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Cornell pushed rock boundaries

May 19, 2017 GMT

My first exposure to Chris Cornell came in the 1992 film “Singles.” Matt Dillon’s character — almost a parody of Cornell — tries to impress Bridget Fonda’s character by installing her car stereo. As he cranks up the volume, Cornell walks by and gives a little nod like, “Right on man, sweet sound system.” Then the volume of the stereo shatters every window in the car. Cornell doesn’t break character; he remains stoned out and grooving to the tunes.

Later, I realized Cornell was also the guy fronting Soundgarden in the incredible live footage from the early Seattle scene in “Singles.” More than any of his grunge peers, Cornell was a golden god of rock. He emulated Robert Plant (adding more than a dash of punk, hardcore and Neil Young, too). And he did it with a ferocious, impressive force. (Cornell died Wednesday at 52 after a concert in Detroit. The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office said the death was a suicide by hanging in a statement yesterday.)

Take a listen to “Outshined.” In the late ’80s, when he wrote the sludgy, sublime slice of grunge, Cornell and crew were just another band in the yet-to-explode Seattle scene. But now, when you listen to the song, you can hear they were never just another band.

From the beginning, Cornell had the looks, chops and pipes — the man had a singular, epic voice — of a legend. Such ace tunes as “Burden in My Hand” and “Fell on Black Days” showcased his classic rock influence; “Searching with My Good Eye Closed” and “Jesus Christ Pose” proved he wanted to push rock ’n’ roll toward undiscovered sounds.

Soundgarden peaked in 1994 with “Superunknown.” The band broke up in 1997 and Cornell explored new approaches: pop, electronica and acoustic ballads as a solo artist, more monster volume with Audioslave, featuring members of Rage Against the Machine.

He drifted back to his old, awesome sound during the last decade. Soundgarden reunited in 2010 and performed regularly since then.

Last year, Cornell toured for the first time with grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog. The band’s self-titled album is easily grunge’s most underrated LP — listen to the “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” a tribute to late singer Andrew Wood, for proof.

Cornell only seemed to be speeding up as he aged. Spend some time with the tremendous 2012 Soundgarden reunion record “King Animal” and you’ll hear what I mean.

“We’re all about 50 (years old), and the tempos on ‘King Animal’ on average are faster than anything we’ve done before,” Cornell told me in 2014. “To me, it sounds like the record a young band would make.”