Rock ‘n Roll icon Neil Young just released an autobiography called Waging Heavy Peace and some of the book’s more choice nuggets are becoming 30 second sounds bytes on the 24-hour news shows. One such story found in the book (which I haven’t read yet) is about Young’s involvement in the final days (and death) of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain. Cobain’s suicide note famously quoted Young’s 1979 song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Specifically the lyrics, “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away.” The song was written for RUST NEVER SLEEPS and is about John Lyndon of The Sex Pistols abandoning his “Johnny Rotten” stage-persona.
Basically, a sad, sick kid heard Young’s song, which I’ve always interpreted as about creative death and rebirth, and took it more on face value. That said, I can totally understand why Neil Young is still to this day shaken up by that. What I didn’t know (until it came out in Young’s book) is that Young was actively reaching out to Cobain in the days leading up to his death. Neil Young was recently interviewed by Classic Rock Magazine and reveled that “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me. I, coincidentally, had been trying to reach him. I wanted to talk to him. Tell him only to play when he felt like it.”
Interestingly, Cobain is not the only dead rock star to have interpreted Young’s song on a more literal level. In 1980, John Lennon told Playboy “I hate it[“Hey Hey, My My “] It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out.” Lennon, ever the provocative bastard who was always willing to say what most people might only think, went on to add: “If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn’t he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.”
First off all, I think “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” is a fucking amazing song. I can see how various people, at various stages of life (and metal status) might interpret it in different ways…but in general I think it’s a fantastic work of art that is pretty self-evident. But if a person is in the wrong mindset (or worse looking for a more sinister reading of the song) can certainly find some really dark shit in Young’s tune.
That said, I personally think that Young is right, in a creative sense it is better to burn out than fade away. Lennon’s band The Beatles are a classic example of a group that burned out rather than fade away. Their albums progressed and their sound evolved to such an astonishingly degree it can scarcely be believed (thankfully we have the records to prove it). There were other factors at play, but I think part of the reason they broke up was over creative differences.
But I digress. I know my opinion doesn’t matter, but I don’t think Neil Young should beat himself up too much about Cobain’s death, because it certainly wasn’t his fault. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have someone quote you in their suicide note. All of this just puts Neil Young, and his work as an artist, into perspective and makes me really want to read Waging Heavy Peace.