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The profound connection between Neil Young and Kurt Cobain

It is well-known that Kurt Cobain and Neil Young are inextricably linked in the most tragic of ways. However, the connection is far more profound than the Nirvana frontman simply quoting a line from Young’s ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ in his heartbreaking suicide note. 

Both are stellar musicians, placing introspective lyrics and emotionally-driven guitar playing at the forefront of their work, employing artistic expression rather than any technical peacocking. Furthermore, both are strange in the fact that they are paradoxes. They’re products of their time, but also so ahead of their time. 

Neil Young had a transformative impact on the proliferation of alternative rock by Generation X, and his work influenced legions aside from Nirvana and Cobain. Amongst his disciples he can count Radiohead, Oasis, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam, to name just a handful. However, Young’s connection to Cobain cannot be overlooked. In many ways, Cobain took some of key parts of Young’s formula and ran with them into the future, influencing three different generations in the process. As for Young, it’s not a coincidence that he is celebrated as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’. 

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The status as the forebear of all things grunge and alt-rock led to Young having a personal effect on Cobain as well as a musical one. This led to the connection that the two share today. Young’s personal and often bleak lyrics clearly resonated with Cobain, who would go on to pen cerebral accounts such as ‘Something in the Way’ and ‘All Apologies’. When you stop to think about it, the stylistic similarities between these two cuts and Young tracks such as ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ are stark. 

Cobain’s story is a famous one. After the release of Nevermind in late 1991, seemingly overnight, Nirvana became the biggest band on the planet, the de facto vanguard for Generation X. During the age when MTV was its cultural zenith, this gave them unprecedented exposure. Consequently, the level of fame the Seattle trio were bestowed with made all of them deeply uncomfortable. 

The dye was cast, and there was to be no escaping it. Cobain grappled with his lifelong inner demons, heroin addiction, and all the other trappings of fame. Together, these combined to create an unholy triptych that culminated in him choosing to take his own life in April 1994.

After the news of Cobain’s death broke, the line from ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black’, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, was etched into pop culture legend forever. It became the golden rule for all tragic heroes moving forward, echoing the jaded Rebel Without a Cause sentiment that James Dean first established back in the ’50s. Cobain’s very subjective appropriation of the line can only be taken as a gloomy fallacy, and this is something that Neil Young is acutely aware of. Deeply troubled by the use of the line in the letter, Young said: “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It f**ked with me.” 

The worst part of this is that Young had been trying to contact the deteriorating Cobain to give him some crucial advice that might have just saved his life and stopped Young’s lyrics from being misinterpreted by countless other worn-out people. He explained: “I, coincidentally, had been trying to reach him. I wanted to talk to him. Tell him only to play when he felt like it.”

Understandably, Cobain’s death had a significant impact on Young. The tragedy of the Nirvana frontman would have an impact on the development of Young’s 1994 record Sleeps with Angels. Grappling with mortality, the effect Cobain’s death had on Young is palpable across the album, and particularly the title track, which he wrote whilst trying to overcome his grief. “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 commented. “I’ve never really spoken about why I made that album. I don’t want to start now.” Pressed further, he clarified: “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.”

Whilst Sleeps With Angels isn’t totally about Kurt Cobain, you cannot doubt just how his story shades the music. Death has been a theme that has plagued Young across his career, and the way that Cobain’s use of one of his lines managed to pull Young back in for yet another bout with death is incredibly powerful. Once again, the weary middle-aged Young tussling with his lifelong foe. 

It is likely that if Cobain didn’t use the line, or die in the way he did, Young’s 1994 project would have been in a completely different style, as he’s an artist who writes from where he finds himself in life. Luckily for Young, this was to be the last time he’d revisit the cloaked spectre that had been following him since Danny Whitten’s death in 1972. 

Listen to ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ below.