Last night just seemed like another Soundgarden show — my fifth time seeing the iconic grunge band live, and second time in Detroit. It’s hard to pass up a good rock show at downtown Detroit's Fox Theatre, one of the city's architectural gems and a staple in its music history, its stage graced by the likes of Iggy Pop and Prince.
But when I woke up this morning, everything had changed. And the sold-out show suddenly took on a different meaning.
Chris Cornell, Soundgarden’s lead singer, was found dead in his hotel room at MGM Grand Detroit just hours after the group performed at the Fox, with a medical examiner now ruling his death a suicide.
Even without the benefit of hindsight from the morning's awful news, it was clear that something wasn’t right with the 52-year-old Cornell during the Fox performance. He often staggered back and forth across the stage, and seemed weak in his movements. Just one or two songs in, it was as if the energy had exited his body, and what was left was a shell of a man scrambling to do his job.
It's not that the nearly two-hour show itself was bad, but it seemed like Cornell wasn’t mentally present.
He missed words, sometimes in entire blocks, letting the crowd sing the parts of the songs he didn’t. Nobody complained; in fact, the audience of about 5,000 seemed to love it.
Cornell was visibly agitated at times. He walked off the stage for several minutes before playing Been Away Too Long, causing the band to start over and leaving them playing instrumentals to fill the gap. When he came back onstage, he made a “move it along” motion with his hand.
Bandmate and bassist Ben Shepherd laughed it off, but then Cornell took to the mic to complain that he didn’t have a backup guitar. Been Away Too Long, which was Soundgarden’s 2012 comeback single from the album King Animal after a more than decade-long breakup, was played as a strange, bass-heavy rendition that moved in the wrong direction.
[Chris Cornell played a private concert for WRIF recently. Find out when you can hear it.]
Then there was Cornell’s irritability. His vocals were often lagging, not in sync with the music. At times, he stopped singing completely and gave up for several seconds before catching back on with his bandmates.
At the time, I chalked it up to being late in the tour, thinking that his voice might be shot. Maybe he was exhausted. After all, Cornell, who is known for his four-octave vocal range and having one of the most versatile voices in rock ’n’ roll, spends the majority of his time screaming into the mic — naturally, that will take a toll.
Several times throughout the night, he gave brief backstories to songs, regaling the band's work with record label Sub Pop. For My Wave, he emphasized the importance of doing your own thing, as long as you don’t harm anyone in the process.
But then things took a dark turn before the song began. “You can burn crosses on your lawn, I don’t give a (profanity). You can burn your house down,” he said. “Who cares? I don’t. As long as you don’t catch someone else’s house on fire.”
But Cornell spoke fondly of Detroit, over and over. It was the one element of the show he seemed truly excited about. He talked about Detroit Rock City, how the audience was unparalleled. How the band loved playing here. He acknowledged the crowd up in the balcony, asking them to stand. He also asked the crowd in front of the stage to cheer for those people.
One line, which at the time seemed innocuous, sticks: “I feel bad for the next city,” Cornell said over the mic. The quote came just after mentioning that nothing could ever top Detroit. Now, it has a much deeper, heartbreaking meaning.
Just a handful of songs saw Cornell immersed: Fell on Black Days and the show’s closer, the second song of the encore Slaves & Bulldozers. The latter included a refrain from Led Zeppelin’s In My Time of Dying, which the band has covered before. It was written as a spiritual song about death.
In the guitar solo for the Slaves & Bulldozers”/“In My Time of Dying fusion, Cornell finally gave his all. He played the guitar backward, hung over his head, and dragged the mic stand along the strings. Caught in a cathartic-like moment, the singer-guitarist let himself shine one last time.
Here was the rock frontman who had so poignantly carved a path in rock ’n’ roll, helping propel Seattle to the front of the grunge scene with multi-platinum-selling albums. A shy vocalist, hidden behind a mass of curls that hung over his eyes, connecting with millions through brutally honest, heavy yet also delicate words.
A Detroit-based photographer who walked past Cornell after the show said he didn’t think “anything abnormal” in regards to his demeanor. “[The band] thanked a few fans waiting for autographs and got into the vehicle,” he said.
But my mind thinks back to watching him onstage at the Fox, doing the refrain to In My Time of Dying, struggling so hard to send a message – perhaps a hidden goodbye that nobody saw coming.
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