Chris Cornell’s Heartbreaking Reaction To Kurt Cobain’s Death Revealed

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This is the second part of a three part story on Soundgarden’s experiences in Europe and England in the mid 1990’s. Click here to read part one.

By the beginning of 1994, every fan of 90’s rock music knew who Soundgarden were, but at the start of the decade this wasn’t the case. Their most recent studio album at the time, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, had received rave reviews and spawned instant classics like ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Outshined’ and ‘Jesus Christ Pose’. MTV had helped gain the band popularity with constant rotation of their videos, and their legendary club shows were the talk of the hard rock world. It also helped that Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose took a liking to the band, and when Axl went to see them in Seattle in 1989 he was hooked. On Guns N’ Roses’ tour to support their Use Your Illusion albums, they decided to take Soundgarden under their wing as an opening act across North America and Europe.

All of this attention propelled Soundgarden to newfound heights alongside their friends from Seattle, who had also made it huge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. In early 1994 Soundgarden were about to peak with the impending release of Superunknown. At the end of January ‘Spoonman’ was released as a single, and it was an instant hit complete with a catchy riff and soaring vocals. The anticipation for the album and a European tour had reached fever pitch.

A few weeks later on March 12, 1994, the band announced by radio that they would be playing in London, England at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Not only was this a huge surprise for UK fans, but it was also a very significant event for the venue itself. Built in 1903 to host various circus shows, the venue became the host building for many iconic BBC programmes which featured amongst others ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test,’ which had on many bands that Soundgarden themselves were influenced by in their teenage years. In playing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Soundgarden became the first band to hold a gig there. The band would return to the same venue some 19 years later to promote King Animal.

The setlist for the show omitted classics such as ‘Outshined’ and ‘Rusty Cage’, and naturally the set was made up of the new album Superunknown, which was released four days prior to this show. Opening up with the crushing and brutal ‘Let Me Drown’, Soundgarden felt confident enough to play their first six songs at the show from Superunknown. Make no mistake, this gig was all about promoting the new record and 13 tracks were played from it.

After the concert, the band toured the rest of Europe, and all was going great for Soundgarden until the crushing news hit that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain had died at his Seattle home. 1994 was all set up for Soundgarden, Nirvana seemed like they would be either breaking up or going on hiatus before Cobain’s death, Pearl Jam had basically grounded to a halt from playing live shows as they began to take on Ticketmaster because of ticket fees, a battle they were never going to win, and Alice In Chains were on an extended break after singer Layne Staley’s drug problems led the band to dropping out of a tour with Metallica that summer. Soundgarden were refreshed and had none of these problems, and had their career defining record to promote.

Cobain’s suicide though had dealt a huge blow to the rock and roll industry that seemed at the time so big that it couldn’t be repaired. The news broke of Cobain’s passing on the morning of Friday, April 8th when electrician Gary Smith arrived to install a security system and found Cobain’s body, which had been lying there for an estimated 3 days. Soundgarden were in Paris, France and were due to play at the Elysee Montmartre, because of the time difference and in these pre internet days the band had no idea what had happened and went ahead and played their show. Opening up for them was Tad, a band also from Seattle.

The band were finishing off a fantastic set that had opened with ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, and had featured old classics such as ‘Mind Riot’ and ‘Room a Thousand Years Wide’. The Paris show was turning out to be one of the band’s best in a long while. Chris Cornell said goodnight to close the main set, although everyone knew it was a small break to lead into the encore as the venue turned its lights off and not back on. The band departed and the news that was about to hit them would be catastrophic.

Returning backstage all four members were ushered into a quiet part of their dressing room….something terrible had happened. Tad’s bassist Kurt Danielson was emotional, the band were worried as he told them to sit down, and he delivered the news that Kurt Cobain was dead. Kim Thayil was quoted in Greg Prato’s book Grunge is Dead that he had “never saw so many big, hairy, temperamental guys sitting around crying.” Cornell, speaking two decades later, said, “We all got very emotional, we weren’t at home, we weren’t around any people that we knew.”

The news had been delivered, but the show wasn’t done. Like the professional band that they had come to be, and hearing thunderous chants of their name, Soundgarden returned to the stage, and it was no surprise that Cornell decided to play an acoustic version of ‘Like Suicide’. The despair in Cornell’s voice and the sombre feeling from the stage was seen that night. Soundgarden were just being Soundgarden to any fan in attendance watching the show, who wouldn’t have known the news until after they had returned home from the gig. After the song, the band played ‘Somewhere’ from Badmotorfinger, and its lyrics resonated with the feeling within the band: “I wish to wish I dream to dream I try to try and I live to live” and I die to die and I cry to cry, but I know why.” The song was played just 34 times live and retired two months after this show. The night ended with ‘Head Down’, a song that Cornell would go on to say was his favorite Soundgarden effort.

Whilst the music world was in shock and Seattle mourned, Soundgarden could have been forgiven for cancelling the rest of their European tour, which was now about to hit England. Out in Europe they seemed lost at sea, but they made a decision to carry on and mourn Cobain’s passing once they got back home.

A week later the band played at London’s Brixton Academy, and it was one of the finest shows that the band would ever play in the UK. Full of their hits and new songs alike, oddly enough the band were not as down as you would have expected them to be. Cornell, in a white sleeveless t-shirt throughout, was on brilliant form, and at one point even gave the microphone over to the audience to request a song. Kim Thayil played snippets of Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ to the stunned amusement of Cornell, and a fan was ejected for causing problems, and though it broke up the show for nearly 10 minutes, the band ended up playing for two hours.

Soundgarden returned to Seattle on April 24th and respectfully mourned Cobain’s death, catching up with friends and taking stock of what had happened, taking a month break before kicking off their summer US tour. The tour was a massive success, and the band rode the wave by the way of their biggest hit song ‘Black Hole Sun’, which ended up becoming the rock soundtrack to a very confused summer of 1994.

Soundgarden carried on because it was all they knew how to do, and the tour for Superunknown led them to be household names. Superunknown was arguably one of the finest rock records of the 1990’s, if not of all time.

  • Olga Stewart

    And then 23 years later, the Seattle music scene would be again shaken up with the passing of Chris.

    I just feel so very sad in regards to what happened to these various musicians both from that area and that time.

    • iwrestledabearonce

      And don’t forget on the same exact day (only several years later) we lost Layne Staley. Back in the 90’s I used to say that Chris & Layne were the two best singers in rock.

      • Kamela Spivey

        I’ve thought Chris Cornell had the best voice in rock since the first time I heard him belt out a song! His voice is unmistakable, mesmerizing, and exquisite. I have musician friends who used to perform some cover songs & Cornell is often imitated but never ever duplicated, although I’ve heard some good attempts. I, too, am deeply saddened by the deaths of all three greats mentioned… Their music is a part of me and my past, and I truly wish it had not ended, especially not so tragically.

      • dakotablue

        They still are and always will be.

    • Kay B

      Jesus Olga, we mention the word “depression” in another article and comments get closed down? This is why depression runs rampant. No one can have a serious dialog. No one even mentioned Vic. Da Fauq…

      • Olga Stewart

        I wish I could say I was surprised.

        But I’m not.

        And I will never agree with what Brett is doing here.

        I’ve even told him that.

        • Kay B

          The thing is Brett knows what he is doing. He knows any article with Chris or esp Vic will get hits….whether they are “good” or “bad” in his eyes, they are hits. That is what makes the articles keep coming. And he knows it.

          • Olga Stewart

            And as others have pointed out, publishing these stories helps keep up the widow’s narrative.

            Brett may deny it. But honestly, he’s lying to himself, as he is responsible for spreading these lies just as much as Vicky is.

            Also to close down comments on an article is not the example of being a professional journalist

            If Brett wants to be considered that, then he has to stop with the closing of comments (among other things).

          • makingconnections

            I don’t think he’s working towards being a serious journalist. He’s part of the cyber world and that’s his interest I think–a gossip site on the internet. . just little tidbits with no depth. At least he doesn’t pretend to be a serious journalist..haha!

          • Olga Stewart

            Right.

            Whatever was I thinking? Hee hee.

      • makingconnections

        I was surprised, a little anyway, that the comments ended to abruptly. I wanted to comment something–try not to be unkind–but the reality is that many people have died because of depression and many have overdosed. Chris spoke of this very thing and seemed to express that it was tragic whether it was a kid alone in his basement or a rock star when it came to drugs. Chris died because of depression. The idea that we will pay some attention to drug taking and the world will be ridden of the problem is ridiculous and this focus of drug abuse is a way of delaying the grieving process I believe.
        I am concerned about children, any children, not being helped to realize that a parent has died, that depression was the major cause, and they’d want them to carry on and that they be helped to gently let go of their loving Dad. In this case it seems all of this talk of wanting him back, a year later, seems unhealthy, especially when you’re a parent. I don’t mean to be judging so much as expressing concern and hope that people realize this is not the way to do the most important thing, help the children.

        • Kay B

          Depression runs in families. Unfortunately the signs of depression will be missed by Vicky. She will be in total denial with her children if they happen to have it. Which equals disaster. I know, my mom ignored my own and my sister’s depression. It’s a shame. My mom ignored it for the same reasons Vic is…..because they would have to take some responsibility. My mom’s ignorance on the sexual abuse I endured as a child was just a fragment of my depression. Vic needs to take a real deep look into his depression. Yes, he relapsed, we all get that. It doesn’t need to be said anymore. There is another side to the coin though: depression. Own it. If Chris would have jumped out of a window that night I would believe the Ativan story more. If he would have shot himself, I would believe the Ativan story more. But it wasn’t that abrupt. He put some thought into his suicide. There is a reason for that. Hopefully this is read before it’s flagged or some BS.

          • makingconnections

            Drugs….some form of drug-use has been associated with many musicians deaths….they’re self-medicating and yes, it is a problem. I am concerned about the children being involved in not being able to hear the word depression–constant drama and the blame game. We have to teach our children that mental illness can be managed and that should strange feelings ever happen for them, we will help them and doctors will help them. Sooner or later they have to hear that and that it’s O.K. to feel good now and then and not be stuck in “wanting him back”.

          • Kay B

            Unfortunately drugs are par for the course. Scott, Prince, Kurt, Andy, Layne…the list goes on. I’m not faulting these people at all. Scott, Kurt and Layne may not have written brilliant stuff if it weren’t for their drug use. I have a feeling Dolores may come back with some form of drugs as well. She also had mental issues. But seriously if you are going to talk about the drug use also talk about the depression. Both talks would do good. I’ll meet half way.

          • makingconnections

            Yes, meeting half way would be good. Addicts relapse and try again to live differently. The people I know in the Recovery Movement speak constantly of mental health issues. I will never understand the determination to blame one drug especially. Wanting to save the world from the scourge of drug use is comforting Vicki Cornell but I really do worry about what her children are learning during their formative years. We can get into some strange mental states when we are in grief. I broke my ankle when I was on my way to see my therapist while grieving for my brother. I flew down a huge flight of stairs with dog food in one hand and books in the other and tripped over my purse strap. I broke lamps and tables –it looked like a crime scene when I landed. The therapist said that accidents such as that are very common when in grief–you are in a state. I just wonder if ever she will snap out of this single mindedness that has been at play from the beginning.

        • Olga Stewart

          I’m not surprised because this is what Vicky wants.

          And Brett is helping her right along.

          I could be angry about this. But I’m not. And that’s probably because it’s now old hat to Vicky to keep doing this. So there is no shock factor anymore.

          But the truth will come out. And you can rail against it all you want but it will still come out. And when it does, I hope to god that someone will be looking out for those kids.

          • makingconnections

            I understand to some degree what she’s doing. I myself had similar feelings when my brother died. He had just been diagnosed with an illness and he didn’t live in a large City. The specialists in his city spoke by e-mail with someone in the city and decided to try a certain drug intravenously that should only be given in small doses over months. Instead they blasted him with this drug…he was aware long enough to call a few family members to express his love before he slipped into a coma and developed a brain fungus. He suffered like Hell for three months. I was so angry over it all…his doctors didn’t even speak to me…one of them actually said in front of me, “Oh, he’s still here, I thought he’d have died last night.” I felt like physically attacking them…but, I had to hold it together for his daughter–be a sounding board for her and work at letting him go. The fact is that no matter the circumstances, your loved one died and often there’s unfairness involved…hit and runs…physical violence, all sorts of things. We are modelling coping skills at such times for the young and that’s the priority in my opinion.

          • Olga Stewart

            Those specialists should have been both tarred and feathered for what they did to your brother.

            And I am so very sorry that this happened.

            But I am very glad that you were able to be a source of comfort and strength for your niece.

          • makingconnections

            I still keep asking what he’d want me to do and it isn’t difficult to imagine what role he’d wish me to play. Love is a beautiful thing, forever!

          • Olga Stewart

            :).

  • makingconnections

    Thank you for a well-written article that gives us a real glimpse into the strength that Soundgarden had and has always had. They are professionals.
    It seem as though it really was, as was said by Susan Silver (I think) some months ago, a time of “loss of innocence” when Kurt Cobain died.

  • Would be great to see video of that performance.

    • John

      I have a decent audience recorded audio of the show if you’re interested in it let me know

  • Gabi Sermoneta

    “I was in Pioneer Square – I went to see some band, I don’t know if it was the Melvins.
    Kurt was there – I think Kurt was by himself and I was by myself. I went over to tell him how much I loved Bleach. He was very quiet and subdued. He said, “Thanks – that means a lot coming from you. Consider yourself our biggest influence.”

    Kim Thayil, quoted by Greg Prato in Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, ECW Press, 2009.

  • Christina Hurst

    My heart raced a bit reading this article. It was like I was back in tbe 90s catching up with soundgarden. Then I finished reading..reality set in.

  • Urideit

    I was at that show in Paris! I had no idea about Cobains death during the concert. But the performance was amazing- a band truly in their prime and I learned they had devoted fans in France (learning the English lyrics, etc). My highlight was that the French fans were little in stature and I was able to navigate the mosh pit to the front row!!! A feat nearly impossible in the US! Ha.

  • Dave Wight

    Nirvana one of the most overrated over hyped bands of all time next to Pearl Jam…..It’s sad it had to end tragically for Kurt and Nirvana.

    • iwrestledabearonce

      PJ overhyped – probably. Nirvana overhyped?? You must be on some powerful drugs. Nirvana, along with Alice & Chains and Soundgarden is what put the long overdue nails in the coffin of butt-rock (hair metal). Seattle crushed the Warrants, Wingers, Motley Crues, Poisons into the dirt for good. You should read up (or watch) some history about the recording of Nevermind from the perspective of Butch Vig – who happens to have only 3 Grammy’s under his belt and 10 nominations – he produced Nevermind. Granted, you don’t have to necessarily love or like a band – but at least be smart enough to recognize what they accomplished and how they shaped the future of music.

      • Dave Wight

        Yes a powerful drug called reality. The fact they were more popular than Soundgarden or Alice in Chains substantiates that they were overhyped, vastly inferior to Soundgarden and AIC. AIC and Soundgarden just kept the greatness of Sabbath that has been handed down from generation to generation. I do not care who has X Grammys, if you have not noticed the Grammys shy away from giving awards to elite bands or musicians. I see what they accomplished this is why I hope anyone who supported that is deeply sorry and regrets it now realizing how inferior the music was. Basically if someone bought a Nirvana album and did not own Alice in Chains or Soundgarden they have no business being able to make purchasing decisions regarding music.

        • iwrestledabearonce

          LOL. Ok, tell me another fairy tale grandpa. Your musical credibility and knowledge is on par with the Kardashian’s knowledge of Metallica, if you know what I mean 🙂

          • Dave Wight

            I know what you mean, you are saying Kardashian is incredibly knowledgeable about Metallica.

          • iwrestledabearonce

            You wish. My 90 year old retarded grandmother knows more about the music scene then you do. But keep posing with your kewl $90 Metallica t-shirts. It’s ok that you never heard of them until this past year – as long as you have the shirt that is “pre aged” so that it seems like you had it for 30 years is all that matters to the hipsters.