It’s an uneasy feeling knowing that one of the most powerful voices of your generation is now gone. Listening to Chris Cornell’s music, just a day after his death, and realizing that the living soul behind some of the most heavenly music we will ever hear on earth is gone leaves a major void in all of our souls. There are so few artists who create and perform with the talent, ingenuity, and depth of feeling that Cornell possessed. Losing someone who has had so much impact on generation upon generation, and especially knowing that he could have had many years of creating and performing left to gift to us, is heartbreaking to say the least.
Going back through the immense library of covers Cornell has performed throughout the years is like listening to the soundtrack of a movie starring every major artist and group in music history. Few singers could equally convincingly cover the Beatles, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson – let alone sway us into favoring the cover over the original in some cases. Cornell could. Cornell even graced our top covers of 2015 with his rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You.”
Not only did Cornell front several major bands, including Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog, he also contributed some truly awesome tracks for movie and TV soundtracks. One such incredible song is “Stay With Me Baby,” from HBO’s The Essentials. Originally recorded by Lorraine Ellison, Cornell’s soulful cover allowed him to reach to the heavens with his crazy vocal range, or sustain a note with the most subtly effective vibrato. The wailing organ seemed to be giving it everything it had right along with him.
Cornell covered a sizable number of Beatles hits such as “Imagine,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and “Ticket to Ride.” However, it’s his cover of “A Day in the Life” that is the most profound. Cornell’s depth of feeling and vocal prowess were perfectly suited to the lyrics, but it’s his guitar work that took this acoustic cover to a whole new level. He drew out every last tiny sliver of wood holding his guitar together into the cacophony of sound that we remember from the original. On paper, it shouldn’t work with one man and one instrument, but darnit if Cornell didn’t convince us otherwise.
Then there’s Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” In the most stripped-down, vulnerable, and intense storytelling version you could imagine, Cornell drove a musical dagger through our hearts. Gone is the smooth pop feel of the song. In its place is a far more sinister tone. In a Rolling Stone interview in 2009 following Jackson’s death, Cornell reflected on what seemed to be a highly unusual choice of cover song.
“The brilliance of ‘Billie Jean’ came to me when I was reading the lyrics for the first time,” he said, “which was around the time that I was doing that arrangement, and the idea came from a conversation I had with my wife about the art of the cover song, because she would bring up ideas about songs I should cover, and I would always shoot ’em down, and I would explain the art of it: You can cover a song by an artist you are obviously influenced by and you will reproduce it, paying homage to it, and sticking close to the original.
“So she sort of challenged me with, what would that song be for you, and I thought well, who would be the least likely artist for me to attempt to cover and the first name that popped into my head was Michael Jackson. I liked ‘Billie Jean’ because it had that little keyboard line in it, which I thought I could turn into an electric guitar line. And it was just embarrassingly awful. When I started reading the lyrics, I realized it’s a lament, not a dance track. His moonwalking and the video as well as just the bass line and the beat, took precedence over the meaning. The lyrics are brilliant, and the way that the lyrics are put together. The story isn’t spoon-fed to you, it’s poetic.”
We’ll leave you with Cornell’s tribute to Whitney Houston upon her own untimely death. R.I.P., Chris Cornell. We will always love you for the gifts you have given us that will stay with us forever.
Dig into more Chris Cornell and Soundgarten covers in our archives.
I’ve always thought his best was the cover of “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin. Seek it out on YouTube. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.