It has been twenty-two years to the day since musician Kurt Cobain decided to abdicate the Voice of a Generation tag he was saddled with by obliterating it with a shotgun, making him the biggest musician in history to take himself out of the game while at the top. While Cobain was certainly the most shocking rock suicide in music history, he certainly wasn’t the only one. From the late, great Johnny Ace, who lost a game of Russian Roulette in 1954, to Keith Emerson, who chose suicide over a crippling degenerative nerve disease that left him unable to play in 2016, the list of rock suicides is long and growing longer. DNN chooses ten great records any rock fan should probably already own, all of which were recorded by musicians who took their own lives.
Nirvana – In Utero (1993) One thing can be said for Kurt Cobain: he definitely wasn’t emo. His tortured lyrics and nicotine-stained voice were the real thing; no dramatic pose. In Utero is in many ways the least commercial album ever to go multi-platinum. A much more challenging listen than the band’s breakthrough Nevermind, In Utero actually sounds suicidal. The production helps; Steve Albini’s close miking captures every raw nuance, whereas Butch Vig’s more meddlesome production on Nevermind was more crystalline and processed. The result is an album as raw as Plastic Ono Band, but infinitely heavier. Cobain had always seemed uncomfortable with the huge amount of attention Nirvana had gained with Nevermind. After a failed attempt at an overdose that landed him in an ICU in Rome, Cobain shot himself to death on April 5, 1994.
Nick Drake – Pink Moon (1972) Nick Drake was not well-appreciated when he was alive; he has been much more of a Generation X discovery. The sensitive English singer/songwriter garnered considerable praise for his three albums in the rock press, but he also suffered from stage fright, which meant he seldom played live or made TV appearances. His albums languished in the cut-out bins, which compounded his considerable depression. He became reclusive, spending his last two years in isolation working on an unfinished fourth album, when he overdosed on anti-depression pills in 1974. His music was rediscovered in the 90’s, and he has risen considerably in stature since then. Any of his three albums are good, but Pink Moon is perhaps the best of all; a brooding, melancholic collection of songs that clearly came from a troubled heart.
Joy Division – Dead Souls [single] (1980) Either of Joy Division’s albums released during Ian Curtis’ brief time on Earth belong on this list; they are among the most influential albums in rock history. However, it is worth highlighting this particular track, released on the B-side of “Atmosphere” in France two months before his suicide by hanging. “Dead Souls” is a haunting, ominous burst of jagged, shredded guitar over which Curtis intones a dark lyric of being haunted in dreams by the dead souls of imperialists. Even British DJ John Peel remarked on how morbid the song was when he debuted it on his radio show in March, 1980. In a way, it captures everything that was great about Curtis and the band, and it also captures succinctly the darkness in Curtis’ own tormented soul. Faced with the dissolution of his marriage, Curtis hung himself in his kitchen after watching a Werner Herzog movie.
Elliott Smith – Either/Or (1996), although From a Basement on a Hill (2004) sounds more suicidal. Singer/songwriter Elliott Smith had an aloof charm that masked some deep-rooted insecurities. His Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery” propelled him into the bigtime after a modest indie debut, and he signed with Dreamworks. While he had always expressed pleasure in performing live, he also seemed ambivalent about the inorganic trappings of mass media performances. He was also sensitive to criticism and avoided reading reviews, but this probably was not a factor in his death. His downfall began when he became addicted to heroin and crack and became overtly paranoid, believing he was being followed constantly by a white van. His performances became sporadic and uneven, and in 2002 he got into a brawl with police at a Flaming Lips show. In 2003, he stabbed himself twice in the chest at his girlfriend’s house. The incident was reported as a suicide, but the autopsy report leaves open the possibility of homicide.
Germs – (GI) (1979) Germs were at the forefront of the Los Angeles punk scene, which also launched the Go-Go’s (Belinda Carlisle was briefly a member of Germs), Agent Orange, Black Flag, X, and the Circle Jerks, among many others. Pat Smear of Nirvana (touring band) and Foo Fighters played guitar in the band. Smear and singer Darby Crash had started the band after they were kicked out of high school for using “mind control” on their fellow students. (GI) is the only album the band recorded before Crash ended his own life. As with Joy Division, the influence of this brutal album (“it leaves exit wounds”, noted LA Weekly) reaches far beyond the brief lifespan of the singer. Widely considered one of the first hardcore punk albums, it has achieved mythic status in the punk world. The band finally split amid much acrimony, and Crash was left adrift. Addicted to heroin, Crash told Smear he intended to buy enough heroin to kill himself, which Smear did not believe. On December 7, 1980, the day before John Lennon’s death, Crash died from a heroin overdose in a suicide pact with a friend who survived.
Badfinger – Wish You Were Here (1974), although Head First (1975) sounds more suicidal. Badfinger recorded for Apple Records, which the Beatles owned. Unlike the rest of the Apple roster besides the Beatles, Badfinger actually had hits; four singles reached the top-20, and one of them, “Baby Blue”, enjoyed a renaissance after appearing in the final episode of Breaking Bad. The band also wrote “Without You”, one of the most-covered songs of the rock era, which became hits for Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey. That song’s songwriters, Peter Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide by hanging, eight years apart. Ham had been distressed about finances; the band’s manager had embezzled all of the band’s money, and the resulting lawsuits led to Warner Brothers withholding their albums from release. Ham hung himself in his garage in 1975, ending the band. A brief resurrection without Ham in 1979-1982 failed to restore the band’s fortunes, and a despondent Tom Evans hanged himself in 1983. Wish You Were Here is the band’s best album, but its followup, the unreleased Head First, is a dire sounding record indeed. Badfinger is the only band to lose two members to suicide.
Graham Bond – Holy Magick (1970) Graham Bond is a name few Americans would recognize, and he has largely been forgotten in his native England as well. However, for a brief period in 1964-1965 Bond was at the forefront of an early jazz-rock faction in England, who shared similarities with the British Invasion bands that scored big in the wake of the Beatles, but which eschewed teenybopper music for a more sophisticated, jazz-informed sound. His band, the Graham Bond Organisation, was noteworthy for including drummer Ginger Baker and bassist and singer Jack Bruce, who went on to become 2/3 of the rock supergroup Cream in 1966. Bond was depressed by the breakup of his band, but regrouped and continued to make music. However, he became a heavy drug and alcohol user and displayed symptoms of schizophrenia. He developed an interest in the occult and black magic, and his late albums, with titles like Holy Magick and We Put Our Magick on You, were ambitious psychedelic-jazz-rock affairs, but ultimately unsuccessful. He jumped in front of a train in London in 1974.
Plasmatics – New Hope for the Wretched (1980) Formed in 1977 at Yale University, of all places, the Plasmatics were a punk/metal hybrid known for anarchic live shows that relied on over-the-top taboo breaking. Lead singer Wendy O. Williams took chainsaws to guitars, blew up cars, sledgehammered TV sets, and performed nearly nude on stage. She was arrested in Milwaukee for “simulating sex with a sledgehammer” in 1981. Their music, which is controversial, is both hailed as an early precursor to noise-rock and reviled as unlistenable. Their debut album, New Hope for the Wretched, was produced by former Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller, who was practically incapacitated by heroin addiction at the time. Williams died by gunshot in the woods near her home in 1998, after a long bout of depression that had included two prior suicide attempts.
Sparklehorse – It’s a Wonderful Life (2001) Sparklehorse was more of a band in name only as its recordings were really mostly just the work of multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous. Linkous had indie rock credits dating back to the 1980’s with the Dancing Hoods, which failed to find an audience. Sparklehorse was the name he gave to solo demos he recorded in the early 90’s, and the first Sparklehorse album was released in 1995 to positive notice. Subsequent albums followed, each garnering a little more notice and sales than the previous one, and by the mid 00’s, Linkous had carved out a solid niche for himself. He abruptly put an end to it all in 2010, when he shot himself in the heart at a friend’s house. The reason for his suicide has never been made very clear, although people close to him acknowledge that he was going through some “personal problems”. Perhaps the answer can be found in his music, which could be spare but lush, sweet and wistful, and somewhat sad-sounding. It’s a Wonderful Life is probably his most realized album, and features Tom Waits and PJ Harvey among other guests.
Christian Death – Only Theater of Pain (1982) Christian Death was an industrial/deathrock/Goth/post-punk band that emerged in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s. An incarnation of this band exists to this day, although original vocalist and visionary Rozz Williams departed in 1985, and a fight ensued over use of the band name, which Williams lost. Despite the notice his records with the band had gotten, as well as a close-knit coterie of fans who followed him when he departed the band, Williams was never really able to get a viable long-term musical project off the ground, although he remained active in music (and art) until his death. In 1998, he hanged himself in his West Hollywood apartment. To this day, pilgrims visit the columbarium at Hollywood Forever cemetery to view his urn.
Joy Division – Dead Souls (1980)