Chris Cornell was undeniable. People who don’t like rock music know and love his voice. He slid between subgenres of rock music without ever compromising his instrument, a voice that had clean, clear power despite sounding like it was squeezed through a burning place before coming through our speakers. If you tried to imitate Cornell’s voice, you did it by singing in a way that hurt you. But it didn’t hurt him. That’s a small miracle.
I was seven when “Black Hole Sun” first came on the radio and on MTV, and it was the first contemporary rock earworm that infected me. While the chorus and the outro are probably responsible for making the song a hit, I love the verses, and how Cornell’s voice and Kim Thayil’s lead guitar are sharing the same simple scale. Even as recently as a week ago, I’d get it stuck in my head, and make up words to fill in for the parts I don’t remember: In my eyes / Indisposed / Wearing clothes that know one knows / etc. Words aren’t important for songs that you loved pre-Internet. I’ll never look up the lyrics. The ones I’ve been making up in my head with Chris Cornell for the past 23 years are all I need.
He also wrote and performed the best Bond theme, “You Know My Name,” for Casino Royale in 2006. This song had a huge challenge set ahead of it. Not only did it have to do all the usual work of a Bond theme—explicating some of the plot and theme of the movie it’s introducing, getting us hyped for the story head, and raising the stakes before the hero meets his villain—it also had the task of rebooting the series with a decidedly darker, more emotionally fraught tone:
Arm yourself because no one else here will save you
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you
Are you willing to die?
This song tells you that James Bond isn’t a hero anymore. He’s damaged goods. He’s an anti-hero. The song could literally be slotted into the title sequence of any of the gritty, anti-hero-driven miniseries or television shows that define the contemporaneous “golden age” of television and it would still make sense. “You Know My Name” describes Tony Soprano, Walter White, Jon Snow, Don Draper, and James Bond.
But at the same time, through the visuals of the title sequence, and the lush orchestration from David Arnold, it’s quintessentially a Bond theme. The Skyfall theme is somehow simultaneously too specific and too vague; the Quantum of Solace theme is the only part of the film more forgettable than the film itself; and the truly beautiful theme from Spectre has such a different set of goals – trying to tastefully leave room for the end of the Daniel Craig era of Bond films – that it’s really in a separate category. But as a warning shot, as a statement of purpose on what Bond has come to mean for audiences over the past eleven years, “You Know My Name” rewrote the rule book, and raised the bar. It’s in a very small group of songs that are worth listening to completely divorced from the context of their attendant Bond film, along with Duran Duran’s “A View to Kill” and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall.”
And honestly, just listen to that chorus again. The line, “You can’t deny the prize / It may never fulfill you” is masterfully performed. I think about that lyric regularly, when I’m not rewriting Soundgarden ones.
To get this far and not mention Audioslave is a disservice to their legitimately enduring contribution to rock and alternative music, but it would be hard to do justice to all the phases of Chris Cornell’s career in this space. Because I was too young when Soundgarden blew up, Audioslave was where I really cut my teeth on the Cornell sound. And like Andy Greenwald of The Ringer, I will ride to my dying day for “Like a Stone,” and a bunch of other tracks from that eponymous debut album. Pitchfork types would (and did) dismiss that album as what we now call dad rock, but I loved the album in high school and will love it after I become a dad rock kind of dad, too. It’s hard to perform muscular rock music that is, on its face, deeply emotional, and Audioslave made it look easy.
Obviously there were some unknown and unknowable hurts inside Cornell that aren’t my business. Depression and anxiety are widespread, and we’re still struggling with the stigma of discussing these and other mental illnesses as a society. We’ll get there. And hopefully, whoever the Chris Cornell of the future is will have an easier time carrying the burdens of her private and public lives, and her art.
But I feel lucky. The Chris Cornell of my generation was Chris Cornell. Small miracle.