There are two tragic rock and roll death anniversaries to remember today, April 5, both for key figures in the early 1990s Seattle grunge music scene: Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who died 18 years ago, and Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, who died 10 years ago.
Both bands (along with a few others) were instrumental in changing the face of a musical style and generation that was choked by heavy metal, second generation glam, tepid pop music, and unoriginality in many forms in the musical universe during the late 1980s. Nirvana came into that stifled world like a dirty, grungy tidal wave, washing over all the aforementioned genres in a river filled with glass and soot, which was exactly the approach they wanted to take.
With Nirvana, Cobain, along with bassist Krist Novocelic and drummer David Grohl, foraged a new sound by pretty much taking from the old sounds of early punk by way of The Stooges and MC5, The Germs, The Pixies, and Meat Puppets, among plenty others, and making it their own. Their sound was loud and unapologetic, three chord thrashes like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come as you Are,” and “About A Girl” blared out of CD and tape players all across the world during that time. They celebrated and sang for the socially afflicted, the outcasts, the nerds and fuck ups, their bubble was filthy, they were true punk incarnates.
Cobain led the charge, with his unkempt appearance and unwashed flannel barely covering his thin frame, he sported a mane of dirty blonde hair and heart-wrenching singing; one could immediately tell that this wasn’t an act, there were true demons indeed within the man and his music. Eschewing the massive world success the band had received, Cobain seemed caught in all its crossfire as Nirvana got bigger and bigger, at one point becoming the biggest selling act in America. It all came to a screeching halt on April 5, 1994 when Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head, an act exacerbated by heavy drug use, depression, complications from a chronic stomach ailment, and an out-of-control temperament. Fans mourned his death around the world and the raging fire set by Nirvana was extinguished just as quickly only a few years after their inception. Cobain was 27 years old, becoming a member of the tragic “27 Club” of rock stars who also died at that young, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison.
In the years since his death, Cobain has become a sort of mythological tragic hero to many people, on par with a John Lennon or a Bob Marley. His influence still runs strong, although the music genre he helped pioneer has been rather stilted by the inequities of today’s musical sounds, which once again has for the most part been weaned on the safe pap that was the order of the day right before Nirvana’s intervention on the scene in the late 1980s.
Also hailing from Seattle, Alice in Chains was another band who offered more stripped down rock sounds than what was on most of the public’s musical diet at the time. Combining heavy metal and acoustic sounds mixed with a bit of the grunge attitudes, AIC also carved their niche during that time musically as well. “Man in A Box,” “Would,” and “The Rooster” became favorites of many around the globe, with its thrashing, hard approaches, and underlying currents of fragility and alternative noises, adjectives which describe their front man Layne Staley as well. Like Cobain, Staley too was a victim of his own demons, also enhanced by chaotic spinning top drug abuse. Staley, although part of one of the biggest bands in the world at the time in Alice in Chains, became reclusive and unresponsive as the band grew, and finally succumbed to his vices and personal demons on April 5, 2002 when he died of a drug overdose. His body wasn’t found until the 19th of April, when Staley’s mother reported him missing, having not heard from him for two weeks.
Cobain and Staley of course had personality types that can easily make them fall into the category of “just another senseless rock death,” but both men also should be remembered for the eye they had on creativity that stretched a mile wide. Their music remains forever and they are footprints firmly stamped upon a time when a generation of music fans were liberated by their sounds from the falsehood of the then-current music and the choking times that tethered them. This is a sad day for music for sure today, but as Led Zeppelin so eloquently puts it, the comfort comes in knowing that “The Song Remains the Same.” RIP, Kurt and Layne.