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.
Reiff, a Seattle-based music critic, was in the finishing stages of his first book, “Lighters in the Sky,” when Cornell died and his editor suggested his personal fandom might make him the perfect candidate to tackle a soup-to-nuts study of the singer.
“At first I said, ‘Nah, I don’t know if I’m really the right guy to do that,’” Reiff says. “But then the idea really stayed with me. There weren’t a lot of dots connected about Soundgarden and the history of music, and even among the Seattle bands — Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains even — they had seemed a little lost to history. And so my book is in a lot of ways an attempt to rewrite that record.”
As central as he was to the Seattle rock scene, Cornell was also something of an anomaly. Typically a low-key presence offstage, his inimitably histrionic wail and shirtless sex-symbol stage antics raised a number of eyebrows in the city’s more purity-minded, hardcore-informed rock underground, and Reiff’s book does sharp work to illuminate the complex role he played within it. Though they had been a band for longer, Soundgarden hit critical mass later than many of their local peers, with their style initially proving a bit too muscular and Zeppelin-esque for the college radio crowd, and also too arty and obscure for the mainstream.
“They were always a little too ahead of their time, or were a little askew from what was going on,” Reiff says. “And the tension with Chris is that there’s the image of him as this brooding ‘Fell on Black Days’ dude, but you can’t be as good a writer as he was and not have a good sense of humor; he loved to take the piss out of things. I wanted to make sure that when people read the book they got as full a picture of who he was.”
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.”