The grunge scene burst into mainstream media in the early 90s, most notably with the release of Nirvana’s second album ‘Nevermind’ on the 24th of September 1991. ‘Nevermind’ grew to be one of the most influential and highly acclaimed albums in music history. It unified an entire generation, but was grunge’s sudden rise to fame and the pressure it caused that the cause of the downfall and eventual suicide of Nirvana’s singer, Kurt Cobain and his fellow grunge frontmen Chris Cornell and Layne Staley? And another question for many grunge fans is how did Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam survive?
Grunge music was born in Washington and so was Kurt Cobain. He had a troubled childhood, with problems arising from his relationship with his father and stepmother (as he put it, “the typical evil stepmom story”). Due to his difficult behaviour, Cobain was forced to move between the houses of multiple grandparents before his mother reluctantly agreed to take him in. His relationship with drugs started in his teenage years as he began to use marijuana as a form of escapism but suffered mentally as a result of his drug use and turbulent family life. He met Krist Novoselic at 17, eventually forming Nirvana with him. They released their first album ‘Bleach’ in 1989, offering him an escape from his hometown of Aberdeen.
Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice in Chains, and Chris Cornell, vocalist of Soundgarden, had similarly tumultuous upbringings, with Staley's father abandoning their family in favour of drugs, and Cornell almost being expelled from school. Could the hardships these men faced during childhood be the root of their self-destructive future?
However, the upbringing of Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead vocalist, was rather different from that of his peers. Despite his parents' divorce when he was a teenager, he maintained a relatively healthy relationship with both his mother and stepfather. Vedder was not from Washington, but was instead born in Evanston, Illinois, later moving to Chicago. Pearl Jam formed in 1990 as an amalgamation of grunge bands Green River, Malfunkshun, and Mother Love Bone. After Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone, died in 1990 of a heroin overdose, Pearl Jam was formed with Vedder as the lead singer. The band released their first album in August 1991 and soon rose to fame within Seattle’s grunge scene.
This sudden influx of attention brought to the grunge scene undoubtedly affected the bandmembers, who were forced to adjust to a drastically new lifestyle. The typical life of a rockstar was one associated with an indulgence in drugs and alcohol and in the 1990s, Seattle was ‘ground zero’ for the resurrection of heroin use in American cities, with heroin fatalities in the city increasing by 300% from 1986 to 1994. Heroin was imported from Mexico and flooded into Seattle as the city has one of the largest ports in America, and anyone who had the will and enough money to partake in heroin use did so.
Kurt Cobain famously struggled with heroin addiction, along with his wife, Courtney Love, lead singer of the band Hole. Cobain also spoke of doing drugs with Layne Staley, later confirmed by former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, who recalled the story in which the three took heroin together in Brazil. Chris Cornell had also long struggled with drug abuse. Although he did manage to maintain sobriety for some time, he eventually began using drugs again in his mid-thirties. All men spoke of their dislike for their newfound fame and heroin was a way to distract themselves from their overwhelming success.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vedder wasn’t known to use heroin. Much of Pearl Jam’s drug use was limited to marijuana. This could be a result of their former bandmate Andrew Wood’s death and their knowledge on how destructive heroin could be; or possibly the fact that Vedder knew when his fame was becoming too much to handle, with Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron, stating Vedder ‘knew when to pull back’.
The factors of upbringing, drug use and their sudden emergence into fame all influenced the suicides of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and Chris Cornell. Vedder is still touring with Pearl Jam today and goes on to be recognised as one of the most influential musicians of all time. His more stable upbringing and decision to stay away from heroin most likely saved his life.