Tortured musicians never had a very long shelf life, but rock musicians seem to be on the forefront of artists suffering from their internal conflicts. They were the brightest shining stars of their time and thus burned out quicker than most. Rock history shows how an intensified psychedelic lifestyle did not only generate the most thought provoking art, but also caused a premature end to the artists that lived it.
In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s drugs and rock culture were intermingled and not necessarily condemned. Current media no longer highlights or glorifies the true condition of modern musicians, but in the past 20 years there have been signs that these artists are still affected by the overwhelmingly fast paced world that follows them.
Some of these musicians still find creativity and numb their pain through self destructive mediums. However, it’s when their overarching sensitivity towards reality requires too large a dose to numb it, or when their internal monologue becomes too unbearable to live with, that the results become catastrophically permanent.
These are 9 examples showing how tortured artist are not, and will not, be a thing of the past.
9. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) 1994
Kurt Cobain could have been considered a victim of his own genius. He was artistically gifted throughout his childhood but also developed a monumental amount of teenage angst while he watched his family break apart. The combination of his talent and angst served as the catalyst for an artistic breakthrough; Nirvana.
From the release of Nirvana’s first album in 1990 to Cobain’s suicide four years later, his life changed dramatically. Nirvana topped the charts, was recognized as the backbone of a new genre, and fans labeled Cobain as “the voice of a new generation.” On top of all this success, in 1992 Cobain got married and had a daughter.
The overnight transformation from a teenage rebel/social recluse to an international rock icon/family man had a huge effect on Cobain. He now had to live up to the expectations of an entire group of angry teenagers, while also attempting to create a functional family unlike the one that raised him. The pressure and responsibility outweighed Cobain’s passion, making him feel disconnected from his art.
His dulled enthusiasm could have been associated with his routine heroin use, but regardless he had issues feeling like a fake. Cobain felt like he was responsible for delivering a message and portraying a character that did not reflect his core emotions. On April 5th, 1994, Cobain left a detailed note that served as his last words to his adoring fan base and discharged a shotgun into his head; killing him instantly.
Kurt Cobain was convinced that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
8. Ingo Schwichtenberg (Helloween) 1995
The members of German power metal bands typically come off as having an angry, aggressive, and raw personality, but Ingo Schwichtenberg had quite the opposite. Schwichtenberg came off so jovial, happy, and optimistic that he was given the nickname “Mr. Smile.”
Unfortunately “Mr. Smile” had some issues with drug/alcohol dependency, undiagnosed schizophrenia, and depression. The cocaine and hashish abuse seemed to intensify his schizophrenic episodes resulting in uncontrollable sobbing fits that wouldn’t allow him to perform live. Since Schwichtenberg refused to get treatment for either the drug addiction or the schizophrenia, the band was forced to fire him in 1993.
Two years after “Mr. Smile” separated from Helloween the drugs/alcohol abuse got worse increasing the frequency and intensity of the episodes. The conclusion was Ingo Schwichtenberg ending his life by jumping in front of a subway train near Hamburg Germany on March 8th 1995.
7. Bradley Nowell (Sublime) 1996
Bradley Nowell came from a privileged family in southern California. He learned how to play guitar from his father and grandfather when he was a child and showed signs of being a highly intelligent adolescent. Nowell strived to meet people with qualities that were dynamically opposite to his own to broaden his perspective of humanity, and it was this unique characteristic that lead to the formation of Sublime
Nowell established a diverse group of friends that would jam together frequently, but it wasn’t until 1988 when Sublime officially formed after Nowell took a break from studying finance at college. Once they released two albums the band started to receive national attention that required them to start touring. It is suggested that the pressure of the tour schedule was too much for Nowell to mentally cope with and it was what ultimately lead to the start of his heroin use in 1992.
Sublime established a contract with a major label in 1994. Around this time Nowell was spending $4,000 a month on heroin. But along with the benefits of being signed to a major label, came an obligation for Nowell to get sober. He went to treatment and conquered his abuse issue until he was required to tour for the new album. Once the pressures of touring were once again a factor, Nowell found himself back on the needle.
In 1996, one week after Nowell got married and one day before he was meant to go on tour, Nowell overdosed on heroin in a hotel room in southern California. Much like Nirvana, the death of Bradley Nowell meant the end to Sublime.
6. Bobby Sheehan (Blues Traveler) 1999
Living a life of excess could be seen through several members of Blues Traveler. Front man John Popper showed the effects of overeating by tipping the scale with his 400lb frame. But it was Bobby Sheehan that had the more traditional rock and roll lifestyle. Sheehan enjoyed partying frequently and was not a stranger to drug use.
In late 1997, Sheehan was arrested for cocaine possession and was then sentenced to two years probation in early 1998 when he pleaded guilty. The conviction didn’t seem to have much influence on Sheehan’s behavior. After being a founding member of Blues Traveler and a bassist for 12 years, on August 20th, 1999 Sheehan overdosed on a combination of heroin, cocaine, and valium at his New Orleans home.
One source reported that Sheehan suffered from sleep apnea; a common disorder where a person’s breathing rate is disrupted while sleeping, resulting in long pauses between breaths. It is presumed that the drugs and the sleeping disorder were the deadly combination that led to his death.
5. Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) 2002
Layne Staley made it clear that although he was a heavy drug user during his time with Alice In Chains, that he didn’t want to be. According to an interview with Staley’s mother Nancy McCallum, he attempted rehab thirteen times but never succeeded with completely kicking the habit. Staley was aware that he made a mistake by starting his drug use, but he also commented that the pain related to being “dope sick” is unbearable and it was hurting his entire body.
In 1996 Staley went into seclusion. He never performed with Alice In Chains again and it was likely due to his inability to be in public while his body was slowly shutting down from the effects of the drugs. In an interview he acknowledged that his liver was failing resulting in Staley either constantly throwing up or defecating himself.
Layne Staley was found dead in his Seattle apartment on April 19th 2002. It was reported that he overdosed on morphine, codeine, and cocaine. In addition to the mixture in his bloodstream there were also crack pipes, empty spray-paint cans, and heroin nearby. The 6’1” grunge icon was only 86lbs when he died.
4. Dave Schulthise (The Dead Milkmen) 2004
Punk rockers were the poster children for living in the moment. Their passion and energy could routinely be interpreted as short sighted, chaotic, and sometimes self-destructive. But despite playing in the Philadelphia based punk band The Dead Milkmen, Dave Schulthise had more under the surface than just being a young, rebellious, rocker.
Schulthise was well educated and talented, but also sensitive; he struggled with personal identity issues and finding his purpose in life. He was a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue for economics and also studied Serbo-Croatian culture at Indiana University. In 1995 Schulthise was forced to retire from the band after developing tendinitis in both hands. His departure from The Dead Milkmen disbanded the group and Schulthise’s one reliable outlet for creativity was diminished.
After playing bass for 12 years, this life altering transition was difficult for Schulthise. On March 20th 2004, 9 years after the band’s breakup, Schulthise was found dead at a friend’s house in New York. Schulthise overdosed on pills but left a note; categorizing it as a suicide. Within the note, Schulthise mentioned that since being forced to leave the band, he had been struggling “with what he wanted to do.”
3. Kevin DuBrow (Quiet Riot) 2007
Quiet Riot and Kevin DuBrow had their growing pains from the time the band was formed in 1975 until DuBrow’s death in 2007. In the early years DuBrow routinely lashed out at other metal bands, the press, and the bands label. It is not confirmed whether his outbursts were the byproduct of drug use, but DuBrow’s erratic behavior eventually got him fired from the band in 1987. Four years later DuBrow regrouped with a former bandmate to create the band “Heat,” but in 1993 it reassumed the name Quiet Riot.
Drug addiction wasn’t uncommon within the genre or the era, but some musicians were able to get clean when their quality of life got considerably worse. It was pointed out in an interview with a friend and fellow musician Glenn Hughes that DuBrow hid the signs of addiction well and he never seemed “sick.” Even at a birthday party in New Orleans a month prior to DuBrows death, friends remembered him as appearing healthy.
DuBrow might have made the realization that his drug abuse was an issue just a little too late. When he spoke with Hughes supposedly days before his death, DuBrow admitted that he had to make some life changes. But on November 25, 2007 Kevin DuBrow was found dead from an accidental cocaine overdose; he passed six days earlier on November 19th. DuBrow’s death came coincidentally after Quiet Riot’s studio album “Rehab” was released about one year earlier.
2. James “The Rev” Sullivan (Avenged Sevenfold) 2009
From grade school to his later years touring with Avenged Sevenfold, James Sullivan never stopped drumming. He was producing technically advanced drum lines when he was in middle school, but it wasn’t until he was 19 years old that he developed the strength and stamina to play these earth shattering beats for long periods of time.
Sullivan had a love for the touring lifestyle. He enjoyed jumping between countries, meeting new people, and playing live. As with any touring rock group the party scene was present, but the bands success was more important to Sullivan than getting wrecked during his downtime. He knew that exposure through touring was more critical for the band than CD sales, so Avenged Sevenfold went on the road and performed roughly 230 shows between October 2007 and August 2009. Sullivan had a meticulous routine for stretching and resting his muscles to allow for continuous playing throughout an exhaustingly long tour schedule. However, consistently delivering such a physically demanding performance will eventually have an effect on the body.
Roughly four months after the tour concluded, on December 28th, 2009 James Sullivan was discovered dead in his Southern California home. The initial investigation ruled out foul play and the cause of death was considered to be from natural causes. But after several toxicology reports, it was reported that Sullivan’s death was from an accidental overdose resulting from Oxycodone (painkiller), Oxymorphone (painkiller), Diazepam (Anti-anxiety medication), and alcohol.
Considering Sullivan’s devotion to showmanship, the physical requirements of his performance, and the expectation from his fans; it is hard to say whether Sullivan’s death was a result of recreational drug use, or if he was just trying to treat wounds from his relentless touring schedule.
1. Mikey Welsh (Weezer) 2011
As a longtime performing musician in the Boston music scene, Mikey Welsh played actively with a number of bands and contributed to the release of several albums from 1993 until his retirement from the profession in 2001. Welsh was with Weezer for only three years (1998 – 2001) before his retirement. But during that time Weezer recorded and released “Weezer” (Green Album); which turned out to be their second highest grossing album in the United States and third highest worldwide.
Welsh’s retirement came abruptly after a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt by drug overdose in 2001. He claimed that the live music scene was becoming too much to handle due to a long history of drug use and undiagnosed mental illness. He retired from being a musician to take up painting, but this unfortunate event was foreshadowing for his death years later.
For the next 10 years Welsh embraced his new painting career but in 2007 he noted that he was still struggling with his demons. On October 8th, 2011 Mikey Welsh was found unresponsive in a Chicago hotel room and was pronounced dead at the scene. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but an overdose was suspected based on the prescription pills and bag of white powder, thought to be heroin, found in the room. However, the toxicology report came back inconclusive.
A week prior, Welsh predicted his death and communicated it through social media posts on both Twitter and Facebook. He posted the specific location, date, and cause for his own passing; noting that it was time to write his will.
Follow @landis_wes on Twitter