Chris Cornell, Searching for Solitude

On a soundstage done up to resemble a demented interrogation chamber, Chris Cornell is shackled to a perforated metal dentist’s chair of a sort you imagine Trent Reznor has stored in his garage somewhere. Frances Farmer-grade Velcro restraints bind his wrists to a dull gunmetal crossbar that projects from the chair’s back; his temples sprout shiny plastic things that are supposed to be electrodes, but which more closely resemble bubble-packed Drixoral tablets with wires coming out of them. His baggy sharkskin suit is puckered with exertion and sweat.

On Stage 2 of L.A.’s Occidental Studios, the new Soundgarden video is being filmed. Jerry Casale, who used to play bass in Devo but specializes now in directing apocalyptic videos for guitar bands, gestures toward a P.A., who begins to wrap a thick leather strap around Cornell’s forehead, immobilizing the singer in a position halfway between Malcolm McDowell’s posture of repentance in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and Cornell’s own patented Jesus Christ pose.

The video is for Soundgarden’s Beatles-tinged agony epic, “Blow Up the Outside World,” and Casale intends to blow up as much of it as possible on this soundstage. Beavis and Butt-head are going to like this one.

“Is it too warm for you in here?” a gofer asks Cornell. “Would you like a drink of water? Can I get you some cookies to munch on while they set up the shot?”

“Is there going to be a grip nearby?” Cornell cracks, avoiding her eyes to the extent that it is possible for him to do anything at all in three hundred pounds of bondage gear. “I mean, in case I need somebody to scratch my nose.”

The P.A. cinches the strap tight across Cornell’s scalp. He shudders with pain.

“When I give the signal, could you twitch a little?” asks Casale. “To make it look as if you’re really being shocked.”

Cornell strains to flip Casale the finger, but the restraints on his wrists limit his gesture to a mile spasm.

“Hmmmmm,” Casale says. “Perfect.”
If you were Chris Cornell, you would have two Grammys, six albums (seven, if you count Temple of the Dog), and three Pomeranians. Posters of your bare chest would be on the walls of teenagers all over the world. You would spend your mornings wake-surfing near your cabin on Puget Sound; your afternoons snowboarding in the Cascades. Your last album would have sold over five million copies in the United States; your current one, the splendid if art-damaged heavy-rock opus Down on the Upside, would already have sold two million in six months. With Aerosmith imploding, Pearl Jam threatened by willful obscurity, and Metallica slumping into boogie-band senescence, you would be the lead singer and principal songwriter of what is poised to be the Greatest Hard Rock Band in the World.

And sometimes—for days, maybe weeks on end—you would be afraid to leave your house.

It’s not that Cornell has been necessarily wounded by fame or anything—he’s not pulling a Billy Corgan. It’s just that he’s much more comfortable at home with his guitar than he is out in the world. He rarely enters the Seattle scene: When I mention Linda’s, the bar that used to function as the Elaine’s of Seattle rockdom, he has trouble placing the name. On the infrequent occasions he does go out to dinner, it is often as the plus-one of his wife of six years, Susan Silver, who manages Soundgarden as well as Crackerbox, Sweetwater, Sponge, and Alice in Chains. (He has been with Silver, who was his first real girlfriend, since 1984; they occasionally seem like separate parts of the same superorganism.) Random Cornell sightings in the Northwest are almost as rare as sightings of Bigfoot.

You’ll never read about Cornell in a gossip column. Until now, he’s never agreed to be the subject of a major magazine feature by himself, has never had his adolescent traumas limned by the teen magazines or been psychoanalyzed by the slicks. Though he’s probably granted more than a thousand interviews, his prejudices, neuroses, his views on music are less known than those of less accomplished guys—Scott Weiland or Layne Staley, say, or even Eddie Vedder, who technically doesn’t do interviews at all.
This low media profile is partially due to the fact that Cornell has always wanted Soundgarden to be seen as a band, and partially because guitarist Kim Thayil is so garrulous and opinionated that it’s easy to let him do the press work. (When I was supposed to interview Cornell for Doug Pray’s Seattle-scene documentary Hype! a couple of years ago, he slipped out of the building while the camera crew was still setting up its lights, so that Kim and the drummer Matt Cameron ended up being the only band members talking about Soundgarden in the film.) But it’s also because Chris is so obviously less himself when he’s talking than he is when he’s shut in some room of his own devising, a thousand miles wide. Although in person he’s rarely less than charming, to strangers Cornell can be so shy, so scant of words, that he can seem practically autistic.

I have never seen him smile more broadly than the moment he was told that an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics described happiness as a psychiatric disorder.

Cigarettes help. So do a couple of cranberry and vodkas on the terrace of his hotel room late at night, high above the Sunset Strip, and a view that stretches for miles.

“I’m lucky I get to go out and sing,” Chris says, fumbling for a cigarette lighter, “because when I’m at home, I don’t talk to anyone; I don’t go out socially. My one outlet is that I get to stand in front of five thousand people and sing ‘Outshined.’ When I’m alone between tours, writing songs, I might not speak a word to another human being for a week or two or three.”

Chris gives up on the cigarette lighter and begins toying with the leaves on a ficus.

“People just don’t realize how much fun it is to be depressed,” he says with a grin—this from the man whose moods may have had as much historical impact on the gloominess of Northwest rock as the surfeit of negative ions in the air.