longish hair. In 1969, it was Jim Morrison whipping his dick out onstage; in 1977, Johnny Rotten hawking mucus into the audience. In these days of Oprah and Bill Clinton wanting to feel your pain, emphatic unreachable unhappiness may be the most hostile and provocative response to the mainstream. And who better than Chris Cornell to be the spokesmodel for the post-Ritalin, pre-Prozac generation, who just don’t want to talk about it.
“Is intimacy an issue in your marriage?” I ask, immediately feeling that it is none of my business.
Chris stares hard into the West Hollywood night, picking up the skittering, silent light of an ambulance far below on the plain, following the arc of a helicopter headed downtown.
“Susan gives me a huge amount of room to be that recluse,” he says, “and also the incentive to not be. It’s worth a lot to see her be excited about being around someone who’s not afraid of his shadow. It’s good for her. She digs it. But we’re becoming more alike. When she comes home to me from a day at the office, where she’s talking to people from all over the world about all sorts of important things . . . well, I probably haven’t answered the phone in seventy-two hours. She knows that when she comes home she’s going to get privacy, because I’m not like ‘These are my South American friends and . . . honey, have you ever really listened to that first Van Halen album?’ She’s the best roommate I’ve ever had.”
At that moment Susan comes out to tell Chris the room service has arrived. Her hand lies on his wrist as if it had been there always.
“People are sort of perplexed,” Chris says, “as to how this could possibly work in this grunge-music, super-druggy era where everybody is so emotionally screwed up. Not only is Soundgarden not OD’ing on heroin, but the singer’s wife manages the band, there’s no weird Yoko Ono trip, and she’s not trying to make us dress up like lions and unicorns.”
Silver shrugs. “We really get along,” she says. “I’m sorry—I know it would be a better story if I were more like Courtney Love, but that’s not what I do.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a person as private as Cornell doesn’t want to talk about songs he writes. Part of his refusal makes sense—what part of “get on the snake” is it that you don’t understand?
The other part is predictable self-defense. “When you write your own lyrics,” Chris says, “you tend to be overanalytical. One second everything you do is brilliant, and the next, everything is garbage, and I want to be able to express personal things without being made to feel stupid.
“One of the first times I remember writing something personal was on tour. I was feeling really freaky and down, and I looked in the mirror and I was wearing a red T-shirt and some baggy tennis shorts. I remember thinking that as bummed as I felt, I looked like some beach kid. And then I came up with that line—’I’m looking California / And feeling Minnesota,’ from the song ‘Outshined’—and as soon as I wrote it down, I thought it was the dumbest thing. But after the record came out and we went on tour, everybody would be screaming along with that particular line when it came up in the song. The was a shock. How could anyone know that that was one of the most personally specific things I had ever written? It was just a tiny line. But somehow, maybe because it was personal, it just pushed that button.”
An hour before Soundgarden is supposed to fly to London for the beginning of a six-month tour, Chris Cornell is standing on a mussel-encrusted rock at the end of a jetty protruding into Santa Monica Bay. The air is alive with the stink of rotting kelp, and Chris is staring manfully at the skyscrapers of downtown Santa Monica in the distance. He seems like the only man in the world.
About five or six feet away, a photographer, makeup artist, stylist, and a couple of photo assistants are working furiously to make him look even more craggy, brooding, and alone than he already does. The camera crew maneuver around a couple of Mexican dudes surf-casting for croaker, struggling to keep the expensive photo equipment above the surging tide. A woman, incongruously shod in platform heels, almost loses her balance between the biting sand flies and the slippery rocks; an assistant shoos spectators from the jetty.
Breakers, two to three feet high, churn around Chris’s ankles, crush his black boots with salt water, drench his form-fitting trousers, dampen his coat with spray. It must be slippery where he’s standing. But he barely moves, doing his part for the perfect shot—the one of the reluctant rock star, the guy who doesn’t need your or anyone’s attention, the guy who’s never tried to be famous, or ever really wanted to pose for a picture. The guy who just wants to be by himself. Cut off on one side by the image makers, on the other by the vastness of the sea, for the first time this week Chris seems free, alone, alive.
Jonathan Gold is now the Pulitzer Prize winning restaurant critic for the LA Times.