The Seattle grunge scene has given us some of the best rock of the ’90s, much of which stands up today. But along with the great music has come incredible sadness. In the history of rock, perhaps there has been no other scene in which so many of its key players were lost to tragic, mostly drug-related deaths.
Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, who was found dead Thursday in a Detroit hotel room after midnight of an apparent suicide, is the latest in a line of rock ‘n’ roll tragedies associated with Seattle. Other casualties include Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley and ex-bassist Mike Starr, onetime Hole drummer Kristen Pfaff, and Andrew Wood, singer of Mother Love Bone, a band whose survivors would go on to form Pearl Jam. In most cases, their stories are interconnected, since they were all part of the tight-knit scene. While the details surrounding Cornell’s death are still coming to light, all of the others were related to drug addiction and depression.
Prior to Cornell’s death, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson recently noted that Seattle offers a mixed blessing for musicians. “One of the things about Seattle and musicians and the musical sound of Seattle is the weather,” she told Yahoo Music. “It sort of drives you indoors, and it’s raining so much. It drives you inside of your own soul. It’s a soulful place for that reason, but not everyone comes out alive.”
Wilson was speaking to us about this week’s deluxe reissue of the Singles soundtrack, which showcased many of Seattle’s leading lights. Sadly, four of the voices featured on that album — Stayley, Wood, Jimi Hendrix, and now Cornell — have been prematurely silenced.
In a sense, you could say the string of Seattle tragedies actually began decades before grunge with one of the forefathers of Seattle rock: Hendrix. He was only 27 when he died in 1970, but in the four short years he was in the spotlight, he managed to blow the minds of peers like Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, and the Beatles; record such classics as “Purple Haze” and “Foxey(cq) Lady”; and leave a body of work that would influence musicians for decades to come.
“Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence on everybody,” confirms Barrett Martin, ex-drummer of the Screaming Trees and early grunge band Skin Yard, who notes that the Trees would occasionally cover Hendrix live.
Nearly 20 years after Hendrix’s death from drug-related asphyxiation, Mother Love Bone singer and Cornell’s former roommate Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose on March 19, 1990. He was only 24. Mother Love Bone, which included future Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, had already created a huge buzz with the release of the Shine EP a year earlier, and the band’s full-length debut, Apple, was set for release but was delayed following Wood’s death. While Mother Love Bone remains a cult band — their 1992 self-titled album was their only title to chart, and it peaked at No. 77 — the band had a huge impact on the Seattle scene.
Temple of the Dog, whose name was inspired by lyrics in the Mother Love Bone song “Man of Golden Words,” were formed by Cornell, Gossard, Ament, and Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron to pay tribute to Wood. The band’s self-titled debut was a critical and commercial success that reached No. 5 on the Billboard album chart and spawned two top 10 radio tracks, “Hunger Strike” (featuring Eddie Vedder) and “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” The band reunited last year for a tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the debut album.
After the grunge scene exploded, Nirvana became the most popular rock band in the world. Nevermind, their major-label debut, knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the album chart in January 1992, signaling a seismic shift in popular music; the album was also largely crediting for killing off the hair-metal that dominated MTV in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Cobain, however, had trouble dealing with the success and turned to heroin to help him cope with his conflicting feelings about fame, a longtime stomach ailment, and depression.
On tour in Germany in support of the band’s second U.S. chart-topper, 1993’s In Utero, Cobain attempted suicide by ingesting a mix of champagne and Rohypnol. Though he survived that attempt, an intervention and attempt at detox were unsuccessful. On April 8, 1994, Cobain’s body was found in his Seattle home with a shotgun pointing at his head. Traces of heroin and diazepam were found in his body. The coroner estimated that he actually died three days earlier, on April 5. It was the most shocking rock ‘n’ roll death since John Lennon was gunned down by a crazed fan in 1980.
One of those greatly moved by Cobain’s death was R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, who revealed that the two had planned to collaborate on a project prior. As a tribute to Cobain, R.E.M. recorded the song “Let Me In” on their 1994 album, Monster. “I wrote that to Kurt, for Kurt, and about him,” Stipe told me at the time. “I had just written an entire album [Automatic for the People] about death, mortality, and passage, and really didn’t want to repeat myself on this record, but his death profoundly affected me. I couldn’t really ignore it much longer.”
Just two months after Cobain’s death, Kristen Pfaff succumbed to a heroin overdose on June 16, 1994. She was also 27 when she died. The Minneapolis bass player had quit the local band Janitor Joe to move to Seattle in 1993 to join Hole, the band fronted by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love. She was featured on the band’s major-label breakthrough album Live Through This, but soon developed a heroin addiction that she was unable to kick, despite quitting the band and moving back to Minneapolis. She died in Seattle after returning to the city to retrieve her belongings with plans of permanently settling in Minneapolis.
In an eerie coincidence, eight years to the day after Cobain died, Alice in Chains singer Layne Stayley died from a lethal mix of cocaine and heroin. The coroner ruled he died two weeks before his body was discovered in his Seattle condo. Following the band’s breakout success with the chart-topping EP Jar of Flies in 1994 and their self-titled album in 1995, Stayley sunk into a haze of depression and drug addiction. By 1999, he had become a recluse rarely venturing outside his Seattle condo.
The last person to see Staley alive was former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, who was racked with guilt following his former bandmate’s death because he didn’t call 911 for help, despite seeing Staley’s deteriorating condition. On March 8, 2011, Starr — who had appeared on the reality show Celebrity Rehab — was found dead of a prescription drug overdose. He was 44.
In 2010 radio interview, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell slammed Starr’s participation in Celebrity Rehab, but offered support for his ex-bandmate: “Addiction is no joke, and we know that firsthand. We lost a good friend of ours to that.”