Neil Young is rightly labelled the ‘The Godfather of Grunge’ for his subconscious role in the emergence of the genre. He was an artist who the likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder both simultaneously idolised, and the pair tried to integrate Young’s dogged spirit into their work. Following the death of Cobain, Young was left anguished due to this deep connection with the Nirvana singer. It was something that he channelled into his next album.
Young’s 1979 record, Rust Never Sleeps, is often viewed as the precursor that inadvertently sparked off the grunge movement primarily because of his guitar’s heavily distorted nature. He played a pivotal role in influencing the next generation, a movement of artists raised on a diet that heavily consisted of the former Buffalo Springfield man’s work.
Kurt Cobain infamously used Young’s lyrics in his suicide note when he tragically took his own life, and that in itself remains a clear example of how much the artist meant to him. Young poignantly wrote this in his memoirs about how it scarred him when he discovered that Cobain had quoted his lyrics: “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me,” he said. “I, coincidentally, had been trying to reach him. I wanted to talk to him. Tell him only to play when he felt like it.”
Following Cobain’s death, Young then turned his grief into a song when he wrote ‘Sleeps With Angels’. The song was also the title track from his 1994 album — one which he dedicated to the late Nirvana frontman who he was trying so hard to get in touch with weeks before the devastating tragedy. ‘Sleeps With Angels’ epitomises the sombre themes that are unavoidable on the album, and the death of Cobain inadvertently pushed Young into this lane.
Young has previously skirted around the topic rather than offering a definitive answer, but there’s no doubt that Cobain played some role in the direction that the singer took with Sleeps With Angels. “Sleeps With Angels has a lot of overtones to it, from different situations that were described in it – a lot of sad scenes,” Young once said. “I’ve never really spoken about why I made that album. I don’t want to start now.” Pressed further, he added: “I just don’t want to talk about that. That’s my decision. I’ve made a choice not to talk about it, and I’m sticking to it.”
Many publications falsely reported that Young had promised to stop performing ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ following its use in Cobain’s suicide note. Contrarily he lent into the renewed poignancy of the track and brought it back into his set for the first few shows after Cobain’s death. “It just made it a little more focused for a while,” Young told Uncut. “Now it’s just another face to think about while you’re singing it.”
Whilst Sleeps With Angels isn’t wholly about Kurt Cobain, the album revolves around mortality, which was influenced by the Nirvana singer losing his life in such tragic circumstances. The fact that he referenced Young’s work in his final action forced death back to the forefront of the singer-songwriter’s mind. If it wasn’t for Cobain losing his life, Young would have likely taken on a different style of project, but he’s a true artist that’s work reflects where he is in life, and the loss of the Nirvana leader left him with no choice but to confront these thoughts that he’d let gather dust.
The album was born out of an entrenched sadness, the death of Cobain “fucked with” Young, and when he’s faced with these difficult situations, he bleeds his emotions into his music. Heading into the studio is his go-to coping mechanism and precisely what he did with Sleeps With Angels. The majority of his work deals with serious and real topics rather than in an abstract sphere. The death of Cobain was the catalyst for the tenebrous road he heads down with the album in question.