The singer who blew up the 1990s grunge era with his window-rattling howls and screams, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died Wednesday night at age 52, just four nights after performing for thousands of Twin Cities fans at a festival in western Wisconsin.
Cornell’s body was found in a hotel room after a concert in Detroit, where a medical examiner later determined the singer died by hanging himself. Two Detroit newspapers had earlier cited a police spokesman who said Cornell was found with “a band around his neck.”
Also known from the bands Temple of the Dog and Audioslave as well as six solo albums, the Seattle native coined the term “I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota” in the Soundgarden song “Outshined,” which provided the title for the locally filmed 1996 movie “Feeling Minnesota” with Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz.
Minnesota fans saw Cornell perform just last Saturday at Somerset Amphitheater in Somerset, Wis., where Soundgarden headlined the first day of the third annual Northern Invasion festival. Reports from the show had him in strong voice and looking upbeat as his band stormed through a 14-song set that included such rock-radio classics as “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun” and “Rusty Cage.”
Detroit police spokesman Michael Woody told the Associated Press that Cornell’s wife had called a family friend and asked him to check on Cornell; the friend forced open a hotel room door the MGM Grand Detroit hotel and found the singer on the bathroom floor.
Soundgarden put on a full-blast show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, according to music critic Gary Graff, who wrote in Billboard that “at no point in Wednesday’s concert could anyone have guessed that [Cornell] would be dead just a few hours later.”
Before the show, Cornell posted “Finally back in Detroit” on his Twitter account along with a photo of the Fox’s marquee. On Sunday, he tweeted Mother’s Day well-wishes to both his mom and his wife, Vicky. He leaves behind three children, ages 11 to 16.
In addition to his music, the singer became involved in philanthropy and started the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation to support children facing challenges, including homelessness, poverty, abuse and neglect.
With his powerful, nearly four-octave vocal range, Cornell became one of the leading voices of the grunge movement with Soundgarden in Seattle, which also birthed the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains in the late-’80s and early-’90s.
Formed in 1984 by Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto, Soundgarden first broke through to mainstream success in 1991 with its third studio album, “Badmotorfinger,” featuring the rock-radio staples “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage,” the latter of which was famously re-recorded by Johnny Cash. Soundgarden got even bigger in 1994 with the next record, “Superunknown,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and included the hits singles “Spoonman,” “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun.”
Cornell also collaborated with members of what would become Pearl Jam to form Temple of the Dog, which produced a self-titled album in 1991 in tribute to late friend Andrew Wood, frontman of Mother Love Bone. The all-star band played a short reunion tour last fall and hinted at working together again.
From the get-go, Soundgarden regularly rolled into Minneapolis on tour, including a now-legendary two-night stand inside 7th Street Entry in 1989 and subsequent opening gigs for bands like Voivod and Danzig in the First Avenue main room. The quartet’s last appearance at First Ave was a surprise gig supporting Rock for Choice in January 1992, when the band also played across the street at Target Center two nights opening for Guns N’ Roses.
Soundgarden disbanded in 1997 due to tensions in the group, and Cornell pursued a solo career. In 2001, he joined Audioslave, a supergroup that included three of former members of Rage Against the Machine. Audioslave released three albums in six years but never garnered as high a reputation as Cornell’s first band.
Last weekend’s Somerset gig was only Soundgarden’s second show in the area since ending its 13-year hiatus. Cornell played the Twin Cities often in the interim, though, including a two-night stand in 2003 with Audioslave at First Ave and numerous solo shows at the Pantages and State theaters.
During an acoustic set at the State in 2015, he humorously recounted the origins of the “feeling Minnesota” lyric. It came to him one day while wearing shorts in Los Angeles — “and I’m so skinny, I look ridiculous in shorts,” he said.
“I thought it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever written, but I left it in,” he admitted. “And then it wound up being a movie title and everything.”
In a 2013 interview with the Star Tribune, Cornell candidly discussed the likelihood that — like Robert Plant and other famous rock shriekers before him — he might not be able to hit many of the window-rattling high notes of his youth as he got older.
“Clearly, I’m not going to be able to sing this way forever,” he said. “I think people get too hung up on singers and their range, sort of like they’d expect Michael Jordan to get out on a basketball court and play like he once did. It’s physically impossible.”
That rare bit of humility didn’t last long, though: “I’ll probably never retire. I’ll just adapt, and do what I have to do to keep the music interesting.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658