The Sad History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicides
Many know despair — some better than others. Most deal with it and move along best they can. Others, sadly, get mugged by it — brought down to the point where they see no other way out. And even though David Bowie‘s classic song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ boasts the life-affirming refrain of “Oh no, love! You’re not alone,” some people can’t get past the issues that led them down that path in the first place, whether it’s depression, drugs or mental illness. Rock ‘n’ roll suicides tell a sad and heavy story that never gets any lighter, as you’ll see from these 10 cases.
There’s no denying the impact and influence Kurt Cobain and Nirvana have had on popular music and culture over the years. Their 1991 album ‘Nevermind’ changed the course of rock history, almost overnight. Even though Cobain had plenty of troubled-youth tales, his talent and sense of humor seemed to distance him from any turmoil. But over time, his demons would get the best of him. Chronic bronchitis and constant stomach pain made life an ongoing struggle, so he turned to drugs to ease the physical and emotional pain of his life. After an earlier attempt to end his life, Cobain was found dead in April 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
Joy Division were one of the truly great bands to emerge from the post-punk era. Moving on from the constraints of the initial punk rush, they took the music’s spirit and transformed it, influencing a long parade of bands. Sadly, the band’s life was cut short when singer Ian Curtis cut his own life short in 1980, just as the band was about to release its second album and head out on its first U.S. tour. Mounting pressure, plus a sense of general insecurity, led to a fateful decision to hang himself. Curtis, who suffered from depression and epilepsy, had made two failed previous attempts on his life.
“I’m not going to save up for my old age, because I’m not going to have an old age,” Darby Crash told a writer in 1979. “If we run out of money, I can always kill myself.” Born Jan Paul Beahm in 1958, Crash became one of the most legendary and notorious figures on the thriving Los Angeles punk scene of the late ’70s. His childhood was loaded with turmoil, including the death of an older brother in 1969 from a heroin overdose. Crash formed the Germs in 1977 and lived out his rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. But the band’s fall was as fast as its rise as Crash’s heavy drug use consumed him. The group split up, then reformed for one last run before calling it a day just days prior to Crash’s death. He and a friend made a suicide pact, purchasing $400 worth of heroin. His friend awoke from a drug stupor to find Crash dead. He was just 22 years old.
Wendy O. Williams
As leader of the Plasmatics, Wendy O. Williams was one of the most outrageous characters in rock ‘n’ roll history. The Plasmatics played loud, brutal punk mixed with performance art. Their stage shows included Williams wearing next to nothing, simulating sex, chainsawing guitars in half, demolishing televisions and causing general mayhem. She was arrested on obscenity charges, which only elevated her reputation. But Williams was a very troubled soul. She made two attempts to end her life, once in 1993 and again in 1997. On April 6, 1998, she succeeded when she put a gun to her head. Her manager said she had been having trouble dealing with life and had been despondent for a long time.
With just three albums, Nick Drake was able to stake a claim as one of the era’s greatest singer-songwriters. Those records gained a small but enthusiastic group of fans who, over the years, would sing his praises to anyone within earshot. But Drake was a fragile soul who suffered from depression — something his lack of commercial success did nothing to help. Shortly after the release of his third album, 1972’s ‘Pink Moon,’ he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. He eventually began work on his next album in early 1974, but in November that year, at age 26, Drake died from an overdose of amitriptyline, a prescribed antidepressant. Whether his death was intentional or an accident has never been resolved, but those close to him say that he had given up on life at that point.
Like so many of the tragic souls on this list, Elliott Smith was haunted by depression, a troubled childhood and drugs. After releasing five albums in less than a decade, his fan base continued to grow. The road ahead looked bright from the outside, but the story within was different. According to various friends and musicians, Smith often talked about suicide. In 1997, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and tried to calm his inner turmoil with alcohol, heroin and crack. He was found by his girlfriend in the home they shared with a knife stuck in his chest. But his death was never officially ruled as a suicide, and the autopsy stated there were no illegal drugs found in his system.
Even though his musical abilities left a lot to be desired, Sid Vicious became a punk rock icon. Born John Simon Ritchie, he joined childhood friend Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols after their original bassist was sacked, even though he couldn’t play an instrument. He became an instant celebrity, and bad people and bad things entered his life, including Nancy Spungen, who got him hooked on heroin. When the band fell apart, so did his life. In October 1978, Vicious found Spungen’s dead body on the floor in their hotel room. He was charged with her murder and sent to jail. While out on bail in early 1979, his mother held a party for Sid at her Manhattan apartment. Even though he had been clean since his incarceration, he quickly fell right back into heavy drug use. His mom, a junkie, had a stash of heroin at her home, and that night Vicious took his final shot. He was found dead the following morning. It’s unclear, though, if his intention was suicide or if it was simply an accidental overdose.
INXS were one of the most popular bands to come out of MTV in the ’80s, and their singer Michael Hutchence almost instantly became a sex symbol. Hit records and big tours kept hitting until 1997, when both album and ticket sales had dropped considerably. As the band prepared to head out on its 20th anniversary tour in its native Australia, Hutchence ended his life on Nov. 22, 1997, in a hotel room in Sydney, reportedly distraught over personal issues involving his girlfriend, their child and her ex. But there’s debate over whether his death was intended or accidental (autoerotic asphyxiation has been named), even though the official coroner’s report determined it a suicide while under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
Sparklehorse released a handful of critically acclaimed indie records in the ’90s that employed a rootsy Americana washed in a dreamlike haze. Mark Linkous was the guiding light behind them. He had long suffered from depression and in 1996 had a near-death experience when he combined Valium with prescription antidepressants. He continued to record, but his depression always loomed. On March 6, 2010, Linkous shot himself in the heart in an alley outside of a friend’s home.
In 1983, Big Country roared into the public eye, scoring a worldwide hit with their debut album ‘The Crossing’ and its hit single ‘In a Big Country.’ Sadly, their popularity faded as fast as it came, and with each album, fewer people were interested in Stuart Adamson’s band. In 2001, after a long battle with alcoholism, Adamson took his own life. He was 43. That year, his wife filed for divorce, and Adamson vanished. A missing persons report was filed. A month later his body was discovered hanging in a hotel room in Hawaii. The cause of Adamson’s death was hanging, with toxicology reports indicating a high blood-alcohol level.