Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain sits among the most iconic names in rock history thanks to his innovative work over the late 1980s and ‘90s that brought grunge music to the fore of the rock world. However, memories of the icon’s musical achievements are often overridden by those of his shocking and untimely suicide in April 1994.
Where he achieved his rightful God-like status while still alive, mostly thanks to the seminal release of 1991’s Nevermind, this was taken to a new level following his death. When a cultural icon dies prematurely, as we’ve seen with the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Sid Vicious, their status becomes almost mythological, especially when the circumstances surrounding their death are so controversial or mysterious.
Following his death, a suicide note was found that Cobain had written before pulling the trigger on himself. The final letter for his family, friends and fans hauntingly held the words, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” from Neil Young’s classic 1979 track ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’.
Young is often heralded as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, and it’s no secret that Cobain was a devoted disciple of his. But when Young heard that he had been referenced in Cobain’s suicide note, it appeared to have a profound impact on him.
In his 2012 autobiography, Neil Young admitted that the suicide note had left him scarred. He wrote: “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me.”
It seems that Young felt bad about the younger rock star’s death. Although, in 2005, he explained to Time that he didn’t feel guilty about Cobain’s suicide: “The fact that he left the lyrics to my song right there with him when he killed himself left a profound feeling on me, but I don’t think he was saying I have to kill myself because I don’t want to fade away,” Young opined. “I don’t think he was interpreting the song in a negative way. It’s a song about artistic survival, and I think he had a problem with the fact that he thought he was selling out, and he didn’t know how to stop it.”
Later in the interview, Young revealed that he had tried in vain to reach out to Cobain prior to his death. “He was forced to do tours when he didn’t want to, forced into all kinds of stuff. I was trying to get a hold of him – because I had heard some of the things he was doing to himself – just to tell him it’s OK not to tour, it’s OK not to do these things, just take control of your life and make your music. Or, hey, don’t make music. But as soon as you feel like you’re out there pretending, you’re fucked.”
He concluded: “I think he knew that instinctively, but he was young, and he didn’t have a lot of self-control. And who knows what other personal things in his life were having a negative impression on him at the time?”
Having been so influential on Cobain as an artist, Young felt a level of responsibility for the troubled youngster, having been subject to the negative facets of life as a rock icon himself. Unfortunately, Young’s efforts to reach out to Cobain and urge him to slow down in the early 1990s never permeated.