Chris Cornell’s talents transcend the grunge genre he helped create

Chris Cornell, who committed suicide after a concert yesterday, was at the heart of the change in rock in the 1990s

Earlier this year Chris Cornell released a new solo single, “The Promise,” which doubles as the theme song to the new Christian Bale movie of the same name. Although orchestras curl up around the song’s main acoustic guitar melody, Cornell’s singing takes center stage. His voice, weathered like aged leather but not raspy or faltering, defies categorization: Cornell exhibits the confidence of a pop balladeer, the vulnerability of a folk singer and the weariness of a rock ‘n’ roll icon who’s seen it all.

“The Promise” marked the latest sonic iteration for Cornell, who committed suicide after Soundgarden’s Wednesday night show in Detroit. But this soundtrack song was hardly a surprising departure. Cornell lived what felt like a million musical lifetimes in his 30-plus-year career because he possessed the kind of versatile voice that gave him musical options outside hard rock.

“My history of singing has always probably been closer to a David Bowie approach than, for example, an AC/DC approach,” Cornell told Spin in 2014. “I never thought of myself as being the singer that wanted to create an identity and then stick to that. As a child, I was this record collector/listener that would sit in a room and listen to the entire Beatles catalog alone, over and over and over again.”

He added, “I think that affected my vocal approach because there were four singers in that band, and I never knew who was singing what. I was a little kid; I didn’t really care. I thought that’s what rock music was and I thought that’s what making an album was: You sang in the style and with the feel that the song was asking for.”

Still, Cornell was one of the few hard-rock singers who didn’t need a Plan B. As the frontman of Soundgarden, he steered the band’s dense amalgamations of classic rock, heavy metal and psychedelic rock with fearless gravitas. He’d slide from feral yowls to somber intonations, often in the same song, capturing the band’s roiling disquiet. Soundgarden was lumped into the grunge movement almost by default, but the band transcended this niche in large part because Cornell pushed it into more classic territory.

If anything, Cornell felt like the glue that held together Soundgarden’s disparate sonic textures and personalities together. That was one of his strengths as a band frontman — a fact that became clear when he moved on to front Audioslave, a group comprised of Rage Against the Machine’s instrumentalists. Cornell corralled Audioslave’s towering hard rock into something both fresh and timeless, by being a typically expressive vocalist: passionate and wary, cathartic and subdued.

Unlike many of his peers who had to work around unique or unorthodox voices, Cornell was a naturally charismatic singer with acrobatic range. Although open about his influences — namely, he was an avowed acolyte of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin — Cornell absorbed what he learned from these greats and spun this into his own strengths. It’s difficult to call someone so popular underrated or underappreciated, but Cornell’s presence was easy to take for granted, since he was such an ingrained part of rock ‘n’ roll culture.

Yet Cornell’s studious, malleable approach to music also made him a natural for moving beyond pure hard rock and into movie soundtrack work. He showed off a stunning, blues-influenced delivery — a torch singer’s croon, really — on “Misery Chain,” a duet with Joy Williams on the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack. Cornell brought a rugged touch to “You Know My Name,” the theme of the 2006 James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” and turned in a dusky, haunted vocal performance on the Golden Globe-nominated “The Keeper.”

Best of all, however, is “Sunshower,” a lost classic on 1998’s “Great Expectations” soundtrack. The psychedelic-tinged acoustic pop song boasts one of Cornell’s most commanding and naked vocal performances:  “When you’re all in pain/ And you feel the rain come down,” he sings, his voice cracking with anguish. “Oh, it’s all right/ When you find your way/ Then you see it disappear/ Oh, it’s all right.” “Sunshower” is both comforting and despairing; Cornell gives into emotional pain, while also reminding himself that these feelings are temporary.

As this song underscores, Cornell’s solo work was rewarding for listeners in entirely different ways — bare and vulnerable and often so intimate that it felt like an intrusion to listen. (His 1999 solo album, “Euphoria Mourning,” is a particularly underrated collection.) But Cornell flourished with this approach, especially when performing live. Like another one of his idols, Elvis Costello, he embarked on marathon solo shows, where he could cover favorite songs (John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”), tell stories and dip into different corners of his catalog. For some artists, acoustic shows are a necessary evil; Cornell, however, was comfortable being alone.

About the only solo departure that didn’t work was “Scream,” a widely derided, electro-leaning 2009 album produced by Timbaland. The lukewarm reception had less to do with Cornell’s performances, however, and more to do with biases against rockers going pop. And this didn’t hurt his career: All told, Cornell dominated mainstream rock radio throughout the ’90s and well into the 2000s, making him as much the patriarch of modern heavy and hard rock as Eddie Vedder, and the late Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.

In fact, as Salon’s Gabriel Bell pointed out, “Cornell’s death marks the passing of yet another voice and face familiar to those who grew up witnessing the profound changes rock music underwent in the early 1990s.” It’s shocking and jarring that another one of these familiar icons is gone, especially in the midst of what appeared to be a successful Soundgarden tour. The band was due to headline Friday night during the sold-out Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio.

On my Facebook page, no two people were posting the same Cornell-associated song, another testament to the breadth and depth of his career. Yet whether performing snarling hard rock or plaintive acoustic folk, Cornell exuded melancholy, anxiety and desolation via his voice. Even early on in Soundgarden’s career, when his fondness for Robert Plant was most evident, Cornell sounded like an old soul, his angst coming from a deep, unknown place. He was a great singer because of his empathy — an innate characteristic that can’t be taught, but something he possessed in spades.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

The Big Short: The criminality of Wall Street and the crash of 2008

By Joanne Laurier
31 December 2015

Directed by Adam McKay; screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis

Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short is a hard-hitting comedy-drama about the historic collapse of the US housing bubble in 2008.

Based on Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine(2010), the film offers a picture of rampant criminality on the part of the financial establishment and its government co-conspirators who, while systematically looting the American economy, created a financial disaster.

The calamity was further deepened by the use of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to bail out the biggest Wall Street firms. For millions of people in the US and around the world, the 2008 collapse was a social tragedy from which there has been no meaningful recovery. Yet, as The Big Shortpoints out, the bankers and speculators––who ought to be sitting in prison––are richer and more powerful today than ever.

McKay’s The Big Short centers on a number of Wall Street “outliers” who, despite the efforts of the banks, government regulators and media lackeys, uncover the truth about the explosive market for bonds based on subprime mortgages: that the latter are “junk” and a rotten foundation for an economic boom.

The Big Short

The film takes the form of a series of vignettes involving these figures, a number of whose paths cross at critical moments.

Bankers, The Big Short’s narrator (Ryan Gosling) explains at the outset, were once perceived as staid and conservative. Now, as the trade in mortgage-backed securities mushrooms and a vast housing bubble develops, they have gone “from the country club to the strip club,” a function of the degree of parasitism and degeneracy in the system.

Christian Bale plays the real-life San Jose, California neurosurgeon-turned-money manager Michael Burry, who sports a glass eye and has a penchant for heavy metal. With a manic focus, he spends the end of 2004 and early 2005 scanning hundreds of home loans that are packaged into mortgage bonds, eventually discovering an alarming pattern. As opposed to the prevailing wisdom that “the housing market is rock solid,” Burry comes to believe it is a flimsy house of cards.

Burry approaches Goldman Sachs, seeking to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars in credit default swaps (a form of insurance against a loan default or other credit event) that amount to a bet against the housing market. His hedge fund’s owners and investors are apoplectic, but the eccentric, anti-social Burry is convinced that patience is the key as he waits for the bottom to drop out and his assumptions to pay off. (According to Lewis’s book, Burry explained, “I’m not making a bet against a bond, I’m making a bet against a system.”)

He admonishes his skeptics: “[Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan assures us that home prices are not prone to bubbles––or major deflations––on any national scale. This is ridiculous, of course…. In 1933, during the fourth year of the Great Depression, the United States found itself in the midst of a housing crisis that put housing starts at 10 percent of the level of 1925. Roughly half of all mortgage debt was in default. During the 1930s, housing prices collapsed nationwide by roughly 80 percent.”

Jared “Chicken Little” Vennett (Gosling, playing a fictionalized Greg Lippman), a Deutsche Bank subprime mortgage bond manager, gets wind of Burry’s astonishing gamble. Vennett, slick, sleazy and smart, crunches the numbers and sees a potential gold mine.

Vennett solicits financial backing from Wall Street-bashing Mark Baum (Steve Carell, based on Steve Eisman), head of FrontPoint Partners, a unit of Morgan Stanley. Vennett explains the certainty of a housing catastrophe. The irascible Baum, who continues to suffer from his brother’s suicide, is chronically appalled by the banks’ shenanigans.

The Big Short

To investigate Vennett’s claims, Baum sends his colleagues to a subdivision in Florida, where they discover homes in foreclosure, delinquent mortgages that were purchased in the name of family pets, and a stripper who owns several properties—all with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs)—and was told that continuous refinancing would always work in her favor. In one abandoned south Florida home, an alligator has taken over the swimming pool. One of Baum’s associates says, “It’s like Chernobyl.”

Baum also talks to cocky young mortgage brokers who inform him, with a laugh, that they have made millions selling subprime mortgages to poor people and immigrants. He subsequently meets with a Standard & Poor’s representative (Melissa Leo), who tells Baum she has to rate all the banks’ financial vehicles at AAA (the top rate) to keep their business.

Another of The Big Shor t’s plot strands involves young, inexperienced money managers, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who parlay $110,000 of their own money into a $30 million fund. Also seeing the writing on the wall for the housing market, they enlist the help of retired guru/trader and drop-out Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, based on Ben Hockett), whose connections help them secure an agreement enabling them to work directly with the banks.

The filmmakers intersperse the narrative with comic interludes featuring what they call “celebrity explainers,” brought in to help make the complicated terminology comprehensible. In the movie’s production notes, director McKay elaborates: “Bankers do everything they can to make these transactions seem really complicated, so we came up with the idea of having celebrities pop up on the screen throughout the movie and explain things directly to the audience.”

Sipping champagne in a bubble bath, actress Margot Robbie discusses mortgage-backed securities, while chef Anthony Bourdain compares a “toxic financial asset” to a seafood stew. (McKay recruited Bourdain after reading the latter’s recommendation that no one should “order seafood stew because it’s where cooks put all the crap they couldn’t sell.”

The director goes on, “I thought, ‘Oh my God that’s a perfect metaphor for a collateralized debt obligation, where the banks bundle a bunch of bad mortgages and sell it as a triple-A rated financial product.’”)

Economist Dr. Richard Thaler and actress Selena Gomez take part in a casino sequence to demonstrate how synthetic Credit Default Obligations (CDOs)––essentially groups of bad mortgages bundled together to hide the real likelihood of default––are the means of arranging numerous layers of speculation. Says McKay: “It was investors making those kinds of side bets on mortgage-backed securities through CDOs that drove the whole world economy to where it was poised to crash.”

The film’s tipping point comes when Vennett convinces Baum to attend the American Securities Forum in Las Vegas, an event whose out of control goings-on prove to the latter that the housing market is a gigantic Ponzi scheme.

The vindication of the nay-sayers is delayed when the housing market begins to collapse, but the value of the CDOs remains steady. Only then do the protagonists realize that the banks are concealing the toxicity of their holdings on a massive scale.

As the meltdown approaches, the mood of The Big Short markedly darkens. Baum starts to believe the “party’s over” and that “the world economy will collapse.” He is convinced the bankers “are crooks and should be in jail.”

This is effectively highlighted by a scene where Baum debates a representative of Bear Stearns. The latter sings the praises of the housing market even as the firm’s stock price falls off the cliff.

The Big Short’s approach to the run-up to one of the greatest financial crises in history, despite its comic-absurdist mode, is a serious one. The filmmakers do their best to bring this crisis and its human dimensions to life.

The film touches upon the systemic and far-reaching character of the 2008 crash. McKay and his collaborators are obviously appalled by its outcome and consequences, and even invent an alternative scenario in which the bankers responsible for the crash are jailed and the banks become regulated. They point the finger at not only those who issued the mortgages, but those who sliced and diced them into rotten products and the credit agencies that gave them top ratings. They conclude that the financial establishment made super profits through the immiseration of the population. The various actors, as clearly demonstrated by their performances, were fully committed to the project.

Of course, dramatizing something as complex as the 2008 financial collapse is an immense undertaking, involving a mass of historical and social questions.The Big Short’s makers have chosen one means of treating it. This film is clearly not the final word. While McKay and the others involved obviously feel sympathy for those devastated by the crisis, the mass of the population is largely absent. Their attitude to capitalism is a critical one, but they are not opponents of the profit system.

However, at a time when most filmmakers seem obsessed with gender, sexuality and race (and themselves), McKay and the others have chosen to treat—and treat trenchantly—one of the critical events in recent times. Genuine credit is due them.