In the 1990’s, a unique cluster of musicians helped push grunge into loftier, and more commercial heights. Among them were Chester Bennington, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Shannon Hoon, Michael Hutchence, Bradley Noell, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, and Andrew Wood. These individuals embodied unbounded potential that ended in tragedy. All died of either suicide or drug overdose. Wood, founder of Mother Love Bone, was the youngest at 24 and Soundgarden’s Cornell the oldest, at 53.
Despite the disparity between their varied musical styles — grunge, rock, ska — these men shared much in common. Jeremy Weiss, Director of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania LAUNCH Music Conference & Festival, CI Records, noted:
I always felt that their main commonality was in their authenticity; the authenticity of their emotion, and of their art. They seemed, somehow, “connected”, genre-wise, despite the absence of a truly similar sound. It also seems to me that these individuals found the acclaim hard to take, the praise uncomfortable, the expectations to be too much. Sadly, what I think they ultimately had in common, beyond their extraordinary gifts, was real pain, somewhat derived from the pressure of their immense successes, and perhaps, somewhat preexisting.
That pain slowly consumed four of these extraordinary individuals, who died at their own hands. Suicide claimed the lives of Bennington, Cornell, and Hutchence, who died from hanging, and Cobain from a shotgun wound.
Suicide seems so improbable. We find it difficult to comprehend feelings of depression and discontentment among our celebrities, as we envision them to be forever basking in the ecstasy of fame. But, once off the stage, many revert back to their vulnerable human persona. In his article, “The Shocking Truth About the Musicians who Committed Suicide,” Joshua Infantado, concluded that success comes with equal parts of affirmation and disappointment:
Popularity and success in the entertainment industry are intoxicating. Some musicians came to the stage as a way to assuage their cravings for acceptance and love from their audience. Since some performers already have episodes of depression, they need the affirmation from so many people to feel good. But flattery and happiness based on the affection of so many people they don’t even know are bound to lead to dissatisfaction, disappointments, and heartbreak. This feeling of disappointment intensifies as soon as the musician leaves the stage and go home to an empty house.
The expectation and demand for high achievers like famous musicians can be very stressful. They are expected to stay on top of their game and most often than not, they will fail sooner or later. No one can actually maintain a high status in the society without really sacrificing so much just to please the crowd. If you can’t give what people want, you will soon be replaced by others who can.
Kurt Cobain gave his audience what they wanted. As founder of Nirvana and the innovative grunge sound that emanated from the Pacific Northwest, his band was one of the biggest names at the time, with hits like “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” and “In Bloom,” a collection of raging adolescent pop songs. Their “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became the unofficial anthem for the disconnected Generation X. But Cobain was plagued with substance abuse, and in 1994 at age 27, injected a large dose of heroin before killing himself with a 12-gauge shotgun. Cobain’s body went undiscovered for four days. A suicide note, found next to his body, ended with “I love you.”
Anton Chekhov wrote, “The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it,” a philosophy reflecting our tendency to view events through a colored lens, arriving at dubious conclusions. We turn truth into mythology. When Kurt Cobain died he entered into rock’s ghoulish 27 Club, a cluster of celebrity deaths relegated to a numerical cult mysticism.
Michael Hutchence was the magnetic lead singer of the Australian band INXS, a pub-rock group that combined new wave with pop. In 1988 “Need You Tonight” became their only number-one single in the U.S. Darker forces were at hand. The charismatic Hutchence, 37, was found lifeless in his Sydney hotel room on November 22, 1997. The Coroner’s report ruled his death a suicide by hanging. A post-mortem examination found alcohol, cocaine, codeine, Prozac, Valium, and other prescribed benzodiazepines in Hutchence’s urine and blood. He left no suicide note. Despite the official report, there was continued speculation that Hutchence’s death was accidental. In a 1999 interview on 60 Minutes, Paula Yates, the singer’s girlfriend, claimed that Hutchence’s death might have resulted from autoerotic asphyxiation, during a sex game that went wrong.
Chester Charles Bennington was the lead vocalist of the metalrap group Linkin Park. The band’s initial album, Hybrid Theory, sold over ten million records and was the best-selling album of 2001. Although he was a gifted singer, songwriter and actor, he lived a troubled life, including addictions to cocaine and methamphetamine. He also admitted he was sexually abused as a child. At the time of Hybrid Theory, he was homeless and lived out of his car. He died at age 41.
All four men struggled with issues of trauma, substance abuse and depression. In a CNN interview, after her husband died, Talinda Bennington discussed the possible signs leading to suicide. She recalled:
I am now more educated about those signs, but they were definitely there: the hopelessness, the change of behavior, isolation. That was all part of our daily life. Sometimes, some signs were there more than others. Sometimes, they weren’t there at all.
It’s a lifetime of building blocks to unhealthy emotional, mental behavior, emotional pain. If we can find good coping mechanisms, if we have people we trust that we can talk to, that helps us to make better choices for ourselves. And my husband didn’t have that in a lot of situations.
Linkin Park’s Talinda Bennington, Anna Shinoda, and Jim Digby attended the 2017 LAUNCH Conference and shared their private recollections of Chester’s suicide. According to Jeremy Weiss, his organization, “confronts depression and mental health, through panels of experts, and music industry folks courageous enough to share their struggles publicly, each year. It’s become a priority for many of us.” Weiss explained:
I have come to understand, through decades of touring, and thousands of interactions with artists of all levels, there is no cure for depression in a bank balance, the amount of one’s renown, or the degree of recognition for one’s work. Depression is like being tied in a sack, with no ability to breathe. It can sometimes make one impervious to the positives getting through. In many ways, positives can exacerbate the problem, as the recipient of the accolades often feels unworthy, adding another layer still, to their inner most sadness. We must embrace those who are struggling, loose the knot around their silence, and embrace their struggle, without qualification, or a litmus test, based on their apparent commercial success. We do this, or we continue to lose exceptional people, well before their destiny & contributions have been realized.
When they came into our lives we forged a kinship with them, bonding over songs and memories that changed our lives forever. But that relationship was not meant to last. Emma Stefansky, acknowledging the recurrent combination of fame and selfdestruction, wrote:
By now, we know the drill: fame begins as a blissful thrill ride, and then the ego or the drugs or the general overwhelming experience get to our protagonists’ heads, sending them spiraling downwards toward death or slow, ugly rehabilitation full of arguments and screaming matches and reconciliations.
Pearl Jam’s 1992 album Temple of the Dog was a reconciliation, and a memorial to Andrew Wood’s untimely death. As a tribute to his friend and former roommate, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell wrote “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” Cornell was the Grammy-winning lead singer of Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. Soundgarden peaked commercially with its 1994 breakout album, Superunknown, and “Black Hole Sun,” which won the Grammy that year for best hard rock performance. Cornell’s nearly four-octave vocal range and commanding vocal technique recognized him as “Rock’s Greatest Singer” by Guitar World. He received similar honors from Rolling Stone, Hit Parader, and MTV’s “Greatest Voices in Music.” In spite of those accolades, Cornell could not go on. He was found “unresponsive” on the bathroom floor at Detroit’s MGM Grand hotel. Emergency medical personnel pronounced Cornell dead at the scene, the cause of death determined as suicide by hanging.
In his last performance before his suicide, Cornell ended his performance, cryptically, with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying.” Chester Bennington performed at Cornell’s funeral and later wrote “I can’t imagine a world without you in it.” Just two months after Cornell’s death, Bennington committed suicide. It was on July 20th, 2017, Cornell’s birthday. We will never know if Bennington’s suicide was a macabre tribute to Cornell, a veiled message to his friend.
Banded together inside a mythological temple that admitted only the brightest and most creative, these musicians made important contributions to the tapestry of popular music. Unfortunately, they were unable to excise the demons and hellhounds of depression, leaving grieving fans with a sense of abandonment and lingering sadness.
The music has stopped. The doors to the temple have closed.
Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis. Learn more at shepptonmyth.com