Alternative rock: the culture that leads to death?

The deaths of Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell, and Scott Weiland point to some hard truths about the lives we once led.


This post is something of a personal memoir; if you have no interest in reading about popular music from the 1990s and 2000s, feel free to skip this one. 

I can vaguely remember, about 24 years ago, hearing “The Freshmen” for the first time. It was the epitome of the new sound,  something my friends and I called simply “alternative” music. As that drum beat rolled along, I was shocked — this was the first time I had ever heard abortion and suicide mentioned in the same song. But at the same time, I was irrevocably, indelibly hooked.

I couldn’t explain what had hooked me; later I would understand that as a teenager, I felt angst because of my impression that the world around me didn’t really listen to me. And I would connect with angst-filled songs because I identified with the emotions they expressed.

Enter the genre of so-called “alternative” music. This was a never-ending sea of angst, there to make us feel heard and validated. That’s how it seemed then, but nearly 25 years on, it seems much different.

Everything looks different in the rear-view.

As an adult, my mind now goes to the actual suicides (the one from “The Freshman” was fictional) of alt-rock superstars Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, and the overdose of Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland. See, the Verve Pipe was never able to follow up on the success of “The Freshman”, but Cornell, Bennington, and Weiland produced many of alt-rock’s hits through the 90s and early 2000s.

These are not the only alt-rock musicians that have succumbed to suicide or overdose in recent years. Matthew Roberts of 3 doors down was found dead last year after an overdose. There’s Mikey Welsh (Weezer), Mike Star (Alice in Chains), Paul Gray (Slipknot), Dave Brockie (Gwar), Elliott Smith… the list goes on.

Time after time, we failed to recognize danger.

Kurt Cobain

I can vaguely remember when Kurt Cobain of Nirvana killed himself. It shook the rock world. And in the wake of a suicide, people are always apt to sugar-coat things. People said, “We lossed him,” and, “He passed,” just the same as they would have if he had died of old age. But he wasn’t old — he wasn’t even 30 years old. He left behind a wife and a daughter.

Scott Weiland, leader of the band Stone Temple Pilots

Scott Weiland was a complex character, convicted of buying drugs in 1995 and sent to jail for a while; I can still remember radio stations counting down the days until he would be paroled and become able to tour again.  Stone Temple Pilots released a new album and were suddenly back at the top of the charts. 

These alt-rock performers were kings and queens — they could do as they pleased because their respect for the law paled in comparison to their lust for the stage. And nobody penalized them for their misdeeds. Cobain eventually became something of a martyr; Weiland, little more than misunderstood.

We smeared the character of those who made one politically incorrect statement in public; but drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and suicide, were all excused, as long as we fans could keep listening to their angst-filled songs.

If we can’t recognize death, it will kill us.

Obviously, I would never advocate being insensitive about suicide. In the wake of death, it is appropriate to say, “We lost him”. But eventually, there must come a point where we publicly acknowlege that, though we loved the person, we despise what they did. Somehow, that point never came for us, the alt-rock generation. And now, as musicians continue to succumb, we are paying the price.

We weren’t actually being authentic, even though we said we were.

As I look back all these years later, it becomes apparent that we didn’t actually identify with these singers — not the way we thought we did. We didn’t share some kind of good connection with them as we drove down the highway, listening to them scream about infidelities. We weren’t appreciating them — we were using them.

They were our crutch, our escape, our drug. We cared not for their wellbeing; we cared only that they seemed to give us a voice.

The tragedy here is incredibly complex. It seems apparent now that if we, the public, had ever drawn any kind of line in the sand — if we had ever said that violence, harmful drug abuse, or suicide would result in our disavowal of a rock star — it may have made a difference. It seems to work in other genres.

But we never placed any boundary on the behavior of our beloved rock stars. And as they used us to support their lust for the stage, we were happy, so long as we could use them as our loudspeaker. This is the culture that has led to death, and continues to give those on the edge an inkling that violence and suicide are within the realm of what is acceptable.

And that’s why the suicides of three rock superstars should matter to us. We’ve got to make a stand, as the alt-rock generation. Our lives depend on it.

 

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