Sounding Board

Suicide, Mental Illness, & Music 25 Years After Kurt Cobain’s Death

Shortly after the 2017 suicides of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, the air was thick with talk of clinical depression, artists and writers using their platforms to reassert that this illness is debilitating, serious and real.

“When it comes to someone like Chris Cornell or Chester, depression is a disease,” Dave Grohl told New Zealand’s Rock FM. “I think that mental health and depression is something people should take seriously. There’s a stigma attached to it, which is unfortunate. Just as you take care of yourselves in every other way, I think it’s important that people really try to take care of themselves in that way.”

Slipknot’s Shawn Crahan pleaded to NME, “What people need to know is that there are beautiful, wonderful people in the world who have empathy and work with the human condition … They understand what being ‘sick’ is. It’s not a human being’s fault to have chemical imbalances. We’re just scared.” James Hetfield of Metallica told Boston Radio station WAAF, “There is a darkness that anyone and everyone can find and feel that they’re trapped in.”

Within months, Talinda Bennington, Chester’s widow became an advocate for depression awareness, being vocal and transparent about her husband’s illness on social media and launching 320 Changes Direction. On the site, she writes, “We need to change the culture of mental health so that those in need — and their family members — are able to speak openly about their struggles so that they can seek the care they deserve.”

This enlightened and supportive look at depression and mental health hasn’t always been present in the music industry. Though we still have a long way to go, it’s heartening to look at how far we’ve come over the last quarter century.

Kurt Cobain died in April of 1994 — 25 years ago last month. In the June 1994 issue of SPIN, he was on the cover. By next month’s issue you could flip to the Classifieds and buy COBAIN DIED IN VAIN shirts for $15 (plus $2 shipping and handling). Letters about Cobain’s suicide poured in, and SPIN dutifully printed excerpts. In them, you could find plenty of words like “inspired,” “beautiful, “equality,” and “compassion.” You could also find words like “given up,” “selfish bastard,” “cowardly demise,” “Kurt didn’t have the guts to survive,” and “indulging in self-pity is not a worthy emotional state of mind.” Billboard reported that a caller to Seattle radio station KISW said there shouldn’t be a public memorial for someone who “made his child fatherless and totally copped out.”

For those of us old enough to remember living and grieving through Cobain’s death, these cold, insensitive, solipsistic, dogshit opinions were not uncommon in the ’90s. When I mentioned this on Twitter, writer Susan E. Shepard replied with a memory of her own: “I will never forget one of my (adult, I was 17) friends saying ‘junkies deserve to die’ to me when we went to a show the day the news broke.” I can remember Courtney Love, his obviously distraught widow, getting a crowd of mourners in Seattle to call him an “asshole” and a “fucker,” responding to his suicide note, “Oh shut up, bastard. Why didn’t you just enjoy it?” The idea that Cobain couldn’t just shut up and enjoy being a rock star was a common refrain. One SPIN letter from a waitress in Detroit properly illustrates:

Back in my waitress world of existence, I have been repeatedly tortured by customers day and night bitching and moaning about the ridiculous nature of Cobain’s suicide. 

Customer: “Having a million-dollar record deal, being a wild success at his career, having a wife and baby was so horrible? Give me a break!”

Waitress: “Yes it was that bad! Don’t you get it? Happiness does not equal millions of dollars, a two-car garage, a blond babe, and a kid who looks like your narcissistic ass!”

For years — years! — the narrative about Seattle grunge bands would be painted with a brush that they were all whiny millionaires, their depression and discomfort an affect to overcome with an attitude adjustment instead of a doctor. Even SPIN ran a 1995 comic by Joe Sacco in their 10th anniversary issue with two poolside rockers saying “I’m still full of angst and self-loathing.” “Yeah. All this money sucks.” An execrable season 19 episode of the Simpsons featured Homer reminiscing over his time in a grunge band called Sadgasm, quipping “I had finally realized every rock star’s dream: hating being famous.” Writer Andrew Beaujon tweeted about finding a ’90s-themed Trivial Pursuit at a flea market, and just look at the exaggerated frown on the Cobain avatar playing piece.

Much of this perception of the Sad Rock Star stemmed from the quotes of Eddie Vedder, who intentionally kneecapped “Black” from being a single from their monster 1991 debut Ten. He told Rolling Stone, “Some songs just aren’t meant to be played between Hit #2 and Hit #3. You start doing those things, you’ll crush it. That’s not why we wrote songs. We didn’t write to make hits. But those fragile songs get crushed by the business. I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t think the band wants to be part of it.” The story also features an anecdote where Vedder walks over to a group of hikers and asked them to stop singing “Black.”

Twenty-five years later, it’s safe to say that there is now are plenty of illustrative examples that, yes, fame can absolutely be a living nightmare: The paparazzi that hounded Princess Diana, the public unraveling of Britney Spears, the toxic snark of TMZ and Perez Hilton, Imagine Dragons vocalist Dan Reynolds admitting that the critical dogpiles on his band feeds into his clinical depression. The last 25 years have provided ample examples of why Beyoncé, Rihanna, Drake, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift are highly selective about who they talk to and when they talk.

Cobain felt like he was faking it on stage sometimes and Vedder talked to SPIN about it in 1995.

“I had talked to someone at length from two to six in the morning about that same exact dilemma, like two days before Kurt’s suicide,” he said. “When I found out about [his suicide], I felt like calling that person and just saying, Do you see? Do you see what it does? Do you see?” Because for some reason these complaints from artists are belittled. Somehow they’re not taken seriously.”

Or, as Kanye West — who has been open about his mental health — put it more succinctly in Drake’s “Forever”: “I used to want this thing forever, y’all can have it back.”

If you read Charles Cross’ excellent biography Heavier Than Heaven, you can see a much fuller picture of Kurt Cobain than we were given in 1994 — a tornado of physical pain, mental pain and addiction.

Cobain wasn’t “sad” or ungrateful. He had illnesses and chemical imbalances. He was diagnosed as bipolar as a youth and many in his circle think he had undiagnosed clinical depression – a disorder common in his mother’s side of the family. His father’s side had a history of multiple suicides and alcohol abuse. Cobain’s cousin Beverly said, “I know one of my uncles was gravely depressed at the time of his death.”

Also, the Fame Monster did not drive Cobain to medicate with heroin. In fact, he was using the drug during the band’s entire cycle of fame, starting in 1990 before they recorded Nevermind and was likely physically addicted for the majority of their two and a half years in the spotlight. Cobain also suffered from severe stomach pain that he self-medicated via drugs — a physical malady and a physical addiction forming a bond that no amount of rehab or interventions or doctors successfully conquered.

Look at what Cobain fought through during the last two years of his life: inherited chemical imbalances both diagnosed and otherwise, the mental scars of divorce from his childhood, a family history of suicide, unbearable stomach pain, an addiction to drugs. It wasn’t “fame” that killed Kurt Cobain, nor was it unquenched teenage angst, nor some romantic Oliver Stone rock ‘n’ roll troubled artist nonsense, nor cowardice. It was the unglamorous and unsexy things that people go through every day: physical pain, drug addiction, a neurochemical mix-up making noise in his head.

The grunge bands purged their demons and the media called it “angst.” Nü-metal bands like Korn and Papa Roach did it with less subtlety and more sincerity, and they were derided as “angry white boys” or “mooks.” The emocore bands of the Aughts turned it into grand drama but “emo” was, by then, a pejorative.

And, mercifully, the times have changed here too. There’s a current wave of rap that features severely bummed out kids rap-singing about depression, depressants and suicide, often to wild success, like Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion, Lil Tracy, Lil Xan, and Wifisfuneral. Like Nirvana, these artists are self-made, often emerging from poverty and singing about dark emotions, occasionally screaming. Unlike Nirvana, they are finally being talked about in a way that emphasizes that depression is real, talking about mental health is powerful and the conversation still has a long way to go. As one incredibly profound example over just the last few years, news outlets like People, Time, Pitchfork, Stereogum, NME, The Fader and the Daily Beast have been concluding stories about suicide (like this one) with the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (which is 1-800-273-8255).

Jay Z, Kid Cudi, Vic Mensa talked about seeing therapists. Kanye West rapped openly about being bipolar. And, of course, Logic’s 2017 song with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right there in the title — “1-800-273-8255″ – was not only an inspirational song, but a huge pop hit, landing at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. XXL recently published a fantastic roundup if you want to know more.

“This lifestyle actually makes me very uncomfortable,” Vic Mensa says, echoing Cobain and Vedder in that story. “And it feels like a lot of plastic. Oftentimes, my ways of dealing with that and feeling more comfortable will be turning to substances.”

“I have struggled with my own mental health, medication and the entire process for the past 10 years,” he said. “Although it’s an uphill battle and a daily fight, it’s cathartic for me and healing for me to be vulnerable and transparent. It helps me identify my patterns and, you know, ways of growth.”

We continue to lose music heroes to suicide and self-medication, with no real connection between age or genre — Cornell, Bennington, Avicii, Mac Miller, Lil Peep, Scott Hutchison, Keith Flint from the Prodigy, Kim Jong-hyun of K-pop group Shinee, Allman Bros. Band drummer Butch Trucks, Keith Emerson, and tons more. One of the very few comforts is that, in the last 25 years, it’s apparent that the media and the public is finally talking about this in a way that is more empathetic, humane and — most importantly — preventative.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org to chat with someone online.