The Seattle grunge scene of the 1980s and early ’90s suffered no shortage of press coverage in its heyday, and has seen no shortage of books attempting to grapple with its legacy. From Michael Azerrard’s in-the-moment bio “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana” to Mark Yarm’s indispensable “Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History
of Grunge” written two decades later, scholarly interest in one of the last true watershed movements in rock ’n’ roll has shown no signs of slowing down.
Yet one of the defining Generation X rock icons has often been weirdly overlooked: Chris Cornell, the force-of-nature singer-songwriter who led Soundgarden and later Audioslave through two decades at the vanguard of hard rock before dying of suicide in 2017. Enter Corbin Reiff’s “Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell,” an extensive 384-page tome out July 28 from Post Hill Press, which looks to fill in the life behind all the screaming.
Without the opportunity to interview Cornell — or indeed the surviving members of Soundgarden — Reiff relied on a trove of primary source research as well as dozens of interviews with the engineers, roadies, producers, friends, peers, video directors and journalists who spent time on the ground with him. (Seattle street performer Artis the Spoonman, immortalized in one of Soundgarden’s biggest hits, is one of the many unexpected passing characters in Cornell’s life who show up here to offer surprising insight.)
In addition to offering exhaustive accounts of Cornell’s recording sessions and tours, Reiff unearths plenty of unexpected details and novel anecdotes, from Cornell’s surprising numerological inspiration for writing “Hunger Strike” to his near-casting in “The Usual Suspects” and his hilariously botched first attempt to indulge in a bit of old-fashioned rock star hotel destruction. But the book is perhaps most valuable for the way it rounds out and humanizes this man who managed to keep so many of his cards close to the vest despite decades in the spotlight — a rock star who slowly fashioned a space for himself in a not-always-supportive milieu, and then kept pushing himself into unfamiliar corners long after he could have comfortably coasted on his reputation.
“The more you learn about someone, usually, the more you find a lot of warts,” Reiff says. “Things that cause you to question what you think about them, feel about them. Any Kanye West fan can tell you right now that when you put people on a pedestal they tend to let you down. But I’ve gotta say, I really was a fan of Chris’ artistry throughout basically my entire life, but it was through learning more and more about him, the values he followed, his sense of humor, the way he treated people, that I really grew to respect him as a person. He became a lot more multidimensional to me.”
By Andrew Barker