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Why Gen X - and rockers everywhere - are mourning Chris Cornell

Here's Chris Cornell's last performance of 'Black Hole Sun' before his death

Instagram user Megan Rebecca shared clips and images of Chris Cornell's final performance with Soundgarden at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 17. This clip shows his performance of the band’s hit "Black Hole Sun."
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Instagram user Megan Rebecca shared clips and images of Chris Cornell's final performance with Soundgarden at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 17. This clip shows his performance of the band’s hit "Black Hole Sun."

For those who came of age in the 1990s, and boxed in the “Generation X” demographic, the death of Chris Cornell marked another tragic end to its musical icons. Cornell, 52, was found dead following a concert in Detroit on Wednesday night. The death has been ruled as a suicide.

It’s a sadly familiar chapter for those who grew up listening to Cornell, the full-throttled vocalist for Soundgarden and later with Audioslave. One of Cornell’s peers, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, ended his life in 1994. Layne Staley, the singer for Alice in Chains, another Seattle-based band which defined the brooding yet bombastic “grunge” sound of the 1990s, died of a drug overdose in 2002.

Cornell’s death stings for those who spun such platinum-selling Soundgarden albums as “Badmotorfinger” and “Superunknown” as the 1990s rolled along, and beyond. He’s remembered as one of rock music’s great vocalists and an architect for a sound that helped define a decade.

In the wake of Cornell’s death, social media feeds have been flooded with links to Soundgarden songs and notes of remembrance. Elton John and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin are among those who sent tweets in remembrance of Cornell.

Now, it’s time to crank “Rusty Cage” and remember the great Soundgarden singer. Here are a five reasons why Cornell meant so much to the hard rock community:

1. His voice: The term “voice of a generation” was tossed about in the 1990s quite a bit, whether it was Kurt Coban of Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins’ Bill Corgan articulating the angst and daydreams of those coming of age during the Gulf War and recession of the 1990s. But in terms of actual vocal ability, nobody quite matched Cornell. His four-octave vocals were built for brooding in the baritone range, and also capable of full blown falsettos when the music got especially intense. And for a guy who could shriek with the best of them, Cornell’s vocals remained fairly well preserved over the years, and still hitting the high notes like the glory days of grunge.

2. Soundgarden’s influence: Soundgarden and its bulldozer of a sound were crucial in paving the way for the so-called “Seattle sound” to break in the mainstream. Soundgarden were the first of the “grunge” bands to sign with a major label, via “Louder Than Love” on A&M Records. While the album wasn’t an out-of-the gate hit, Soundgarden’s promise and growing fan base was a key part of the rush that led to bands including Nirvana and Pearl Jam to later ink their own major-label deals.

3. His classic rock star looks: A preoccupation with image was often scorned in the “grunge” scene, where flannel shirts and torn jeans counted as anti-fashion statements. But Cornell still emerged as one of alternative-rock’s ultimate heartthrobs for his long, curly hair, fondness for going shirtless and piercing eyes.

4. His flexibility: While Soundgarden remained Cornell’s flagship band for much of his career, Cornell branched into a variety of projects. He sang with Temple of the Dog, a supergroup of sorts that included members of Pearl Jam. Cornell was also tapped to be the frontman for Audioslave, a band with former members of Rage Against the Machine that reinforced Cornell’s status as an alternative-rock icon.

5. Soundgarden’s enduring relevance: The band’s recording output was scant since 1995, and Soundgarden disbanded from 1997 to 2010. But since reuniting, Soundgarden remained a force in the concert circuit for its deep catalog of songs and intense live show. Soundgarden were in the midst of a tour swing through the Midwest when Cornell was found dead, and the band was set to co-headline Rock on the Range, a major hard rock festival in Ohio. Rock on the Range, which is produced by the same team behind Sacramento’s Aftershock festival, includes such major acts as Metallica and Korn for a combined audience of about 120,000. No doubt, the three-day festival will be filled with tributes to Cornell as the hard rock community mourns one of its signature voices.

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

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