The late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell was one of the most unique musicians of all time. His vocals were charged by an unknown primal energy that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. As a human being, he was a warm soul, a refreshing antidote to the droves of self-masturbatory celebrity musicians we all know and loathe.
A real iconoclast, Cornell was greatly inspired by perhaps the most iconoclastic musician of all time: David Bowie. Notably, when news of Bowie’s death broke in 2016, Cornell posted a video of himself singing the iconic Ziggy Stardust track ‘Lady Stardust’ on Twitter, writing that “140 characters will not suffice” in paying tribute to ‘The Starman’.
A few days later, he wrote an op-ed in Rolling Stone and used all of the characters in his arsenal to paint a picture of his lifelong and life-changing love for David Bowie. Opening his tribute, Cornell wrote: “David Bowie was an inspiration. As a songwriter, he had this intense vitality throughout his entire career. He made ageing as a recording artist seem totally doable in a vital way.”
It was in the 1970s, after Ziggy Stardust had set the world alight with its challenging themes and glam-rock attitude, that Cornell was first captivated by the mysterious Bowie. He recalled: “I remember seeing the Ziggy Stardust album everywhere when I was a kid. People used to have all their vinyl in their living rooms, like part of the decor. You would see Let It Be and the faces of the Beatles everywhere, in a corner. At some point, I’d seen Ziggy enough that it piqued my interest, so I probably stole it from somebody.”
He explained: “Listening to that record was a bit like going to college, like the Beatles. The songwriting is incredible. I didn’t know anything about him, and it was a bit past when that album was a moment in pop culture, but I didn’t care. I was interested in the songs and loved every single song on the album.”
Cornell then fast-forwarded to 1980, a time when Bowie had released his earth-shattering return to form, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), the home of ‘Ashes to Ashes’. He remembered watching the Brixton native perform on a talk show, dressed in “some strange European clown costume”. This had a “huge impact” on Cornell as prior to this, he’d only known Bowie as the flame-haired Ziggy Stardust.
He said: “Seeing him like this made me think, ‘Oh, you can be whoever you want. You can live a hundred lives. You can create you and you can recreate you, and it’s viable.’ He was the one that proved that that works.”
Cornell finally got to see Bowie live in action on the ‘Serious Moonlight Tour’ around the time that Let’s Dance came out in 1983. Of the experience, he recalled: “I was a huge fan by then and I really didn’t want to go to that show, because it was at the Tacoma Dome, and I didn’t like big crowds. But I went anyway. It was somewhat uncomfortable for me, but the show and the sound and everything about the set and the songs were incredible.”
The theatrics “stood out” to Cornell, and he was dazzled. He particularly loved the theatrical touch of the Simms brothers not singing but sitting in the corner of the stage at a table playing cards.
“When you’re a kid from Seattle, you’ve never seen anything like that before, and it was in the context of a pop record, so he didn’t have to do that, Cornell said. “He could have done anything he wanted. I saw the Police at the same dome, and they just came out and played Police songs and that was that. He didn’t leave it like that. I was super impressed”.
Later in his life, Cornell met his idol as part of the Vanity Fair shoot, and although Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder were also in attendance, the only person he cared about was David Bowie. He was scared to meet Bowie for fear that he would say something that would tarnish how he felt when listening to his music, but the anxiety was for nothing. Bowie was “this bright light” who made Cornell comfortable. In his tribute, he remembered this fondly, saying, “He was an incredible guy, super inclusive and warm.”
Concluding his piece, the astute Cornell posited: “You don’t know how important someone is to you as an artistic influence until suddenly they’re gone. I’ve certainly been having that experience. It’s kind of equal parts sad and celebratory to think, ‘Awesome. What an amazing career he had and what an amazing legacy he’s left for everybody.'”
Tragically, Chris Cornell would take his own life less than a year-and-a-half after Bowie’s death in May 2017. Luckily for us, they’re not totally gone. They both live on through their game-changing music, which will continue to inspire for generations, and pieces such as this, where we get a candid illustration of their celestial personalities.