Songbook, by Chris Cornell

The first time I heard Chris Cornell’s voice was on an Audioslave CD my dad gave me in 2006.

I might have heard “Black Hole Sun” on the radio before that, actually. But when I was a kid, the radio didn’t play songs from specific artists – it was just a magic box that spit out music constantly. I couldn’t absorb very much from it back then, only that I loved everything I heard. So, when I have my true musical awakening – which I discussed in the Minutes to Midnight post – that signaled a shift in how I perceived music, and for the first time I could truly attach myself to individual bands and artists and declare myself a fan. And, as I said in that post, Audioslave was in the top five from the start.

The wacky guitar gimmicks. The consistency and impressive melding of the bass and drums. And that voice – wailing, screeching, threatening to tear itself apart over everything. Chris Cornell was in a bad state during the recording of Audioslave, but even in a bad state, ravaged by drinking, smoking, and whatever the fuck else Chris did in the time between Soundgarden and Audioslave, he was ethereal. Unique. A truly absurd vocal range and a sharp ear for interesting music, no amount of substance abuse could fully suppress Chris’s creativity and natural talent. And he continued to demonstrate his multi-faceted musical talent that first began to emerge at the end of Soundgarden’s first life, moving from psychadelic grunge to adapting Rage Against the Machine’s rap-rock instrumentals – without the rap, of course – to the more alternative, nuanced style of Out of Exile and Revelations, until the tensions between himself and the former components of Rage simply could not continue together.

And then it was back to an on-again, off-again solo career. 1999’s Euphoria Morning was an interesting departure for Chris, with a heavy acoustic lean that still indulged in Chris’s favorite lyrical subjects. Grunge softened, morphed and merged with a more classic kind of hard, adult rock. But his solo career, which Chris was ready and primed for, was put back on the shelf when Audioslave came calling. In 2007, with Carry On, came another kind of shift, the feeling that it was a natural evolution of Chris’s solo style, now incorporating the alternative sound he’d learned from Audioslave. And who could forget the Bond theme, probably one of the best of the modern Bond run. Another big swing at making it as a solo artist, now that two bands were in the books behind him.

I try not to think about Scream most of the time, but what it demonstrated to me was that Chris had no fear, musically. The idea of a grunge god producing an entire album with a hip-hop producer, even one as well known as Timbaland, was laughable. And the album that resulted is, kindly, a mistake. It’s a good lesson in understanding that you probably shouldn’t pursue every idea that comes into your head, particularly when it has as big a chance to fail as Scream did. But by god, he did it anyway. That’s impressive to me. And the songs, when freed of their awful, uncharacteristic production, can work quite well – listen to the “rock version” of “Long Gone,” or the acoustic version of “Ground Zero” from this very album, Songbook, and you’ll hear the strength of the lyrics and song structures. They’re just not electronic pop tracks.

It’s interesting to me that Chris couldn’t stay solo for very long at any point in his career. You’d think that a musician as independent and creative as he was – his solo albums are really strong – would be able to do just fine on his own. But maybe the shadow of Soundgarden stood too tall over him. It never seemed like people ever talked about Chris Cornell as a solo act, only in the context of being a compelling, vital frontman. Maybe he rushed too quickly into Audioslave, rendering Euphoria Morning a curiosity in his discography rather than the starting point it was intended to be. In any case, his second foray into solo work lasted about as long as the first, when Soundgarden came calling for a successful resurrection.

But even with Soundgarden back to pay the bills – or perhaps because Soundgarden was back, and, aside from a revitalized musical output for the four of them, provided steady income – Chris was allured by solo work. He did a set of solo acoustic tours, usually under the “Songbook” header, and the first tour in 2011 is where this live album came from. And I promise I’m going to get to the album. But I’ve got some stuff to say before that.

There’s no good way to shoehorn it in, but Higher Truth is where Chris should have gone directly after Carry On. It’s a quieter album than Carry On, kind of a cross between that album and Euphoria Morning, but it’s just as strong, maybe even stronger, than any solo work he’d done before. It made sense to me that he would pursue it, even with Soundgarden attempting to put together another album – Chris needed the outlet and it was worth it to put Soundgarden on hold while he finished the album.

But now, that Soundgarden album may never be finished. Chris Cornell is gone, reportedly by his own hand. The sun is dimmer today.

I don’t want to talk about any motivation, not this soon, not this early, when the report was just released a few hours ago, as of posting time. It makes me uncomfortable. I spent the entire day asking why, and I have no answers. You could look at his subject matter – Chris was fond of writing about death, dying, passing on. But I would hesitate to call that indicative of his mindset, when it’s been his bread and butter for so long. Celebrities like Chris have a different face in public, and it shouldn’t be used as a barometer of his true feelings, but he seemed so content in recent years. Soundgarden was rolling, a successful reunion that actually produced new, good music. He had the freedom to do whatever he wanted even with Soundgarden being more or less constantly active since their reunion, and he used that freedom liberally, remaining active on his own the entire time. He released a new charity single just two months ago.

When you look at it that way, it’s difficult to understand. I think we will understand, in time. But it’s unimaginably sad to me. I want to know why, now. I want to understand, now.

You look at the big four of the Seattle grunge movement – Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam – and you see that three of the four frontmen are now dead. How lonely Eddie Vedder must feel today.

Temple of the Dog reformed, a one-off tribute band brought back into the public eye, for the 25th anniversary of their only album last year. Temple of the Dog was formed by Chris to memorialize Andrew Wood, frontman of Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose. Perhaps Vedder, who only contributed a little bit to Temple of the Dog, will memorialize Chris the same way.

I only saw Chris Cornell live one time, probably at the nadir of his musical relevance (and I do mean that kindly, but sincerely), in 2008, on the Projekt Revolution tour, the co-headliner next to Linkin Park. I’ll admit that I barely remember anything about the concert – I was 15, I was there for Linkin Park, the openers were just bonuses – but it sticks with me that that was the only chance I took to see him, now more than ever. I had my other opportunities – in 2012 during the first Songbook tour, and in 2014 when Soundgarden was touring with Nine Inch Nails – and I passed on both of them. “He’ll be around again,” I said, both times. I really wanted to see a Songbook show, but I willingly said “not this time.” And now there won’t be another time.

I’m going to think about that a lot.

As much as I enjoy Chris’s solo albums, and of course his work with Soundgarden and Audioslave, there’s no album of his that I love more than the live Songbook album. It’s the greatest hits retrospective he never did – not commercially, anyway – that strips away everything and puts Chris’s voice at the forefront, his greatest creation. It reveals him as the powerful singer and deft songwriter that he always has been. You look at the track list and it’s hit after hit after hit – “Call Me a Dog,” “Can’t Change Me,” “Fell on Black Days,” “Like a Stone,” and of course “Black Hole Sun.” The deeper cuts – “I Am the Highway,” “Scar on the Sky,” “All Night Thing,” the never-professionally-recorded “Cleaning My Gun.” The two smartly-chosen covers of “Thank You” and “Imagine.” And even the new track, “The Keeper,” to close out the album. Songbook is the retrospective to listen to today, and next week, and whenever you think of Chris Cornell and you just want to hear the man belt out some tunes. I don’t think there’s a bad song on here – even the opener, curious Scream hidden track “As Hope and Promise Fade,” is still a compelling listen here.

Chris gives a bit of insight into a couple of the songs, and his mindset when writing them. “Ground Zero” is preceded by the message that anger and hatred will not fix the horrors of September 11, while Chris explains on “Can’t Change Me” that it was the last song written for the album, which to me seems like a common theme for successful lead singles. You even get a bit of humor – “Imagine” is preceded by Chris noting that it’s a “good Easter song,” playing it the day before Easter that year. Of course, the Christian-friendly line “Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.”

There will never be another Chris Cornell. A one of a kind figure, an amazing songwriter with a generational voice. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to break into the mainstream, and though Pearl Jam is the most successful and revered of them – and they, alongside Nirvana, will likely be the only two of the big four enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – Soundgarden’s place in history can never be forgotten. And though Chris’s second and third acts, with Audioslave and with his solo career, will certainly not be as fondly remembered as his work in Soundgarden, when taken as a whole, Chris has had a career stronger and more important than most in rock history, securing him in the upper echelon of rock musicians for all time.

It will take time for us to know the full extent of what happened in that hotel room in Detroit. We may never know or understand why Chris did what he did, what he was feeling that night, and in the time leading up to it. If it was depression – and Chris had talked about suffering from depression in the 1990s – then the disease has claimed another life it never deserved to take. If it was something else, perhaps we will know in time. Perhaps we will have the knowledge to understand Chris in a way that we didn’t understand him in life. Regardless, it is a massive loss, for the music community, for the world, and for the pantheon of heroes I had, as a child and as an adult.

Say hello to heaven, Chris. Blow the doors down.

100-songbook

Released November 21, 2011

1 hr, 13 min

Covers & Rare, by Audioslave

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Unofficial compilation

I’ve never really been a fan of unofficial live compilations like this one. I get the intent of them – hey, guys, look, here’s every single song your favorite band has ever played! – but their unofficial nature and the frequently awful quality of the recordings means they’re not really as worthwhile as one might think.

I don’t even remember the other tracks in this compilation – I’m fairly sure that the “Rare” half encompassed the band’s few b-sides in “We Got the Whip,” “Turn to Gold,” and the Funkadelic cover “Super Stupid,” but that’s all I can think of. Maybe some Rage tracks too. Like, Rage tracks covered by Audioslave, not just randomly thrown in there.

In any case, these two covers aren’t bad. The quality of the recordings likely plays this up more, but both feel like a grunge take on the White Stripes and Rush, with Cornell’s raspy, blown out voice complimenting the muddy, murky guitar and bass tones in these tracks. There’s not much in the way of structure changes or added flourishes – for the most part, these are straight covers, leaving little to the imagination. They were probably cool to hear in a live setting, but for a compilation like this, they’re tracks that are best listened to once and then never again.

Cochise, by Audioslave

63-cochise

Track 2 only represented

Released October 14, 2002

Overall length 16 min, 12 sec

Audioslave took their time getting their debut album ready, not letting the leaked Civilian Demos get in the way of their release schedule. The promotional cycle for Audioslave continued with the release of lead single “Cochise,” (which also served as the album’s opening track), following a Letterman performance recorded several weeks prior (but not broadcast until the album’s release). Thus, Cochise served as the first taste of Audioslave as the band intended.

“Cochise” is named after a Chiricahua Apache chief, who became well known for leading an uprising in 1861 that fought aggressively against settlers attempting to steal the tribe’s land for themselves. Cochise and his groups of fighters mainly held their own against the settlers, many of whom were also trying to handle the tensions that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Cochise had been accused of kidnapping one of the settler’s young sons, a crime that had actually been perpetrated by another Apache group unrelated to Cochise’s branch. Cochise was invited into the American settlement and ambushed with an arrest attempt, but managed to escape, though many of his family members were captured in retaliation. The conflicts continued for nearly 11 years, rendering the entire area of the conflicts uninhabitable, until a truce was finally arranged. Cochise died in 1874, completely free, one of the last chiefs of the era to do so.

“Cochise” never directly references its namesake; instead, the song’s themes of self-sacrifice to avenge and save others are inspired by the story of Cochise. The song is also known for its iconic opening riff, which Morello discovered when he was writing for Rage Against the Machine, writing on top of his guitar when it was plugged into an effect pedal, creating a distinctive chopper-like sound. The song was also well known for its music video, which featured extensive amounts of fireworks that worried local residents near where the video was filmed, as they thought they were being attacked.

The single’s b-sides feature a live performance of “Exploder” from the group’s episode of Late Show with David Letterman as well as a “real” b-side in “We Got the Whip,” previously seen on the Civilian Demo, and one of the very, very few b-sides Audioslave released in their career. The song touches on themes of slavery, with the subject praising his audience for their audacity and unwillingness to give up, but notes in the chorus that “we got the whip / we got a better bomb,” indicating ultimate superiority. For a band that tried its best not to write politically-motivated songs early in its tenure, to avoid comparisons to Rage Against the Machine, the song’s presence on Cochise sure seems like it was intentionally done to condemn American treatment of Native Americans, which was probably what Tom Morello intended when he drew an explicit line to Cochise in an interview around the time the album was released.

“We Got the Whip” doesn’t really fit on the album, but its inclusion on Cochise turned the single into a statement of its own, and a powerful introduction to the band known as Audioslave.

Civilian Demos, by Audioslave

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Unofficial/leaked release

“Released” May 16, 2002

1 hr, 2 min, 38 sec

I mentioned the Civilian Demos in my post on Audioslave, a set of demos that were in a mostly-complete state by the time they were leaked, before the band’s debut album even had a release date. Named after the band’s alleged name at the time (though Tom Morello has disputed this in interviews about the Audioslave name), the Civilian Demos gave fans a chance to hear what this mysterious new supergroup would sound like before Audioslave was released.

The band was, of course, incredibly annoyed that a set of unfinished tracks had come out before they had the chance to establish what they actually intended to sound like. It makes sense – though these demos were close to being complete, having been leaked just since months before the final album’s release, there are still a lot of differences, with almost every song having a lyric-based working title. A number of the songs use clearly incomplete vocal takes and stripped down solos, and a couple even retain Brad Wilk’s count-ins. The melodies and lyrics are there, but they’re just not the final takes.

Cornell’s voice is the biggest sufferer in these leaked tracks – he sounds like utter shit on a great number of songs, owing to a combination of no mastering, placeholder takes, and just vocal rust. “I’ll Wait There For You” features a vocal take that sounds a lot like Cornell had literally just woken up and was reading off a lyric sheet. “Shadow on the Sun” features a lot of unnecessary shouting at random points during the solo in the bridge, and Cornell’s voice is far rougher than usual all across the board.

As mentioned above, Morello’s solos are less intricate than they are on the final release, though the framework is generally the same for each one, with the notable exceptions of “Shadow on the Sun” and “Live in Silence,” which feature completely different solos. The rest of the instrumentation is almost exactly the same as the final album, only sounding a little rougher due to the lack of mastering. This makes sense, as Cornell and Morello are the clear featured players throughout the album, and their performances are the most likely to be tweaked as a result.

Two songs in this batch of demos are not present on Audioslave – “We Got the Better Bomb” and “Turn to Gold.” The former emerged as a b-side on the “Cochise” single with the final title “We Got the Whip,” while “Turn to Gold” exists only on this demo release. It’s not clear why either song was abandoned, as both of them are quality tracks, though neither one has a particularly compelling set of lyrics.

The rough nature of these demos likely didn’t inspire too much confidence in Audioslave among the fanbases of its component parts in Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden, but it is important to note that these demos were never meant to be heard at any point, and judging the final album based on these demos would have been ridiculous and unfair. These demos, at the very least, demonstrate the chemistry between Cornell and his new bandmates, something that was frequently questioned as the band began to get into gear with the approaching release of Audioslave. Even so, the leaks, combined with the myriad rumors of the band breaking up and Cornell being shipped off to rehab during the album’s recording fostered an unpleasant air around the band, and they had to endure negative publicity right out of the gate.

Speaking about the demos, Morello in particular expressed frustration and disappointment in several interviews, noting that many of the components in the songs were not final and had changed for the final album. He also implicated an intern at the recording studio they worked at (Seattle’s Bad Animal Studios) for leaking the demos, referring to him as “some jackass intern” that had stolen them and released them on his own. He also noted that the demos damaged the band’s reputation before they’d had a chance to establish it; “with a band like this, there’s a certain amount of expectation.” Nevertheless, the demos did not have a lasting effect on the band’s popularity, and Audioslave remains the band’s highest-selling album.

The Civilian Demos are exactly what they purport to be – unfinished tracks that, nonetheless, are an interesting piece of Audioslave’s history, giving insight into how their songs were constructed and composed at the time they were released. Though they were more essential back then than they are now, they remain an interesting listen for any fan of Chris Cornell, Rage Against the Machine, or Audioslave itself.

Audioslave, by Audioslave

22-audioslave

Released November 19, 2002

69 min, 26 sec

In retrospect, Audioslave was pretty much a weird intermission for both Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine – something that probably shouldn’t have happened, but happened anyway, and wasn’t really all that bad when it was happening.

Now, for the record, I love Audioslave. I still have all three albums, and I was absolutely devastated when they broke up. But I have no delusions about them – this was a band that existed for six years, was active in the public eye for only four of those years, and barely had any time to grow into their own sound before abruptly breaking up back into its component parts. That doesn’t bode well for building a legacy, and Audioslave is mostly forgotten because of it, when they’re not being mocked for existing.

Audioslave really does sound like the fifth Rage Against the Machine album featuring Chris Cornell. When your instrumentalists are all sourced from the same band that had broken up less than two years before, however, you need to be understanding and cut them some slack. Of course the addition of a new vocalist isn’t going to result in a brand new sound. It’s going to take a few years, a few albums, to find out what can be changed, to find out how to craft a sound that isn’t Soundgarden with more melody or Rage Against the Machine with less political rapping, but is uniquely Audioslave. Out of Exile came really, really damn close – Revelations was right there. But then they broke up, so all of it went out the window anyway.

That wasn’t even the first time the band faced a breakup – they briefly broke up in 2002, before their debut album was even released, because of conflicts between their management firms. That’s what happens when you unite parties from two bands that have just experienced rough breakups – the new band doesn’t do any better. They solved their problems, however, by ditching their previous management and sharing management by The Firm, solidifying them as a new entity, setting them on the path to escape the shadows of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine.

Escape isn’t easy. As I mentioned above, this album is very much covered in the characteristic heavy rock/metal sound that defined Rage Against the Machine, with Tom Morello’s iconic guitar noises that shouldn’t be possible, Tim Commerford’s equally distinctive basslines, and Brad Wilk’s thundering, unwavering drums. Chris Cornell brought his ridiculous range to the equation, consciously avoiding any sort of political themes with his lyrics, in an aggressive attempt to help the band distinguish itself, instead focusing on personal struggle as the album’s primary theme. The band didn’t even touch their collective back catalogue during the initial tours to promote Audioslave.

In another attempt to create a distinct brand for Audioslave right off the bat, the band enlisted Storm Thorgerson to design the album’s cover, and, in the process, the band’s iconic flame logo. A gigantic 3D render of the logo was digitally placed into a photograph of the volcanic island Lanzarote, part of the Canary Islands, as Thorgerson was reminded of volcanoes when listening to the band’s sound. The logo remained an integral part of the band’s graphic design up through their breakup, appearing on the cover of 2006’s Revelations as well.

There were still problems, of course. Cornell’s voice, though always having a distinctive rasp to it, sounds absolutely horrible on many of these tracks, particularly whenever he needs to hold out a particularly rough note. He noted in interviews that he’d been drinking and smoking to excess during the album’s recording, spiraling downward in his personal life. Before Out of Exile was recorded, he decided to get clean, which did wonders for his voice when it came time to lay down vocals for the next album.

As mentioned above, Morello, Commerford, and Wilk frequently demonstrated that they had no idea how to differentiate from Rage Against the Machine on many of the album’s tracks, which brought on criticism and mockery upon the album’s release. Notable exceptions to this include “Like a Stone” and “Getaway Car,” the latter of which invokes latter-era Soundgarden instead. “Like a Stone” proved to be a breakout hit, allowing the album to be quite successful despite the legion of detractors.

Even setting aside the above songs, Audioslave provided hints that the band would be able to escape the patented Rage Against the Machine sound, with slower jams like “Shadow on the Sun” blending both bands’ musical styles into something more distinct. Indeed, the band really shone in the slower tracks on Audioslave, even when they sounded like Rage slowed down. The songs show a promise, a promise to expand and change into something new, which they would deliver on with Out of Exile in 2005.

Audioslave‘s legacy mainly lives on through Chris Cornell, who frequently drew from the album (as well as Out of Exile and Revelations) during his solo tours in 2008 and 2011, following the band’s breakup. Particular staples include “Like a Stone” and “I Am the Highway,” which are more suited to Cornell’s acoustic shows than most other Audioslave tracks. Rage Against the Machine has not touched Audioslave’s catalogue following their 2007 reunion; Soundgarden similarly avoided covering the band upon their 2010 reunion. Even Tom Morello ignores Audioslave in his solo shows, though this is more to do with Morello’s political themes in his own music instead of any sort of grudge against the band.

Audioslave, standing on its own, is a perfectly serviceable rock album, an intriguing project uniting musicians that one wouldn’t think would ever cross paths otherwise.

In the greater context of Audioslave, the band, it is a starting point and an essential stepping stone to the greatness that Out of Exile would bring.

In the careers of its members, particularly Morello and Cornell, it is a footnote. An interesting one, one that would be a major player in my own musical education, but a footnote nonetheless.

A couple of miscellaneous notes:

– “Give” is sourced from a bonus website that was only accessible by inserting the Audioslave CD into a computer and opening it, presenting a link to the song and a few other bonuses, such as interviews and photos.  This is a product of the CD being an “Enhanced CD,” a selling point that first came around in the 1990s as the Internet picked up steam, where bands would include multimedia elements on their CDs to entice people into buying the actual CDs, instead of merely pirating the albums.  Did it work?  No.  But it provided some cool bonus things for a while in the 2000s.

– Audioslave was also one of fifteen albums used to test the viability of the DualDisc format, released on that format only in the test markets of Boston and Seattle, presumably featuring much of the same content as the Enhanced CD, as well as the entire album in audiophile-quality 20bit 48 kHz audio.  The resulting sales figures were evidently promising, as the DualDisc format officially rolled out about a year or so later.  However, it had all but fizzled out by around 2007, and we obviously don’t see DualDiscs around any more.  I myself have three DualDisc albums, and all three of them are awesome.  Yes, it’s an incredibly gimmicky format, but if it sells (even for just a year or so), it sells.

– The screenshot says 2003 because “Give” erroneously had that listed as the year in my library; I fixed it after taking the screenshot, but I didn’t feel like redoing the screenshot once I noticed it.