“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Neil Young told fans in his 1978 song, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).”
The song was the acoustic front bookend to his live album Rust Never Sleeps, which closed with the electric version of roughly the same song titled, “Hey Hey, My My (Into to the Black).”
The lyrics, like Young, never did fade away. The album launched yet another phase of Young’s long career. Again he reinvented and rededicated himself to an entirely new form of music. This time it was “grunge.”
Young played grunge music before grunge was even a thing, and by the time movement was in full swing in Seattle in the 90s Young was widely regarded as “the godfather of grunge.” Anyone who doubted the title had those doubts thoroughly assaulted when he took the stage with Seattle-based Pearl Jam at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards to play his song “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
That was certainly a high-point for grunge and an affirmation that the music was more than just a fad. But it was quickly followed by one of the era’s many low points.
On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain, the frontman of Seattle’s Nirvana killed himself with a shotgun in the guest house of his Seattle home. He left a scribbled suicide note that spoke of a lingering, unshakeable sadness. He closed the note with the line “and so remember, it's better to burn out than to fade away.”
Young was devastated. Although he wasn’t close to Cobain, he knew the young musician had been battling demons that were inextricably connected to the trappings of fame. Young had been there himself.
“I read something and someone told me a few things that made me think he was in trouble that week,” he said in an interview years later. “I even had my office look for him.”
“I like to think that I possibly could have done something. I was just trying to reach him. Trying to connect up with him.”
That conversation never happened, and Young responded by recording the bleak grunge album Sleeps with Angels. He dedicated it to Cobain’s memory.
The period haunted Young even after the album was released. Asked once why he recorded it, he told the interviewer, “I've never really spoken about why I made that album, I don't want to start now.”
By the time of Cobain’s suicide, it was, unfortunately, expected that some fast-living rockstars would die before their time. It remains so common it’s cliche. But while boozing and drugging takes many lives in the music industry, few stars actually commit suicide.
The ones that do are often forgotten; their careers and deaths overshadowed by the memories of other rockers who continued on, only to burnout early from an overdose or fade away after years of steady decline due to substance abuse.
Here is a list of five once shining stars who died, too young, by their own hand.
5 Ian Curtis
Ian Curtis was the lead singer and lyricist for the British post-punk band Joy Division. Though largely forgotten by pop music fans, Joy Division is widely regarded by music buffs as one of the most influential indie rock bands of the 20th century.
The band only released two albums. Their first, Unknown Pleasures, made a splash in 1979, and was followed by their 1980 album, Closer.
Curtis’ troubles surfaced during the recording sessions for Closer. Epileptic and battling depression, he struggled to maintain a marriage while keeping up with the demands of rock stardom. He suffered numerous seizures during the Closer sessions, and as the recording wound down he attempted suicide twice.
When released from the hospital after the second attempt, the band’s managers urged him to begin a tour that was to eventually reach North America. That tour never happened although the band did play a few gigs in England as preparation.
Curtis hanged himself in the kitchen of his home in Manchester on May 18, 1980, two months before his 24th birthday.
4 Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith’s suicide on October 21, 2003 unfortunately did not surprise many of his fans. The former punk rocker turned introspective, gloomy songwriter had a long history of drug addiction and severe bouts of depression.
However, that he killed himself with two stab wounds to the chest came as a shock to all.
On the day he died, Smith, who many friends say was completely off drugs at the time, had just had a fight with his live-in girlfriend, Portland-based rocker Jennifer Chiba. During the fight he threatened to kill himself. She had heard that before. She locked herself in the bathroom to take a shower.
She emerged from the bathroom when she heard a scream and found Smith standing with his back to her. When he turned around he revealed a knife sticking out of his chest. The knife was removed and an ambulance was called, but Smith died at the hospital, the knife having perforated his heart.
Smith’s career remains one of those stories that leaves people wondering just what he could have achieved had he ever managed to gain control over the depression and drugs. Despite all of his problems, the songwriter managed to be nominated for an Oscar for music he wrote for the movie Good Will Hunting.
The gruesome manner in which he died still leaves some wondering if he killed himself. Friends report he was on the upswing. The coroner’s report even left open the possibility of homicide. But, given the artist’s history of depression, no investigation was conducted and no charges were pressed.
The coroner’s report read:
"While his history of depression is compatible with suicide, and the location and direction of the stab wounds are consistent with self-infliction, several aspects of the circumstances (as they are known at this time) are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide.”
3 Wendy O. Williams
Self-inflicted knife wounds to the chest are rare in the world of suicide. But Wendy O. Williams, most famous for fronting the ’80s punk band the Plasmatics, tried to kill herself in 1993 by hammering a knife into her chest. The knife lodged in her sternum, and she lost her nerve and called her onetime manager and longtime lover, Rod Swenson, to rescue her.
She survived only to attempt suicide again in 1997 by overdosing on ephedrine. Having survived that attempt, she shot herself in the head in the woods outside her home in Connecticut. Swenson found her body. That was April 6, 1998.
To call her suicide a shock might be an overstatement. Williams was widely known for erratic behavior. After leaving the Plasmatics she launched a solo career that, for a time, included appearances on X-rated videos, herself performing raunchy sex-parody acts.
But she had a devoted following and, strangely, was outspoken health-food nut. Indeed, Williams may have simply lived before her time. She was once kicked off of a popular talk show for attacking Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies. She told Fields she thought the cookie producer was ”no better than a heroin pusher” for using so much refined sugar in her products.
2 Richard Manuel
Richard Manuel was a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He is best known for his work with the ‘60s and ‘70s rock group The Band.
The Band was a group that can only be described as a sum greater than its parts. And the parts, each and every one of them, were absolutely amazing. The group was once the backing electric band for Bob Dylan, but it also released many of its own albums. Their farewell concert was recorded and turned into a movie called The Last Waltz. It was directed by Martin Scorcese.
The Band’s lead guitarist, Robbie Robertson, is largely blamed for breaking up the group in the late ‘70s. His legal maneuvers at the time left the rest of the band members largely broke and unable to reap any royalties from the group’s collaborations.
The Band reunited, without Robertson, in the ‘80s and began recording new music and playing gigs.
After a show in Winter Park, Florida on March 4, 1986 Manuel seemed to be in high spirits. He spent some time after the performance in the hotel room of The Band’s drummer, Levon Helm.
After leaving Helm’s room he returned to his own room and hanged himself in the shower with his own belt.
Although Manuel had long battled depression and alcoholism, many believed he had overcome those demons. The entire band seemed happy to be playing together again. It came as a shock to everyone, especially Helm.
“He sat on the edge of my bed and talked about songs and people. Around 2:30 he went back to his room. I thought he was coming back. That's the last I saw him,” Helm told police. "I don't know what got crosswise in his mind between leaving the foot of my bed and going into his own bathroom."
1 Phil Ochs
The most famous folk singer of the ‘60s is undoubtedly Bob Dylan. But for those who lived through the time, one singer stands out as having possibly even more folk credibility than Dylan. That singer and songwriter is Phil Ochs.
One person who lived through the era and admired Ochs was journalist and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens.
“There was a difference about people who liked Bob Dylan and those who even knew about Phil Ochs,” Hitchens once said, comparing the two. “Anybody could like Dylan.”
Ochs’ songs revealed a sharper political edge. It was said that he read The New York Times looking for song ideas. The songs also betrayed a more nuanced thought process than Dylan, perhaps.
Ochs sang in his song “Love Me I’m a Liberal:”
I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I'd lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal
It is hard to characterize this attack Ochs made on the left from within the left but it is a theme that is seen in many of his best songs: Call it a continued belief — a torment even — that the left wasn’t doing enough and was constantly on the verge of going soft.
That drive to always do more might have been what eventually made life so unbearable for Ochs. The singer’s behavior grew more erratic as the years progressed. He grew paranoid and believed that he was being followed by the FBI.
In truth, the FBI was keeping a file on the radical singer, but friends and family were growing tired of his drunken rants about the agency. He sank deep into alcoholism and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
He hanged himself on April 9, 1976. He was 35.
That was two years before Neil Young recorded Rust Never Sleeps. Ochs never heard the words “it’s better to burn out than fade away” — words that Young never intended to be taken as an invitation to suicide.
Indeed every young artist on this list would have done well to heed a warning of Young’s that also came from the songs that bookended that live album: “Once you’re gone, you can’t come back. When you’re out of the blue and into the black.”
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