With the 18th anniversary of the suicide of Kurt Cobain upon us, there will certainly be a wave of retrospectives on his life, on the circumstances surrounding it. Other luminaries in the music industry have since met similar fates, albeit perhaps not as violently, their lives ending because of substance abuse. The list of premature deaths in the music industry is alarmingly long, and drug abuse is a cause or contributing factor in such numbers as to add to a cultural stereotype of successful musicians and performers as profligate sociopaths.
There were other drug-related deaths of alternative rock musicians in the 1990's, Bradley Nowell of the Southern California reggae/punk/ska band Sublime and Andrew Wood of Seattle's Mother Love Bone also both succumbed to the lethality of full-blown drug addiction. Heroin became the drug of choice for the individuals who found themselves, willing or not, to be the voice of a generation disaffected by the glam-happy superficiality of modern American music.
Many options for drug addiction treatment were available, but unfortunately ignored..
It's pointless to ask "what really killed" Kurt Cobain. It was a shotgun blast. Nowell, Wood? Heroin overdoses. It's equally pointless to try to get inside the head of a drug addict. What is perhaps more easy to understand, however, is the grinding, relentless pressure placed on individuals like these face from every corner of their industry, from their fans, and even from those closest to them.
What is more difficult to understand is the pathology that drives someone to create something that other people find compelling, and to shrink from the attention their expression creates. They retreat into drug abuse as a way to keep at bay the demands placed upon them to perform, to discuss their music, to interact.
For each case of high profile suicide or accidental overdose in rock and roll, there are countless untold stories of similar cases of self-destruction in the far less glamorous trenches of rock and roll, in the outlying bars and clubs throughout the American hinterlands. The numbing routine of load, play, load, drive, protracted over weeks at a time can drive even the most wholesome musicians to seek diversion. Drugs and alcohol are pervasive on the blue-collar gig circuit, and an easy way to kill down time.
That diversion seldom stays limited to down time, however, and many a promising young musician has met the end of their career, and sometimes their life, at the bottom of a bottle or the end of a needle. Self-destruction is accepted as an unfortunate and sometimes inevitable in the music industry. The list of names continues to grow, Whitney Houston being the latest join the list of names that invoke the clich? of fatal substance abuse in the music business.
Certainly, this phenomenon of famous people self-destructing is not limited to the music industry. Similar stories exist in other forms of expression. In professional athletics we have the cautionary tale of Len Bias, an NCAA basketball superstar drafted by the NBA's Boston Celtics with an unprecedented, multimillion dollar contract who died of a cocaine overdose two days after signing. Pete Rose will never make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Copperstown because of the incomprehensible decision to bet on his team while he was playing
There is no shortage of names from literature, visual arts, politics, broadcasting, or any other public human endeavor that have succumbed to a seemingly pathological compulsion to risk and to ultimately lose everything.
The stories fascinate us for the apparent senselessness of the downfall. Why were they so unhappy?
We ask. Didn't they have everything they ever wanted? What were they complaining about?
But for those of whom the questions are asked, the questions do not have answers. The individuals themselves had no answers, and they left us with nothing but endless speculation. It is impossible for the uninitiated to know the toll taken by a life on the road. For those not crippled with depression, as Cobain almost certainly was, it is impossible to fathom the hopelessness it brings. Add to that a dangerous drug addiction, and the combination of factors increases the likelihood of a premature exit, whether from life or from the industry.
The anniversary of Cobain's suicide will prompt discussion about the perils of drug abuse, of near-instant fame and fortune, of the struggle to find meaning and relevance in a life in rock and roll. And that morbid fascination with the self-destruction of those figures who went down that path to either death or ruin ensures that more stories like Kurt Cobain's will make it to the front page.