Saturday, April 7, 2012

Music Legends, or Just Passing Tragedy?

Sometimes I listen to the radio as I drive around town, trying to get someplace on time, or running errands.  The other day was April 5, the anniversary of both Kurt Cobain's suicide (1994), and Layne Staley's overdose (2002).  On the radio, there was a spirited debate on whether or not both Cobain and Staley should be considered and elevated to legendary game changing musician status, or if they were both just embarrassing rock and roll tragedies.

I want to make it very clear before I continue, I like both of these bands and respect their contributions to music.  Many artists now list Nirvana and Alice and Chains as influences, therefore, they must be considered legends.  However, the question is about individuals.  Let me break down the arguments for referring to these men as legends with a little bit about each, and the way both died.

Layne Staley fronted Alice and Chains, a band with such a new, distinct sound that birthed an entire genre of despair and darkness never before marketable in pop music.

Layne Staley was found several days after his death by the police in his apartment.  Staley's cause of death was determined to be a speedball (cocaine and heroine injected together).  Drug addiction and abuse is a well documented phenomenon in the music industry.  Actually, it is a pretty well known thing in most entertainment circles where wealth and fame comes and goes quickly.

Staley shares the death by speedball fate with many other well-known celebrities.  Chris Farley, John Belushi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Brent Mydland (Grateful Dead), River Phoenix, Eric Snow (MLB pitcher), and even King George V (euthanized in 1936).  My point is, speedballs were notorious in 2002 as something that kills people.  Mitch Hedberg didn't get the message either.  I think we can chalk Staley's death up to stupid drug addict behavior...  an accident basically.

No one likes to see talent extinguished early.  Drug overdose, I think, is more forgivable than suicide for most people.  There are plenty of rock stars who have died prematurely from overdose, and also plenty who have not died, despite years of reckless drug use.  David Crosby, Ozzy, the  Toxic Twins, and Keith Richards all come to mind.  One thing to remember about Layne Staley is this...  even though he could have lived longer, it had seemed that he had already decided to slip into irrelevance.  Alice in Chains as a band could have been a working, touring, recording band between 1996 and 2002, but Layne Staley decided to hide and fall deeper into drug use.  He had gifts and chose to not use them, which could be less forgivable than suicide.  Although Staley did not kill himself in 1996, it seems as though he just decided to give up.

Kurt Cobain fronted Nirvana, a band that destroyed hair glam metal and ushered in the grunge alternative scene in the early '90s.  Vernon Reid of Living Colour states that Nirvana "changed the course of where music went".  The music was described as coming from many different places, good song writing when "no one was writing good songs anymore", according to producer Jack Endino.

Kurt Cobain went from a homeless heroin addict to rock god almost overnight when Nevermind hit the market on September 24, 1991.  Cobain had issues dealing with his new found fame, the public, media, addiction and depression.  He chose to end his life on April 5, 1994 by a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

This was no accident, as a suicide note found at the scene denotes premeditation.  This followed a month after an overdose in Munich, an intervention regarding his drug use, and a few instances of perceived suicidal behavior.  Based on this, I think we can conclude that Cobain also just gave up, in a more permenant fashion.  Cutting one's own life short by choice, is pretty unforgivable.  What frustrates most fans is the rumours of what Cobain may have had planned for future projects.  The follow up album to In Utero may have had a more blues/acoustic feel to it, there may have been a project with Michael Stipe from REM, how would Pat Smear's involvement as a second guitar player change the sound?

I believe the legacy of both of these men, and their bands, are tied to the Seattle grunge sound.  Did Nirvana truly change the pop music landscape on their own?  Was Alice in Chains as influential as the industry and fan base suggest?

The influence is undeniable.  However, what about the survivors?  There were plenty of other influential grunge scene musicians that did not die, or fall into drug induced irrelevance.  What about Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam?  They're the last Seattle based grunge band still playing, still producing records, and still touring.  Strong since their inception, Pearl Jam hasn't broken up, replaced key members, or even taken "hiatus" whatever that means.  What about Calvin Johnson, his unique punk fueled sound arguably influenced the entire Seattle scene at the time.  Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees, and Chris Cornell from Soundgarden have done a variety of different projects.  Also, it would be disrespectful, I think, to not mention the other band members.  Dave Grohl would go on to be a huge success with Foo Fighters, taking Pat Smear with him, and the rest of Alice in Chains proved that Layne Staley wasn't as necessary to the band as perceived.   These musicians have all been working in the industry successfully for years, and aren't hopelessly depressed, or addicts.

should have stayed with Tobi Vail?
In conclusion, based on how Kurt Cobain lived and how much he brought to the table musically and creatively, despite his self destructive behavior and nature of his death, I've decided that he is a tragic legend.
Battling depression and drug addiction sometimes is too much, and I think Cobain embodied much of what normal people suffering from similar things go through.  But, he didn't lock himself away for 6 years, he attempted to continue to live and make music until he decided it was impossible.

Layne Staley, however, even though his voice was remarkable, is not.  Alice and Chains, especially Jerry Cantrell, proved that Staley was not necessary for the band to reform with a new singer and continue.  In fact, one could argue that Staley held the band back from doing anything for 6 years while he rotted away in isolation.


  1. "Cutting ones own life short by choice is pretty un-forgiveable"... Celebrities aren't robots made for working class entertainment, they are just regular people who experience the same issues as anyone else. Also depression is a disease, you don't need to be forgiven for having it. The tragic thing about Kurt Cobain is that he had several events in his life that by no fault of his own lead to the development of depression. I'm not making excuses for his choice to take up drugs, but a bit of empathy and understanding doesn't go astray sometimes.

    1. you didn't read the whole thing, did you?

  2. Where did you get that pic of kurdt & the woman who had him killed? I was just to the left of him when it was taken

    1. I just searched for Kurt and Courtney photos until I found that one. Not really sure. It's a good one though.