Who We Lost in 2017

By Keri Blakinger 01/22/18

Among the most shocking losses were two iconic rockers and close friends - Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell - who died by suicide just months apart, devastating a generation of rock fans.

Chester Bennington, frontman of Linkin Park (music band), performs in concert at Download (heavy metal music festival) on June 22, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.
The loss of Bennington and Cornell devastated a generation.

While coverage about the ongoing opioid crisis again dominated headlines in 2017, the year saw a number of high-profile losses in the addiction and recovery communities. Singers. Actors. Rappers. Writers. Rockers. Some died by suicide or overdose, but others died of unrelated medical conditions.

Among the most shocking losses were two iconic rockers and close friends—Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell—who died by suicide just months apart, devastating a generation of rock fans.

Here’s a look at some of the year’s losses:

Chris Cornell

The former Soundgarden frontman died by suicide in May, after years of battling drugs and depression. In the months after the “Black Hole Sun” singer hung himself, his widow blamed the rock star’s death on prescription drugs.

“He didn’t want to die,” she later told People. “If he was of sound mind, I know he wouldn’t have done this.” Instead, Vicky Cornell said, it was her husband’s use of Ativan that drove him to kill himself. The medical examiner ultimately found seven different drugs in the dead singer’s body, but said none of those contributed to his death.

"Addiction is a disease," his widow said. "That disease can take over you and has full power."

The Seattle native became a daily drug user by 13, but was sober by the time Soundgarden rose to national fame. During the band’s break-up in the mid-90s, he started using Oxycontin, though he went to rehab a few years later. Even years after his peak popularity, the grungey icon behind hits like “Black Hole Sun” and “Like a Stone” courted a strong and dedicated fan base.

Chester Bennington

The lead singer of Linkin Park died by suicide in July, on what would have been his long-time friend Chris Cornell’s birthday.

“Shocked and heartbroken, but it’s true,” bandmate Mike Shinoda wrote on Twitter after learning of the 41-year-old’s death at his California home.

The Phoenix native had a tough upbringing and began experimenting with hard drugs in his teens. 

“I was a lot more confident when I was high,” he later said. “I felt like I had more control over my environment when I was on hallucinogens or drinking.” By the mid-90s he had settled down.

But as the genre-bending band started achieving mainstream success with hits like “In the End” and “Numb,” Bennington weathered a painful divorce and then slipped back into bad habits.

“I have been able to tap into all the negative things that can happen to me throughout my life by numbing myself to the pain, so to speak, and kind of being able to vent it through my music,” he told Noisecreep in 2009. “I don’t have a problem with people knowing that I had a drinking problem. That’s who I am, and I’m kind of lucky in a lot of ways ′cause I get to do something about it.”

He had Ambien and a small amount of alcohol in his system at the time of his death.

Tom Petty

The legendary rock star who’d battled heroin addiction late in life died in October after suffering multisystem organ failure due to an accidental drug overdose. Petty had taken medications including Fentanyl, oxycodone, and xanax to treat conditions including a fractured hip. According to a statement from Petty's wife and daughter, "On the day he died, he was informed his hip had graduated to a full-on break and it is our feeling that the pain was simply unbearable and was the cause for his overuse of medication."

A prolific singer-songwriter with the Heartbreakers, Petty had already spent roughly two decades in the spotlight before falling into the downward spiral of heroin addiction sometime in the 90s. He sobered up and got married, but he waited nearly a decade to go public about his struggles with substance use.

“The only good thing about getting older is you get smart enough to avoid unnecessary problems,” he told Billboard in 2014.

“You know what’s worth spending time on and what’s not. If I had known that at 20, life would have been so much easier, but you have to experience all these things so you figure out how to find your way through the woods."

He died in a Santa Monica hospital less than a month before his 67th birthday.

Malcom Young

via Ac-dcfreak785/Wikimedia

AC/DC rocker Malcolm Young died in November after battling dementia for years. The high-voltage Aussie rock band first hit it big with 1979’s “Highway to Hell.”

But right after they finished making the landmark album, lead singer Bon Scott died of alcohol poisoning. In the aftermath, Young’s own struggles with alcohol intensified.

"I wasn't brain dead, but I was just physically and mentally screwed by the alcohol," he said later. Eventually he took a hiatus from the group before later rejoining it, sober.

“When Malcolm puts his mind to something, he does it,” George Young once said of his brother’s sobriety.

In 2014, he stopped touring due to his dementia diagnosis.

“As a guitarist, songwriter and visionary he was a perfectionist and a unique man,” the band said in a statement after his death. “He always stuck to his guns and did and said exactly what he wanted.”

Lil Peep

Born Gustav Ahr, the SoundCloud rapper better known as Lil Peep died of a drug overdose in November.

The son of a teacher and a professor, Peep was raised in Long Island and eventually dropped out of school before moving to Los Angeles and making a name for himself as an emo rapper.

He often spoke, sang and tweeted about mental health issues and depression.

“If I wasn’t making music I would be hurting myself,” he told Hunger TV in February. “Making music is nothing but beneficial to me.”

After his death, Peep’s manager tweeted that he’d been “expecting this call for a year.” An autopsy concluded he had fentanyl, Xanax, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone, cocaine and THC in his system at the time of his death.

Blake Heron

A still from A Thousand Junkies (Whitewater FIlms), via Talkhouse.

Actor Blake Heron of Shiloh fame died in September of a suspected drug overdose. The 35-year-old had been in and out of rehab, and in the days leading up to his death he’d been sick.

Even though responding officers at the scene found flu prescriptions but no illegal drugs, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department called it an “apparent overdose of an illicit narcotic substance.”

Earlier in the year, he’d played himself in Tommy Swerdlow’s A Thousand Junkies, a dark drug comedy. Though the movie was a fictional day-in-the-life look at drug users, all of the film’s stars were formerly addicted to heroin.

“I had my first taste of opiates with Vicodin,” he told The Fix at the time. “I found exactly what I was looking for. Opiates felt like I’d found home.”

David Cassidy

The “I Think I Love You” singer, sitcom star, and former heartthrob best known for his role in The Partridge Family died in November of organ failure. In the years before his death, Cassidy battled dementia, which prompted him to come forward and clarify that he had not started drinking again after he forgot the lyrics to one of his own songs.

“I was concerned people would mistake my alcoholism with my diagnosis,” he told People at the time. He first went public with his drinking struggles in 2008, and later made headlines with drunk driving arrests that culminated in a rehab stay in 2014.

“David died surrounded by those he loved, with joy in his heart and free from the pain that had gripped him for so long,” his family said in a statement after his death.

Gregg Allman

In May, the “Midnight Rider” rocker of the notoriously hard-partying Allman Brothers Band died of complications from liver cancer. He was 69.

The Southern singer’s career early on was marred by loss, after his brother Duane died in a motorcycle wreck in 1971. Gregg forged ahead, finding success with hits like “Ramblin Man” and “Straight from the Heart.”

By the mid-70s, Allman’s band was using so much cocaine and heroin that they returned from a 41-date tour with only $100,000. Around the same time, the group’s security man was arrested and later sent to prison over coke distribution charges, according to Variety. Allman testified against him, a controversial move that sparked discord within the group.

At one point, he was married to pop diva Cher – who walked out over Allman’s rampant drug use, according to Billboard. Over the years, Allman racked up more than 10 rehab stints before finally sobering up in the mid-90s.

But in 2007, he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C that he said stemmed from the use of dirty tattoo needles. He later struggled with respiratory problems that forced him to call off a tour. Just a few years before his death, the rock star laid out his life’s struggles and battle with addiction in a 2012 memoir called My Cross to Bear.

If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.