Scott Weiland, the lead singer of the nineties grunge rock band Stone Temple Pilots, died in early December. His off-and-on crack addiction—something that had plagued him for decades—appears to have been the immediate cause. Yet a more hidden factor also bears some responsibility and is also indirectly responsible for grunge rock's mainstream popularity. It may surprise the reader to know I am speaking of divorce.
Weiland was both the product and perpetuator of America's divorce culture. The singer came from a broken home and was married three times. His second wife in the days following his death penned a poignant reflection on her late husband, noting the dark spiral of drugs, alcohol, and prison sentences that ruined his life.
But her eulogy suggests also that his life was made more miserable by his aversion to commitment, something he struggled to provide both for her and for their children. She notes that he was photographed with his kids only “a handful of times in fifteen years of fatherhood.” She mourns that her ex-husband won't be “with his children barbecuing in the backyard and waiting for a Notre Dame game to come on.” And she pleads with her readers to help children suffering at the hands of their parent's broken relationships, to give them some sort of “normalcy.”
Grunge’s Sentimental Ethos
Children exposed to divorce are two to three times more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies. Adolescents with divorced parents are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school when compared to children from intact families.
Adolescent girls with divorced parents are three times more likely to become teen mothers, while their male counterparts are twice as likely to spend time in prison. If the United States enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960, one sociologist estimates that the nation would have 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, approximately 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 fewer kids receiving therapy, and about 70,000 fewer suicide attempts every year.
Interestingly, the deep feelings of despondency, disconnection, and isolation that divorce delivers to America's youth are the same sentiments that define much of the sentimental ethos of grunge rock. Grunge was the most popular rock for the first half of the 1990s; Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and Stone Temple Pilots being the most famous bands. It typically features slower tempos and dissonant harmonies, offering angst-ridden lyrics reflecting social alienation, apathy, and confinement.
The members of all the most popular grunge bands were born between 1964 and 1970, at the origins of an era where divorce, and particularly no-fault divorce, became a culturally and legally acceptable decision for many Americans. In 1969, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan signed America's first no-fault divorce legislation. Within fifteen years, virtually every state in the Union had followed suit. From 1960 to 1980, the American divorce rate more than doubled. Five of the six lead singer/songwriters in the bands mentioned grew up in broken homes.
The themes of grunge rock are incongruous with other events that defined the era. All these bands released their most popular work after the Berlin Wall fell and the stagnant American economy of the 1980s began to take off. These frontmen were all middle-class white males living in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Why wouldn't they be happy or hopeful for the opportunities of a post-Cold War world? The stories and lyrics of these lead singers suggest divorce holds part of the answer.
The Frontman’s Stories
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder was born in 1964, and his parents divorced when he was only one year old. His mother remarried, and he grew up believing his stepfather was his biological father. His mother divorced his stepfather when he was in his late teens and only at this time did he learn the truth about his biological father, who by that time had died of multiple sclerosis.
Pearl Jam created one of the most iconic of grunge's albums: “Ten,” released in 1991. The band catapulted to national stardom, with its angst-ridden songs. “Jeremy,” for example, written prior to Columbine, tells the story of an isolated, unpopular student who finally “speaks” in school by blowing up a bomb. Vedder's lyrics frequently evince a powerful level of darkness. In the song “Black,” he cries:
And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass of what was everything; All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything. . . . All the love gone bad, turned my world to black; Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll be.
Listening to the album “Ten” will transport the listener to the dark, heartsick world Vedder often inhabited.
Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan's story is notably similar. Born in Illinois in 1967, his parents divorced when he was three years old, and his father subsequently remarried. He claims that his stepmother physically and emotionally abused him. His father and stepmother also divorced during his childhood.
Corgan formed Smashing Pumpkins in 1988, many music critics claiming the group to be the most musically versatile of all the grunge-era bands. It certainly had its share of radio hits throughout the 1990s, including “Today,” “Disarm,” “1979,” and “Tonight, Tonight.” Like Vedder, Corgan's lyrics are frequently depressing, and at times even nihilistic. He muses in “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”:
The world is a vampire, sent to drain, secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames; and what do I get, for my pain? Betrayed desires, and a piece of the game. . . . Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage; then someone will say what is lost can never be saved.
Corgan's lyrics were so notoriously dismal that when the band appeared on an episode of The Simpsons, Homer tells the frontman: “Thanks to your gloomy, depressing music, my children no longer hope for the future I cannot afford to give them." Corgan's character humbly replies: "Yeah, we try to make a difference."
Cobain and Weiland
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana—perhaps the most famous of the grunge stars—was born in Washington State in 1967, and his parents divorced when he was nine. He acknowledged that this made him “ashamed,” and that he “desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.” Compounding this tragedy, Cobain witnessed his mother being physically abused by a boyfriend.
Cobain formed Nirvana in 1987, and within a few years came to represent the heights of grunge's celebrity-status, with such hits as “Smells like Teen Spirit,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” and “Come As You Are.” His artistry is most evident in the band's 1993 MTV “Unplugged” album, especially in the beautiful and almost otherworldly cover of David Bowie's “The Man Who Sold the World.” One song on that album, “Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam,” though not personally written by Cobain, is suggestive of Cobain's personal feelings of emptiness:
Jesus, don't want me for a sunbeam; Sunbeams are never made like me; Don't expect me to cry for all the reasons you had to die; Don't ever ask your love of me.
Cobain increasingly struggled with drug abuse, depression, and hatred of his own fame. After a brief stint in rehab, he committed suicide on April 5, 1994.
Finally, there is Weiland, who was born Scott Kline in California in 1967. His parents divorced early, he assuming his adoptive stepfather’s last name when he was five. He grew up Catholic—a connection he retained for most of his adult life—and developed an affinity for Notre Dame football, even playing quarterback on his high school team, in addition to singing in the school choir.
He helped form Stone Temple Pilots in 1989, and the band soon became an international success with radio hits such “Plush,” “Interstate Lovesong,” and “Big Bang Baby.” Weiland's frequently bizarre lyrics—when they are able to be interpreted—point to a life of solitary grief. In the early hit “Creep,” the chorus goes: “I'm half the man I used to be; This I feel as the dawn; It fades to gray.” In 2007 he acknowledged the darkness of his years living drugs, sex, and rock and roll:
I believe in the Devil: I experienced some very bizarre things when I was in the height of my addiction—popped a cork in the genie bottle and felt the Devil—not, like, literally Satan, but energy from that side of the spectrum.
Weiland’s demons never left him, and he left two broken marriages and two teenage children behind. Rejecting the Catholicism of his youth, he relapsed into his old habits of substance abuse, dying on a tour bus full of drugs in Minnesota.
Vedder, Corgan, Kobain and Weiland. All monumental musical successes in the grunge genre. Yet all tortured by inner demons. And all products of divorce. The terribly sad stories of Scott Weiland, Kurt Cobain, and grunge music isn't just about catchy guitar riffs, social isolation, and drug addictions. It's about divorce and its devastating, indelible mark.