I was recently struck by how many of my favorite musicians are suicides. Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Hanson, Nick Drake, Donny Hathaway, Mac Miller, Dolores O’Riordan (Cranberries), Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit), Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse), Michael Hutchence (INXS). There were singers who drank themselves to death (Jason Molina, Billie Holiday), artists who overdosed (Tim Buckley, Amy Winehouse) and others who took their lives after battling health problems (Ian Curtis, Vic Chesnutt).
My initial thought was why am I drawn to sad music? Then a different question struck me. Are musicians prone to suicide? In music producer Rick Rubin’s book The Creative Act, he writes “people who choose to do art are, many times, the most vulnerable.” He goes on further: If you see tremendous beauty or tremendous pain where other people see little or nothing at all, you’re confronted with big feelings all the time. These emotions can be confusing and overwhelming. When those around you don’t see what you see and feel what you feel, this can lead to a sense of isolation and a general feeling of not belonging, of otherness.
Musicians are often empathic souls. This sensitivity allows them to channel beautiful music. It also prompts raw emotion that can be overwhelming. Artistic propensity can be a blessing and a curse. The myth of the tortured artist might be a reality. A 2020 Scientific American study concluded that artists are up to 20 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression. Steve Stack of the University of Michigan’s Injury Prevention Center writes that the suicide rate for musicians is nearly three times the national average. (This is based on an eight-year study of death certificates from those who listed “musician” as their primary occupation.)
In Eric Maisel’s book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression, he writes: “I think 100 per cent of creative people are going to experience existential depression, which is a result of their desire to find meaning in life through their work.”
Working musicians are particularly susceptible to depression. They spend grueling months on the road away from family and friends. They work nights, get little sleep and exercise. They indulge in alcohol and drugs and eat poorly. Rock songs are often about death, loneliness and betrayal. This makes for compelling music but may coincide with depression or suicidal ideation. Scottish musician Scott Hutchison battled depression most of his life. He wrote about his struggles in the song “The Modern Leper:”
See, I’ve got this disease I can’t shake
And I’m just rattling through life
Well, oh, this is how we do things now
This is how the modern stay scared
So I cut out all the good stuff.
He speaks of his fear of living, of “rattling through” without enjoying “the good stuff.” In his song “Floating in the Forth,” Hutchison wrote: “And fully clothed, I float away Down the Forth, into the sea. I think I’ll save suicide for another day.” He ultimately committed suicide by jumping into the River Forth in Scotland.
Songwriting can lead to self-criticism and self-doubt. Beck called himself “a Loser.” Thom Yorke dubbed himself “a Creep.” Some musicians glamorize suicide. In a 2015 interview with Larry King, Morrissey said, “Suicide is admirable.” When she was 21, Lana Del Rey said, “I wish I was dead already.” She was taken to task by Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of Kurt Cobain, who tweeted, “The death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticize. I’ll never know my father because he died young & it becomes a desirable feat because ppl like u think it’s cool.”
Darby Crash of the 1970s punk band The Germs said, “I’m not going to save up for my old age, because I’m not going to have an old age.” He died of a heroin overdose in 1980. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden battled depression and substance abuse. In a 1996 interview he said, “I know what it feels like to be suicidal and I know what it feels like to be hopeless.” He quit drugs and alcohol in 2005 but his struggles with depression continued. In 2017, he hung himself. His wife blamed the prescription drug Ativan used by Cornell as a sleep aid.
Elliott Smith was known as the king of sad songs. In 1997, he tried to take his own life by jumping off a cliff. He survived when landing in a tree. After signing with Dreamworks Records, he fell into a depression and spoke openly about suicide. He was tormented by memories of abuse at the hands of his stepfather. In his most famous song “Between the Bars,” Smith wrote about using alcohol to push away his demons.
Drink up baby, stay up all night
With the things you could do
You won’t but you might
The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see.
The promises you’ll only make
Drink up with me now
And forget all about the pressure of days
Do what I say and I’ll make you okay
And drive them away
The images stuck in your head.
Drink up one more time, and I’ll make you mine
Keep you apart, deep in my heart
Separate from the rest, where I like you the best.
Alcohol was a seductress promising relief from suffering. All it asked in return was that Smith push away his friends and vow loyalty to the bottle. He also binged on crack and heroin. He walked the streets alone at night muttering to himself. In 2003, after a fight with his girlfriend, he killed himself by stabbing himself in the chest.
Singer/Songwriter Sia is open about her struggles with depression. After her boyfriend was run over and killed by a London taxi in 1997, she turned to alcohol for comfort. She told The New York Times that she planned to take her own life going as far as writing a suicide note until a friend called and accidentally saved her life. She learned to manage her depression through anti-depressants.
Kurt Cobain admitted to using heroin to push away suicidal thoughts: “This is the only thing that’s saving me from blowing my head off right now.” The Nirvana lead singer also suffered from bipolar disorder and had a family history of suicide. A 2021 study by researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital identified a genome on Chromosome 7 containing DNA variations increasing the risk a person will attempt suicide. The study suggests there is a genetic underpinning to suicide distinct from related psychiatric disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.
Perhaps the most poignant song written about suicidal ideation comes from musician Vic Chesnutt. Chesnutt, who became a quadriplegic after a 1983 car accident, attempted suicide several times. In his song “I’ve Flirted With You All My Life,” he speaks directly to Death as if it were his life companion:
I am a man
I am self-aware
And everywhere I go
You’re always right there with me
I’ve flirted with you all my life
Even kissed you once or twice
And to this day I swear it was nice
But clearly I was not ready
I’m not ready.
In 2009, overwhelmed by medical debt and depression, Chesnutt took his life by overdosing on muscle relaxants.
In the song “Everybody Hurts,” Michael Stipe of R.E.M. sings, “When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on.” David Bowie does a similar thing in “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” reminding his fellow rockers that though “the knives may seem to lacerate your brain… you’re not alone.” Bowie himself suffered from bouts of depression. He turned to psychotherapy acknowledging “the depressions have got less and less as I’ve got older.”
Cat Stevens walked away from a successful musical career in 1979. He found answers to his depression and despair through religion. John Lennon used primal scream therapy to unlock and release repressed childhood memories. Peter Gabriel spent years in therapy. His song “Digging in the Dirt” includes the line “I’m digging in the dirt to find the places I got hurt.”
Leonard Cohen’s lifelong battle with depression began when he was a teenager. In 1994, he withdrew from public life and put his career on hold. He joined a Buddhist monastery and learned to meditate. This allowed him to “shift his focus away from the loyalty and tyranny of the inner thoughts that come with depression.”
Suicidal ideation may seem like a death warrant, but it’s not. Suicide is preventable. Thoughts and feelings of hopelessness are not permanent. Bruce Springsteen told Esquire in 2018 that he’s overcome two emotional breakdowns. “I’m on a variety of medications that keep me on an even keel; otherwise I can swing rather dramatically and… just… the wheels can come off a little bit. So we have to watch, in our family. I have to watch my kids, and I’ve been lucky.”