Early this morning, news broke that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell had died. He was only 52 years old, and apparently committed suicide by hanging. It is shocking and devastating news, and already many musicians and fans have spoken about the sorrow of such a loss. RIP, Chris Cornell.
This is, sadly, not the first grunge icon we’ve lost. The world famously mourned the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain back in 1994, at the height of grunge’s popularity. After grunge had withered away and been replaced by post grunge, Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley died in his home on the 8th anniversary of Kurt’s death, though his body wasn’t found until two weeks later. And before grunge had even reached the masses, rising star Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone died just as his music career began in 1990. What is it about those in the grunge community passing too soon?
Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell have all died too young. Do the deaths of four grunge frontmen suggest a curse, or just a sad coincidence? What do these four grunge singers have in common? What connects their untimely deaths?
Born in the ’60s, Raised in Seattle
The most basic thread connecting these four grunge icons is simple age and place. All four of them were born in the 1960s, and all came from the greater Seattle area. Andrew was born in Mississippi, but grew up on Bainbridge Island, just a short ferry ride away from downtown Seattle. Kurt grew up way out on the west coast of Washington in a town called Aberdeen. It’s a solid 2.5 hour drive from Seattle. Layne grew up in Lynnwood, just north of Seattle. Only Chris grew up in Seattle itself.
Though they all grew up in their respective western Washington homes, they all ended up being a part of the Seattle area music scene that was brewing. They were all part of the movement that became known as grunge.
The Grunge Music Scene’s Biggest Frontmen
The obvious connection they all share is that they were each not only in major grunge bands, but were the frontmen and vocalists for those bands. Before Andrew’s death, Mother Love Bone had a ton of buzz and were expected to make it big with their first release. It’s impossible to know whether those predictions would have come true had Andrew lived. But most agree that Mother Love Bone would have made it, and it would have been the Big 5 rather than the Big 4.
Layne Staley and Chris Cornell were the leaders of the two more metal-leaning bands. Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were huge, if not quite as commercially successful as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Kurt Cobain, of course, was the most widely recognizable of the Big 4.
What is it about the grunge singers that rushed them to early deaths? For better or for worse, it seems that the other band members tended to fare better. The only major non-singer from the grunge scene to die was Alice In Chains’ ex-bassist, Mike Starr, in 2011.
Drug Addiction… Especially Heroin
Another connection between the four lost frontmen? Drugs. Especially heroin. Drugs were a big part of the scene, and not just among musicians or grunge fans. It wasn’t a problem exclusive to the grunge community, but it is one that defined it to some extent. Nearly all of the grunge musicians did drugs to varying degrees. For some it was just marijuana, but for others harder drugs like cocaine and heroin came into the mix.
After years of drug abuse, Andrew Wood overdosed on heroin in March 1990. The overdose put him into a coma he would never wake up from; he died three days later. Kurt Cobain also publicly battled heroin addiction. Stints in rehab and a nearly-fatal overdose early in 1994 led up to his apparent suicide that April.
Layne Staley’s drug addictions lasted a lot longer. He allegedly started using heroin after recording Facelift in 1990, but before the band’s 1992 album, Dirt. He openly talked about his addiction in many songs on Dirt, and his addiction left him essentially unable to tour with Alice In Chains. After the band’s eponymous third album cycle, during which time Layne was already looking worse for wear, he was only able to record two more songs with Alice In Chains. One of them, “Died,” was about his fiancée who had died in 1996 due to health complications caused by her own drug addictions. Though Layne went to rehab dozens of times, he was never able to kick the habit.
In all four cases, the early deaths were ultimately self-inflicted, whether intentional or accidental.
Both Kurt Cobain’s and Chris Cornell’s deaths were ruled suicides. While Kurt’s weapon of choice was gun, Chris opted for death by hanging. Both men chose to end their lives. Why? In Kurt’s case, it may have been a combination of depression and shame in his own fame. But what about Chris? He had suffered depression when he was younger and still involved in drugs. Did his depression continue even after he became sober?
The other two men didn’t commit suicide, and likely didn’t intend to die, but they ultimately took their own lives. Andrew Wood inadvertently caused his own death when he took too much heroin. Layne Staley’s drug problems persisted for over a decade before they finally left him emaciated and too weak to fight it anymore. His death was also ruled an overdose (of heroin and cocaine), but his can be seen as a long, drawn-out suicide by years of drug abuse.
What Set Chris Apart?
Chris Cornell lived a lot longer than Andrew, Kurt, and Layne, and yet still died too soon. While the first three were gone by the ages of 24, 27, and 34, Chris lived another two or three decades. He was 52 years old when he committed suicide. Still too young, but at least into middle age.
In part thanks his longer life, Chris had also quit drugs before his death. He found success in rehab, and was sober for many years before his death. He was the only one who died sober.
Out of the four frontmen who have passed away, the first three all died in Seattle. Only Chris Cornell died not only in another city, but another state. He committed suicide in Detroit, Michigan.
What Sets Eddie Apart?
It’s impossible not to notice that 3 of the Big 4 bands’ frontmen are dead. (4 of the 5 if you count Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone.) Now we only have Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder left of the original four bands that rose to major success. How has this last hero continued on longer than his grunge peers?
The first notable difference between Eddie and the other four is that he’s not from western Washington. He was born and raised in Illinois until he was 10 years old, at which time his family relocated to San Diego, California.
Eddie was also not a founding member of his grunge band. He traveled to Seattle to audition for a new band called Pearl Jam in 1990. The band was formed by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, previously in the bands Green River and Mother Love Bone. Within a week, he had joined the band.
Beyond those small differences, Eddie shares the other connections. He is the frontman of one of the biggest bands to come out of the grunge scene, and drugs were a part of it, at least back when they were getting started. He also had plenty of personal turmoils, starting with his discovery that his dad wasn’t his biological father when he was a teenager. (Likewise, his three younger brothers were actually all half-brothers.) He’s been divorced and has abused drugs and alcohol.
But the question remains: Will Eddie Vedder still be here in 10, 20, 30 years? Will he escape this curse on the grunge singers? Or, will he evade the coincidental, unlucky deaths that have plagued the grunge community?
Of course, beyond Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden, countless other grunge bands were instrumental in the genre’s development and continuation. Some of the grunge bands, like Melvins and Mudhoney, are still performing today. Others, like Screaming Trees and Tad, disbanded years ago. But luckily, all are still alive and well.
It is sad that so many of grunge’s best musicians have died, and so young. It seems Alice In Chains predicted it right when they opened their first album with “We Die Young.”
Chris Cornell’s death is shocking and saddening, and just one more tragedy that has marred the grunge scene in the last 30 years. Rest in peace, Chris. And hopefully Eddie will continue to carry the grunge torch along with the other surviving members of all the grunge bands.