Chris Cornell's Voice Will Live On

The Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman, dead at age 52, helped give grunge its soul

Chris Cornell's otherworldly voice, endlessly versatile and deep, could fill arenas, as it did in Detroit Wednesday during his last night on Earth.

Yet whether performing before throngs or recording in the studio, Cornell gave fans an intensely intimate, indelible experience: Sometimes it felt like he was singing to an audience of one.

Millions awoke Thursday to the tragic news of the Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman's death at the age of 52 – a stunner that belied his run as a musical force who helped give grunge its soul. His death reportedly was being investigated as possible suicide. 

With Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Cornell formed an unofficial troika of early 1990s Seattle-based rock anti-heroes – all fiercely defiant and independent, yet rooted in influences from blues to pop. Each came armed with a distinct voice that found new ways to pierce the emotional armor of the young and jaded.

Cornell, in three decades as a songwriter and performer, never matched Cobain's flash of tormented brilliance or Vedder's stellar and durable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career. Yet Cornell’s voice rings in class all its own, thanks to his ability to shift tone while always building toward a new level of intensity.

Take Soundgarden's "Fell on Black Days," which seamlessly travels from subtly melodic beginnings to its explosive peak, and back again, with a guitar line to match the seamless changes in mood and mania.

On Audioslave's "Show Me How to Live," Cornell channeled his inner Robert Plant while imbuing the rocker with a growl all his own, growing to a tightly controlled scream that conveyed urgent desperation to the final, chilling cry.

Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" offered a rock-and-roll rarity: a seminal, breakout hit that's only worn better over the last 23 years. It offers the full Cornell vocal experience, a mix of darkness and light cloaked in pop.

The song also serves as a fitting legacy for a sometimes under-appreciated rocker whose often-bleak lyrics chronicled a life that would end too soon, leaving a chasm that not even his voice can quite fill.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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