Coincidence—meaningless, meaningful coincidence—is the foundation of mythology.
It’s been 10 years to the day since Layne Staley, former frontman of Alice in Chains, is believed to have succumbed to heroin and cocaine addiction in Seattle, Washington. We can only say believed because the singer’s last years were a tragic spiral of isolation and drug abuse; it wasn’t until April 19 that police kicked down his door to find the singer dead, bathed in television light. Rolling Stone ran a cover of the blond-haired Staley, bearing a quote from Canadian folk legend Neil Young: “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
Staley’s fateful day came eight years to the day after the April 5 death of another blonde-haired grunge icon: Kurt Cobain. Also in Seattle, also the result of heroin. Unlike Staley, though, Cobain’s death blindsided the generation that’d believed in him; if his demise was the shock that killed the grunge juggernaut, then Staley’s was its anticipated echo. Cobain’s suicide note bore another Neil Young quote: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
Young would later dedicate his album, Sleeps with Angels, to Cobain’s memory.
Today, two MississaugaLife writers and devout music fans—myself and assistant editor Leo Graziani—reflect on the passing of two icons whose art ignited the collective imagination of a whole society, but ultimately swallowed their own lives.
Respectively, Leo (35) and I (24) represent Generation X and the Millennial Generation. Our relationship to the music and the men behind it couldn’t be more different; by the time I was old enough to have seen a Nirvana concert, they were already putting out the With the Lights Out box set. Leo’s reflection is an intensely personal account of a massive cultural implosion; mine is the detached recollection of an observer, a historical passenger watching the televised aftershock.
But what we do share is the same thing that a kid born today, who puts on Nevermind in 2026, will share with us: a strange, but very real, emotional attachment to the imprint left by Nirvana and Alice in Chains on the musical landscape.
I was 18 years old when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I heard about it when a friend phoned me up and said:
“I’m sorry, dude.”
“Sorry for what?”
“I’m just sorry.”
“For what? What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t hear?”
“No. Heard what?” I was starting to get a little annoyed with him.
“You really need to turn on the radio right now.”
So I went over to the living room where the family stereo was set up, and I turned on 97.7 FM. And there it was, in sombre tones: Kurt Cobain was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
A little background before we proceed: I was—and still am—a huge Nirvana fan. I was 15 years old when the Nevermind bomb dropped, obliterating everything I knew about music until then. It was massive. I was even lucky enough to catch them live at Maple Leaf Gardens in ’93, on the In Utero tour. They’re one of my all-time favourites.
I sat in front of the stereo, just listening. I couldn’t believe it. Kurt’s dead? That’s not fair! He can’t be dead! I didn’t want to move from the stereo, but the yelling of my parents saying to come to dinner—it’s a big deal in an Italian house—eventually overpowered my trance. So I threw in a blank cassette and hit record while we ate. I still have that tape.
The next day, in true melodramatic teenage fashion, I wore a black armband to school. A lot of students misinterpreted it, and I was verbally crucified by a teacher for it too: “Why are you wearing that, son? ’Cause your hero died?” That’s verbatim, folks. And I tried my best to defend myself, but it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t until years later that I understood what I was mourning: not the man, but the music.
I didn’t know Kurt Cobain personally, and no matter how intensely I rocked out to his songs, the obfuscating lyrics only ever allowed you a little peek in his head at best. (For the record, I understand the lyrics now.) I never bought into that messianic image of Cobain, the whole voice-of-a-generation, the-next-John-Lennon thing that all the music media outlets were calling him. I think that’s looking upon the whole thing with too-nostalgic eyes. Despite his importance in rock history, and despite my almost fanatical devotion to the band, I recall feeling that the whole thing was overblown to death.
No, for me, Nirvana just plain and simply rocked. There was something almost primal about how they sounded that spoke to me in my lizard brain. Nirvana songs were the first songs I learned to play on guitar. And no Kurt meant no more Nirvana. They would never make another record. The magic of that band was gone.
Years later, when they released “You Know You’re Right” from the vault, I felt the void left by the absence of Nirvana. It made me sad and made me remember just how awesome they were. Yet at the same time, I was happy to hear another song. It was bittersweet.