Corbin Reiff Discusses Writing Posthumous Biography of Chris Cornell

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - APRIL 06: Chris Cornell of Soundgarden performs on stage during the 2014 Lollapalooza Brazil at Autodromo de Interlagos on April 6, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

It’s not easy to write a book. To pen a biography of, say, a celebrity-artist like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, it takes hundreds of hours of research. You have to find the right macro- and micro-narratives. You have to interview dozens of people, ask difficult questions and be open to surprising responses. You also have to not drive yourself crazy along the way, either by taking on the dark realities you research or by thinking you can’t handle the task of writing Cornell’s biography in the first place.

This is what Northwest writer, Corbin Reiff, had to go through (endure?) in order to research, write and produce his recent accomplishment, Total Fucking Godhead, the biography of the screeching, model handsome Cornell, who died in 2017 of suicide, which is available now.

“Any time you write about someone – especially if they’re not there to speak for themselves – it’s a very challenging process,” Reiff says. “There were days when I had to center myself, maybe take a couple days away and do something else for a little while. I’d think about what Chris was saying. I tried to let him speak for himself. That helped me get out of the funk. What would Chris Cornell think about this?”

Reiff, who grew up around music and began to love it in high school, enlisted in the army after graduation. Later, he attended Washington’s progressive Evergreen State College. He wrote blogs, got freelance assignments with the alt paper, The Seattle Weekly, and with the local paper of record, The Seattle Times. That turned into writing for Rolling Stone, Uproxx and just about every other name music outlet. Reiff then wrote the book, Lighters In The Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960-2016. When Cornell passed in 2017, he found himself writing about the grunge singer, so his then-book editor brought up the idea of a biography.

“There wasn’t enough attention on Soundgarden or Chris’s life,” Reiff says. “There is this giant catalogue of music that I think people respect and appreciate. But not to the extend that I thought his legacy deserved.”

Seattle in the 90s was famous for its music and, more specifically, its four-headed grunge monster of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. But while the first three got plenty of adulation, to many Soundgarden didn’t get its due respect. The band was the only of the four not to play an MTV Unplugged show, for example. One reason for that, Reiff notes, is that Soundgarden came first. Sometimes the prophet doesn’t get the appreciation the chosen ones do. Cornell was the first and so, perhaps, the least best remembered.

“Pearl Jam came around in 1990, Nirvana like 1991,” Reiff says. “But Soundgarden started at the end of 1984. There was a six-year gestation period on indie labels like Sub Pop and SST before inking their first major label deal.”

To write the book, Reiff interviewed people like famed engineer, Jack Endino, who recorded early Soundgarden material for Sub Pop. Reiff also talks with Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, along with many former roadies, engineers, musicians, friend and family. The biography is rich with sad stories, triumphs, creative achievements, love, divorce, disillusionment, redemption and tragedy. Though we know the ending, that doesn’t stop the waterworks. The story of the 90s in Seattle is often a sad song and in Total Fucking Godhead we see why and why that sadness also turned to great art.

“Seattle was very self-contained back then,” Reiff says. “Bands didn’t make the trek from Minneapolis or L.A. to tour Seattle. So, Seattle was left to its own devices through most of the 70s and 80s, up until the 90s when it blew up.”

Reiff also listened to old concerts (particularly for Cornell’s stage banter), read every interview he could and examined records with a fine-tooth comb. He amassed a giant quote document, trying to piece the facts and storylines together, finding the eventual shape of the work. His aim was the let Cornell speak as much as possible, using quotes from old interviews, podcasts and grainy concerts, lacing them together, along with interviews and other quotes pulled from the many archives. The result is a thorough, comprehensive work that traces Cornell’s life from childhood through fatherhood and the end.

“It was hard to let go of the book,” Reiff says. “It was bittersweet. But the point was to get something out in the world so people could understand Chris better, his motivations, his art. I’m proud that we were able to do that. I wish I had five more years to work on it – but, alas!”

Leave a Reply

Dispatch Discusses Release Adjustments Made During Pandemic, Social Unrest

Luluc Reflects on the Journey To A New ‘Dreamboat’