By Adam Waldman
In 1971, Don McClean released his most successful song – “American Pie,” featuring the poignant lyric…“the day the music died.” The reference is about the tragic plane crash that took place on February 3, 1959, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
On October 20, 1977, another plane crash brought tragedy to Lynyrd Skynyrd, killing frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his older sister, (backing vocalist) Cassie Gaines.
Both of these tragic plane crashes are a part of rock history, but April 5th (which is equally as tragic for different reasons) is not. April 5th is the anniversary of four separate notable deaths in the rock world.
On this date in 1994, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain committed suicide at the age of 27.
Though some have differing opinions, most rock fans think of the rise of Nirvana as the beginning of the grunge movement. Regardless, it’s hard to dispute that Cobain was the face of the movement. Like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the legends who came before him, Cobain died at the age of 27. His life was short, but his impact can still be felt to this day. During the final years of his life, Cobain battled heroin addiction, chronic health problems and depression. While many who followed in his footsteps did so for fame, Cobain had trouble coping with the fame that surrounded him and his wife, Courtney Love. Since their debut, Nirvana sold over 75 million albums worldwide. Cobain was (posthumously) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his fellow band members in 2014 (their first year of eligibility). Two decades before his induction, Cobain ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
On this date in 1998, drummer Cozy Powell (Rainbow, Black Sabbath and many more) was killed in a car accident at the age of 50.
Because he is associated with so many different artists, Powell doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves from the masses (although many drummers cite him as a major influence). One of the premier hard rock drummers in history, Powell appeared on numerous albums with many high-profile acts, including: Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Michael Schenker Group, Thin Lizzy, Jeff Beck and many others as a contributor. If you want to see further proof of his standing in the rock world, you need look no further than Emerson, Lake and Palmer changing their name to Emerson, Lake and Powell when he was in the band. Powell lived his life in the fast lane, and died the way that he lived – driving 104mph in bad weather, with alcohol in his system while talking on the phone to his married girlfriend.
On this date in 2002, Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley died of an overdose at the age of 34.
When you think of the “Seattle sound,” the bands that immediately come to mind are Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains. Staley’s distinct, haunting vocal style helped the band to stand out above most others. The dark, tortured quality in his delivery went beyond a style though; it felt personal and real. Unlike many wannabes during the grunge movement, Staley truly was a tortured soul. Drugs and depression had already been destroying him long before his untimely passing. When he was finally found dead on his couch weeks after he died, the six-foot tall Staley reportedly weighed only 86 pounds.
On this date in 2007, Mark St. John (Kiss) died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 51.
St. John is the lesser known of the three musicians who died on April 5th. His time with Kiss was brief, but he was a part of the band when they released one of their most successful albums – Animalize. Troubled with Reiter’s Syndrome that caused his hands and arms to swell, St. John only played on a handful of dates on the Animalize tour before being replaced by Bruce Kulick. The official cause of St. John’s death was a brain hemorrhage, which seems like natural causes, but his family and friends say that it was brought on by a beating that took place several months prior to his passing at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County, California. He had been serving a two-week sentence after pleading guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia.
Because all of these deaths occurred separately, April 5th is not thought of as a tragic day in rock history, but when you look at the collective impact of these losses, the date becomes as notable as the high-profile plane crashes that took other musicians before their time.