Chris Cornell, the powerful, dynamic singer whose band Soundgarden was one of the architects of grunge music, died on Wednesday night in Detroit hours after the band had performed there. He was 52.
The death was a suicide by hanging, the Wayne County medical examiner’s office said in a statement released on Thursday afternoon. It said a full autopsy had not yet been completed.
Mr. Cornell’s representative, Brian Bumbery, said in a statement that the death was “sudden and unexpected.”
Soundgarden played at the Fox Theater in Detroit on Wednesday night, and had been scheduled to perform in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday at the Rock on the Range festival.
Dontae Freeman, a spokesman for the Detroit Police Department, said in an interview that officers went to the MGM Grand hotel and casino around midnight in response to a call about an apparent suicide of a white man, whom he did not identify. Mr. Freeman said the man’s date of birth was July 20, 1964, which is Mr. Cornell’s.
He added that the man’s wife had called a family friend to check on the man; the friend forced his way into the man’s room at the casino and found him unresponsive on the bathroom floor with a band around his neck. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr. Cornell appeared to be active on social media in the hours before his death. A post on his Twitter account announced that the group had arrived in Detroit, and a clip of the group’s 2012 release “By Crooked Steps” was posted to his official Facebook page.
Mr. Cornell acknowledged in interviews that he had struggled with drug use throughout his life. In a 1994 Rolling Stone article, he described himself as a “daily drug user at 13” who had quit by the time he turned 14.
After Soundgarden disbanded in 1997, a breakup that would last for more than a decade, Mr. Cornell returned to heavy drug use, telling The Guardian in 2009 that he was a “pioneer” in the abuse of the opiate OxyContin and that he had gone to rehab.
Soundgarden’s musical journeys tended toward the knotty and dark, plunging into off-kilter meters and punctuated by Mr. Cornell’s voice, which could quickly shift from a soulful howl to a gritty growl. Onstage, Mr. Cornell was an imposing figure, flinging his long hair as he presided over mosh pits of fans churning to the band’s metal-tinged riffs.
Mr. Cornell was one of four prominent frontmen — along with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains — who brought Seattle’s sound to the national stage in the late 1980s and 1990s. He helped form Soundgarden in Seattle, where he was born, around 1984. Sub Pop, then a fledgling record label, released the group’s first single, “Hunted Down,” in 1987, as well as two subsequent EPs. The group’s debut album, “Ultramega OK,” which came a year later on the punk label SST, was its last release before it made the leap to a major label.
The album “Badmotorfinger,” released in 1991, benefited from a swell of attention that was beginning to surround the Seattle scene, where Soundgarden, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, was playing a high-octane, high-angst brand of rock ’n’ roll.
Three of Soundgarden’s studio albums have been certified platinum, including “Superunknown,” from 1994, which featured the Grammy-winning songs “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” as well as “Fell on Black Days” and “My Wave.”
After disbanding, the group — which includes the guitarist Kim Thayil, the bassist Ben Shepherd and the drummer Matt Cameron — reunited in 2010 and has performed regularly since then.
Reviewing a 2011 concert at the Prudential Center in Newark in The New York Times, Jon Pareles called Soundgarden “one reunited band that can pick up right where it left off.” In 2012, it released “King Animal,” its first album in 16 years, which Mr. Pareles said “sounds like four musicians live in a room, making music that clenches and unclenches like a fist.”
Mr. Cornell grew up in Seattle, the youngest of six children, and has said that he spent a lot of time in trouble as a child — he was kicked out of seventh grade once and eighth grade twice, he told Rolling Stone in a 1994 interview, and said that he struggled with drugs and then loneliness and depression. He dropped out of school at 14 after his parents’ divorce and got a job to help support his mother, he told Spin magazine in 1996.
Music became a refuge, and Mr. Cornell started to take it very seriously. He has said he was drawn to the harmonies of the Beatles early on, and started to play drums at 16. His first group was called the Jones Street Band (named after the street he lived on), and Mr. Cornell played the role of the singing drummer. After answering an ad to be a vocalist in another band, he met Mr. Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, Soundgarden’s original bassist, and the trio quickly wrote a batch of songs.
He married Susan Silver, who managed Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, in 1990, and had a daughter, Lily; the couple split in 2004. Mr. Cornell is survived by Lily; his wife, Vicky Cornell, with whom he started a foundation to protect “vulnerable children”; and their two children, Christopher and Toni.
Mr. Cornell released five solo albums during and after his time with Soundgarden, starting with “Euphoria Morning” in 1999. His 2007 album “Carry On” featured an acoustic cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which was the inspiration for a well-received version of the song on “American Idol.”
He contributed the song “Seasons” to the soundtrack of “Singles” (1992), Cameron Crowe’s love letter to the Seattle music scene, and made a cameo in the film.
In 2001, after Rage Against the Machine’s lead singer, Zack de la Rocha, left the group, Mr. Cornell and members of that band formed Audioslave. The group released three albums before announcing its split in 2007.
In November 2016, Mr. Cornell hit the road for the first time with another supergroup, Temple of the Dog, featuring a blend of members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. The band, known for its breakout hit “Hunger Strike,” a dramatic duet between Mr. Vedder and Mr. Cornell, had been formed about 25 years earlier as a tribute to Andrew Wood, the lead singer of the Seattle bands Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose in March 1990.
Mr. Cornell told The Times that the group had finally decided to bring its songs to life to honor Mr. Wood. He said, “I thought, well, this is one thing that I can do to remind myself and maybe other people of who this guy is and was and keep his story — and, in a way, his life — with us.”
A close friend, Eric Esrailian, whose family regularly took vacations with the Cornells, said Mr. Cornell was never the bold persona he seemed onstage. “He liked to take pictures of our kids at dinner, just talking to each other,” Mr. Esrailian said, adding that “In 10 years of friendship, I’ve never seen him have more than a Diet Coke.” He said he had seen no mood changes in recent days or weeks. “We were talking about summer vacation plans in Greece,” he said.
Mr. Esrailian produced the 2017 movie “The Promise,” about the Armenian genocide, for which Mr. Cornell wrote music and donated the proceeds from all audio downloads to help refugees. “He wanted his song to be an anthem about hope and perseverance for everyone,” he said.
Mr. Esrailian told a story about Mr. Cornell’s giving him a guitar for his birthday, signed by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. “I’m a fan of Jimmy Page, and Jimmy Page is a fan of Chris Cornell,” he said. “This is the same guy we’d eat sushi with and he’d make jokes.”
When Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last month, Mr. Esrailian said he told his friend that he belonged there as well: “He said, I don’t need that now, because I’ve got so much ahead of me.”
Chris Cornell sang as if he were bearing the weight of the world.
Whether he was fronting the ferocious hard rock of Soundgarden or backed simply by an acoustic guitar, his voice — now silenced in a suicide — was spectacular by any reckoning. It was a voice that could sail above the grunge barrage of Soundgarden, with an attack to rival the band’s churning guitars; it was also a voice that gave modest acoustic ballads an existential gravity. At the bottom of its nearly four-octave range, Mr. Cornell’s voice was a baritone with endless reserves of breath and the seething tension of contained power. He couldn’t be more convincing than when he sang one of his definitive songs, “Rusty Cage,” with Soundgarden: “I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run,” he howled.
As it rose, higher and higher, Mr. Cornell’s voice could sustain a melody through the fray, or it could confront hard-rock turbulence with grunts, rasps, wails, bitter moans and, at the top of his range, full-bodied shrieks that admitted no weakness. Even when he was singing a long-lined melody like “Black Hole Sun,” another of his masterpieces, there was no comforting croon in his voice. It had a perpetually torn edge, a glint of tragedy.
Mr. Cornell could have used that remarkable instrument and his rock-star looks to play the standard heroic frontman: a chesty, cocky figure like two of his obvious influences, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Paul Rodgers of Free. But he came from a later generation, one that had grown up on punk iconoclasm as well as metal virtuosity and that was far too self-conscious for the old rock machismo. As the main songwriter for Soundgarden — both on his own and supplying lyrics and melodies for other band members’ riffs — Mr. Cornell helped forge grunge: rock that used all its power to question rather than to exult.
Each in its own way, the leading bands of grunge — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains — found commercial traction with music that sabotaged older assumptions about rock. There was still plenty of aggression in the music, but it was directed inward as much as outward. Doubt could roil a song as intensely as rage. Soundgarden’s music bristled with dissonant riffs and shifting meters as Mr. Cornell belted blunt thoughts of resentment and despair: “I can’t get any lower/Still I feel I’m sinking,” he sang in “Outshined.” It wasn’t whining; it was back-to-the-wall fury.
In at least one important way, Mr. Cornell was an old-fashioned songwriter: He prized melody, and had a gift for it. The majestic ballad “Black Hole Sun,” Soundgarden’s radio breakthrough and Grammy winner, was an atypical Soundgarden song because the band never besieges the melody. But even when Mr. Cornell’s voice is sparring with guitar riffs, as in songs like “Spoonman” or “Jesus Christ Pose,” he’s not just shouting or barking; he’s tracing larger shapes.
Soundgarden at its best was Mr. Cornell’s ideal vehicle because it gave his voice copious possibilities to grapple against. After the band dissolved in 1997, he persevered, working arenas as the songwriter and frontman for former members of Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave from 2001-2007, and also making solo albums. His voice stayed strong even as it aged, and he kept up his songwriting; he even got tapped for a James Bond theme, “You Know My Name,” from “Casino Royale.”
But Audioslave’s music was far more conventional hard rock than Soundgarden’s had been, and on solo albums, Mr. Cornell struggled to find the right context for his voice. He even tried highly processed and programmed Top 10-style pop, produced by Timbaland, on the widely reviled album “Scream” in 2009. His best setting on his own turned out to be as a guitar-slinging singer-songwriter. That’s the core of the dramatically swelling arrangement of a song he released earlier this year, “The Promise,” an elegy that builds to lyrics that have now turned much darker: “A promise to survive/persevere and thrive/And rise once more.”
Soundgarden regrouped in 2010 and released an album of new songs, “King Animal,” in 2012; it had just performed on Wednesday night before Mr. Cornell died. Onstage and on albums, it seemed that the band had rekindled its old chemistry. Its final set ended with “Slaves & Bulldozers,” from its 1991 album “Badmotorfinger” — a heaving, bluesy, snarl building to a full scream, a song about honesty to the end. “Everything I said is what I mean,” the song insists. “Everything I gave is what I need.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, Chris Cornell, who has died at 52, was one of the most vivid frontmen in rock music, first with the grunge pioneers Soundgarden and later with the hard rock outfit Audioslave, with detours as a solo artist and as a founder of Temple of the Dog. Here are 10 of his essential songs, including aggrieved ragers and purpled ballads.
‘Loud Love’ (1989)
From the very beginning, Mr. Cornell was a rich yelper, with a voice like a jagged growl. “Loud Love” was one of the standouts from the second Soundgarden album, “Louder Than Love.” Mr. Cornell’s performance is all muscle, like a weight lifter doing intense reps.
‘Hunger Strike’ (1990)
Here was grunge in all its majesty and dolor. Mr. Cornell traded lead vocals with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on this ambitious and affecting hit from the supergroup Temple of the Dog. Mr. Cornell’s verse is lovely, but when he answers Mr. Vedder’s low groan with high wails at the chorus, it’s chilling.
‘Rusty Cage’ (1991)
The opening song from Soundgarden’s breakout album, “Badmotorfinger,” shows Mr. Cornell in a slightly more relaxed mode. Over earthy heavy metal riffs, he sings with seductive edge: “You wired me awake/And hit me with a hand of broken nails.”
Perhaps the first transcendent Soundgarden song, and one of the breakout moments for grunge, “Outshined” is crisp and elegant hard rock, and showcased Mr. Cornell at his most flexible, turning a brute force arrangement into a sort of dirty blues: “I just looked in the mirror/And things aren’t looking so good/I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota.”
On this lovely solo ballad from the soundtrack to the movie “Singles,” Mr. Cornell tempered agony with sweetness, hunger with reticence. “Dreams have never been the answer/And dreams have never made my bed,” he laments.
‘Black Hole Sun’ (1994)
Into every successful hard rock band’s oeuvre, a little balladry must fall. “Black Hole Sun” — oozy, shimmery and in moments unexpectedly bright — imported some psychedelic twists into Soundgarden’s stern muscle. It became the band’s biggest hit, thanks to one of Mr. Cornell’s signature vocal performances, which was arrestingly drowsy, topped off with a few fiercely controlled shrieks.
‘Ty Cobb’ (1996)
Among the most bruising songs in the Soundgarden discography, “Ty Cobb” is a relentless punk attack, featuring Mr. Cornell at his most snarling and reckless.
‘Burden in My Hand’ (1996)
At his best, Mr. Cornell sounded like the loneliest howler, the last man at the end of a dusty road. “Burden in My Hand,” another of Soundgarden’s biggest hits, has elements of country-rock sprinkled throughout. Mr. Cornell sings as if he’s staggering: “Just a burden in my hand/Just an anchor on my heart/Just a tumor in my head.”
‘I Am the Highway’ (2002)
This is among the softer of the singles from the first album Mr. Cornell recorded as the frontman of Audioslave, the band he formed with members of Rage Against the Machine. And yet it is one of Mr. Cornell’s most harrowing vocal performances, full of rank desperation and insistent defiance: “I am not your rolling wheels, I am the highway/I am not your carpet ride, I am the sky.”
‘Ground Zero’ (2009)
For his third solo album, Mr. Cornell teamed with Timbaland for an often-bizarre set of songs. Of these, “Ground Zero” was among the least perplexing. Timbaland provided high-energy stutter-disco, and Mr. Cornell eased into his role as a funk-rock crooner.