Three years after Chris Cornell’s death, the first proper biography of the Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman has arrived. “Total F*cking Godhead” — the title borrowed from a phrase Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt once used to describe the band — is the product of exhaustive research from Washington-based music journalist Corbin Reiff, who has written for Rolling Stone, Uproxx and The Seattle Times, among others.
The unauthorized biography (Post Hill Press via Simon & Schuster, $28) takes readers through the former Ray’s Boathouse cook’s days banging on the drums in his North Seattle garage through his rise to rock stardom and his final days during a 2017 tour. Weaving together past interviews with the band and fresh accounts with those who worked closely with Cornell, the book offers an intimate portrait of the Seattle icon and incredibly detailed accounts from the tours and studio sessions that shaped his career.
We spoke with Reiff ahead of the book’s July 28 release. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s your relationship with Soundgarden and Chris Cornell’s music?
A: His music always resonated with me and I’ve always been a longtime fan. After he passed, for some reason it hit me like not a lot of celebrity deaths had. I was looking around at what the landscape was of books and articles about him and how they stacked up compared to other artists. It seemed like, in the pecking order, he had done so much, but maybe the public didn’t realize it.
Q: The grunge origin stories have been told a million times, but you don’t often hear it oriented around Soundgarden. Why did you feel it was important to have that piece of the history on the record?
A: Soundgarden was one of the first bands that really had it together. It seems like in a lot of accounts, Soundgarden is an ancillary character to other people’s successes. But really, they motivated a lot of the movement that happened in the early Seattle music scene. They were such a dynamic presence and Chris was such an undeniable frontman that they really made a lot of waves.
Q: The book gets at some of the tensions that arose within the band and Chris’ issues with substance abuse, but the music is still very much the center. Was that something you wanted to be a focus from the jump?
A: I did. I’m a music writer first. In Chris’ story — his substance abuse, those elements are in there. You’re going to get a clear picture, I hope, from the book. But the reason why he’s notable and we care about him is because of the music, and I think to lose sight of that fact is foolish. So, I wanted to show people how he grew as a songwriter, coming from someone who was a drummer and not really musically proficient to writing songs like “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun” and working with altered tunings and different time signatures. It’s pretty remarkable.
Q: In the introduction, you mention feeling sources tighten up or bailing as legal issues between the band and estate came up. What was the response from the band and his estate when you approached them?
A: I don’t want to get too much into it because there’s a lot of stuff I can’t really get into. I was hopeful we could get some talks going on the record, but with everything going on it just didn’t happen.
Q: How did your perception of Chris change while working on this?
A: He was a hard person to try to understand because he went through so many different changes in his life. He was also a little bit inscrutable, you know, so that was challenging. But going from my perspective of him being a guy, shirt off, screaming on stage, all that music I love and being this really intense dude, to learning how funny he was; how much he cared about people and his family. He had a really good sense of himself and his values and he lived his life according to those values.
I really grew to respect him as a person the more that I learned about him and the way he rose to the challenges that he met in his life. Even going to [Mother Love Bone’s] Andrew Wood. His roommate dies, it’s a huge loss for the community and Chris personally, and he responds by making this tribute album to him. A lot of what we know about Andrew Wood and the way we celebrate him to this day is because of Chris’ efforts with Temple of the Dog.
Q: Soundgarden had a dark, sort of cheeky sense of humor in some of their work, but I feel like Chris doesn’t always get enough credit for that, often being portrayed as this brooding, wild frontman. At least early on.
A: Oh, absolutely. There’s almost a Kurt Cobain dynamic with him, where a lot of people, because of the way they passed or the music they wrote, they see them as these dour individuals. And that was just not the truth with Chris. He was funny. I mean, he wrote “Big Dumb Sex.” People forget that. They weren’t necessarily the “Frowngarden” band that Guns N’ Roses painted them as on that ’92 tour.
Q: What’s one thing that surprised you to learn about Chris?
A: I don’t know if it surprised me, but I was fascinated by the different chances he took in his music through the years. For as stuck as the image of him as this screamer, the metal guy — or was — because of those formative years in the early ’90s, he never really stopped trying to take swings at different genres, different artistic motifs — even if it didn’t work out.
Q: Nirvana and Pearl Jam were the biggest of the big four grunge bands, first-ballot Rock & Roll Hall of Famers. How do you view Soundgarden’s legacy within the context of the grunge scene?
A: They were first. They helped pave the way. A lot of major-label A&Rs came up to see Soundgarden in the first place and found this really fertile scene of bands that were club-hardened, had records and were ready to go and make their mark on the world. Who knows what would have happened if Temple of the Dog never occurred, or if [Soundgarden’s manager] Susan Silver didn’t give Nirvana some advice along the way before they signed to Geffen? Soundgarden is more central to the story of helping create that scene than people realize.
Their own place in it, I equate Nirvana as sort of The Beatles, Pearl Jam’s kinda The Who and you have Soundgarden, which is Led Zeppelin — loud, abrasive, big riffs, long solos. There’s nothing more that I like than that, so they will always be No. 1 to me in that regard.
“Total F*cking Godhead” by Corbin Reiff, Post Hill Press, 384 pp., $28