On May 18th, 2017, the music world was stunned by the suicide of Chris Cornell, singer, songwriter and guitarist for seminal grunge act Soundgarden. Cornell’s tragic passing came as the singer was in the thick of a reunion tour with his original band. While Soundgarden was the platform that made him a household name within the Seattle rock scene in the ’90s, some of his most notable work came with other collaborative projects.
In 1991, following the overdose death of his then-roommate Andrew Wood, lead singer of burgeoning Seattle rock band Mother Love Bone, Cornell set out to record a tribute to his fallen musical brother. He recruited his Soundgarden bandmate Matt Cameron and former Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, who in turn recruited guitarist Mike McCready, with whom they were starting a new band. The outfit adopted the name Temple of the Dog, a nod to the lyrics of Mother Love Bone song “Man of Golden Words.” They recorded a singe, self-titled album, featuring a pair of songs written by Cornell while he was grieving Wood’s loss (“Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven”), a handful of tunes written by Cornell prior to Wood’s death, and some re-worked demos from Gossard, Ament, and Cameron.
At the time of the 15-day-long sessions for Temple of the Dog, Ament, Gossard, and McCready were in the process of finding a vocalist for their new band, set to be dubbed Mookie Blaylock. A young vocalist named Eddie Vedder had flown up to Seattle from San Diego to audition, and ended up adding some backing vocals to a few tracks. Cornell liked the sound of this shy newcomer’s voice, and his passionate original “Hunger Strike” was eventually recorded as a vocal duet between him and Vedder for the album. “Hunger Strike” would go on to become the album’s biggest hit, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Rock charts.
The album would initially fail to reach the Billboard album charts, and the musicians returned to business as usual. Cornell and Cameron went back into the studio to record their third (and arguably their best) studio album Badmotorfinger (1991). Gossard, Ament, McCready, Vedder, and drummer Dave Krusen decided to rename their new band “Pearl Jam,” recorded their debut LP, Ten (1991), and went on to become one of the biggest rock acts of their generation. Cameron would also join Pearl Jam following Soundgarden’s breakup in 1998.
While Temple of the Dog was effectively just an early detour in the eventually monumental careers of all the artists involved, it has taken on mythical value as a sort of “origin story,” the project that prepared them to vault into the stratosphere of rock stardom. The subsequent success of the artists sparked more commercial interest in Temple of the Dog, and the album eventually went on to sell more than 1 million copies, while “Hunger Strike” remains one of the most poignant and well-known pieces Cornell ever wrote.
In 2016, Temple of the Dog played their first-ever run of live performances in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary, including shows at NYC’s Madison Square Garden, Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre, and San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, LA’s The Forum, and Seattle’s Paramount Theater. Of course, the band performed the material from their sole LP, but Vedder opted not to participate in the anniversary shows, presumably so that his presence (as a modern-day rock superstar) wouldn’t overshadow Cornell’s songwriting.
Considering the absence of Vedder on last year’s brief Temple of the Dog run, the final time that he and Cornell performed their now-iconic vocal duo on “Hunger Strike” together was at the 2014 Bridge School Benefit on 10/25/14 at Shoreline Amphitheatre, where the band reunited for a mini-set and the two vocalists delivered a powerful acoustic rendition of the hit tune. You can watch the sly smiles on Vedder and Cornell’s faces as they perform the emotional song together for what would their final time below (via YouTube user mfc172).
Pearl Jam w/ Chris Cornell – “Hunger Strike” – Bridge School Benefit 2014
Rest in peace, Chris Cornell, a truly one-of-a-kind talent gone all too soon.
[Originally published 5/23/17]