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During separate stints with Soundgarden and Audioslave, Chris Cornell was seen as the sort of brooding performer who had no time for glad-handing or show-business conventions. So why the holy hell did he agree to appear on Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards, a June broadcast during which he bantered with co-presenter Mandy Moore before handing a trophy festooned with a set of faux antlers (dubbed "mantlers" for the occasion) to a guy from Disturbed, which was named the planet's "ballsiest band"?
Because the folks at Spike invited him, Cornell says from a tour stop in Brussels, Belgium — and because, as a born-again solo artist supporting a new disc, pointedly titled Carry On, he didn't need to tiptoe around group members mopey over not being given the chance to hang with Mandy as well.
"When you're on your own, you get asked to do things that you don't get asked to do with a band," he notes, adding, "I don't know how many times I've said no to cover stories on magazines when I've been in bands because they only wanted me instead of the whole band."
Indeed, the only time Cornell remembers accepting such an offer was during his Soundgarden days, when the Spin minions were planning an article on grunge "and they wanted me, and me only, on the cover." Ultimately, Cornell's bandmates gave him the go-ahead, which he considered "good band thinking. Because at the end of the day, it's about what's best for the band. But usually it doesn't work out that way."
Cornell, 42, speaks from experience that he embraces rather than rejects. ("I get more elder-statesman-of-rock offers than I used to, simply because I'm older and I'm still around," he allows, with a measure of pride.) In 1984, during a period when he was earning his living as a restaurant grunt, he helped launch Soundgarden, one of the first, best and longest-lasting proto-grunge acts. Following the outfit's 1997 dissolution, Cornell set out on his own, emerging two years later with Euphoria Morning, a CD that replaced the rock thunder of early Soundgarden platters such as 1989's Louder Than Love with a more nuanced, contemplative set of tunes. Euphoria numbers such as "Can't Change Me" and "Preaching the End of the World" hold up quite well, but upon their original release, they caught Soundgarden boosters off guard.
"Looking back on it, I think my biggest focus was making a record where I just got to exercise all these different influences musically that I hadn't gotten to exercise in Soundgarden — knowing that it would probably alienate some fans and that it wasn't necessarily going to have commercial potential," he says. "Back then, I'd just come off a pretty successful string of Soundgarden records, and then I made a record that sounded nothing like any of them. I don't know that it made sense to people."
A modest tour followed, but Cornell was in no shape to win over the masses. He's spoken openly about the alcohol and substance abuse that burdened him during this period, and he was still in a comparative fog in early 2001 when guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, who constituted three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine, approached him about joining a new ensemble at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin. (Rage had just folded because mouthpiece Zack de la Rocha wanted to devote himself to personal projects that never came to fruition.) After several fits and starts, Cornell signed on, and devoted himself to cleaning up before Audioslave's formal launch. He arrived at the set of the new outfit's first video straight from rehab and was transported back as soon as the shoot wrapped.
This chain of events convinced many observers that Audioslave was less an organic group than the musical equivalent of a corporate merger, with profit as the primary goal. Morello dismissed that view in a 2003 Westword interview, calling Audioslave "the first supergroup garage band" and emphasizing the chumminess of everyone involved. Cornell's take is similar, if more pragmatic.
"Coming from a band like Soundgarden and then being solo for so many years, the only way I would leave being solo was if it was an environment that was very friendly and hassle-free and relaxed — and we're just having fun making records, because that's what doing solo records is like," he says. "Why move away from that to do something if there's going to be conflict, and if there's going to be arguments and difficulty doing day-to-day business?"
From Cornell's perspective, things went smoothly during the creation of 2002's Audioslave, the outfit's first and finest recording. The quartet's focus was "on the musical leap those three guys had to make," he maintains. "They were taking a much bigger leap than I did musically, which I think was uncomfortable for them, and I was extremely supportive and proud of them in watching them do it. They literally weren't sure how the other guy was feeling about it. In other words, it was like, 'If I play this part on guitar, are the two other guys from Rage going to think it's gay?'"
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