The passing of grunge rocker Chris Cornell this week means that of the five major bands to emerge from the early 1990s’ grunge scene, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana all have lost lead singers to early deaths.
Mostly, these were singers whose lives were mangled by heroin/opiates, whether they died from it or not.
As I read the news, it occurred to me how deeply the grunge scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s swallowed the greatest drug scam ever sold, which is that heroin use is somehow a sign that the user is a rebel, an outsider, an artist finding his own tormented path on the margin of a claustrophobically conformist society.
The reality is that the drug, more than any other, is about commerce – about cold, hard business — and about enslavement to consumption. All of which, needless to say, is about as low-brow conformist as it comes.
Heroin should have been forgotten not long after it was invented for it has few medicinal benefits that other opiates don’t provide with far less addictive risk. It survived because it was a great drug for traffickers. It was easy to conceal, easy to cut, and it created customers that had to buy the product several times a day. A businessman’s dream.
The drug got its underground cachet beginning with Charlie Parker, the legendary saxophonist in the 1940s, who died in 1955 at the age of 34, having wasted much of his prodigious creativity in the pursuit of smack, while bringing an entire generation of younger musicians to dope. (Trumpeter Clifford Brown was staking out another path for jazz musicians – one of great devotion to art and improvisation combined with a sober lifestyle – when he was killed in a car accident at age 25.)
Beat writer William Burroughs helped solidify the drug’s reputation as an outsider’s substance.
Heroin got a bigger cultural boost from the Velvet Underground’s first album in 1967 and Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” followed as the years passed by notably addicted rockers like Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious and, of course, Keith Richards. So that by the late 1980s, heroin was fully established as the go-to drug for anyone – often a pasty-faced white kid with a rocknroll heart — wanting a personal image as a non-conformist.
To the extent of few others before it, the grunge scene bought this fiction with gusto. Heroin, moreover, seemed the perfect drug for grunge’s nihilistic, dirge-like sound. So an entire scene was created that seemed to emerge from the swamp of the Velvet Underground’s first album. Many others died from it. Grunge did, too.
My music was punk rock and the grunge thing happened later. My focus in life was by then on writing and storytelling and not so much on the latest wrinkle in rocknroll. Grunge was too slow, too hopeless and depressing. Also, I lived in Seattle during this time, and didn’t like the city and left as soon as I could and moved to Mexico. So all in all, grunge didn’t do much for me. (Stone Temple Pilots were a bit different, and appealed to me more, in that the music was less grungy and they weren’t from Seattle, though their singer’s story is the same.)
There was, nevertheless, a do-it-yourself ethos to the scene that I found attractive. Bands were especially afraid of “selling out,” thus many of them first signed with the local Sub Pop label.
It’s a sad epitaph to the scene that the folks who created it fought mightily to avoid the taint of commercialism in their music and conformity in the way they lived — and ran, as they did, to the embrace of a drug that embodied everything they were fleeing.