As the pop song says, suicide is painless

Taking one's own life has long been a potent and romantic notion in youth culture, as David Lister recalls
David Bowie not only wrote a song telling a lover in admiring terms that she was a "rock n roll suicide". He also recorded an elegiac song entitled "My Death". A Sheffield band called Cabaret Voltaire cut a track called "Why kill time when you can kill yourself?" and an even more nihilistic New York group simply called themselves Suicide.

Taking one's own life has long had a favoured place in the romance of pop culture. From lush love songs "I can't live, if living is without you", written, ironically, by a lyricist from Badfinger who later committed suicide, to the far darker broodings of morose rock stars such as Morrissey from The Smiths, suicide has been extolled as a romantic way out.

The biggest story in rock music over the past few months has been the life and possible death of The Manic Street Preachers' guitarist Richey James. An alcoholic and manic depressive, he recorded a cover version of the theme from Mash, "Suicide Is Painless". He is now missing; his car was found by the Severn Bridge.

But though rock star deaths have been numerous, suicides have in fact been relatively few. John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Brian Jones, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and Brian Jones died from causes ranging from murder to drugs overdose to Aids to accident. The lead singer of Chicago died from playing Russian roulette and losing. But none committed suicide.

The best known rock suicides were Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who shot himself, and Ian Curtis of the all too inappropriately named Joy Division, who hanged himself at his home. Both had massive teenage followings at the time of their deaths, and both have retained large cult followings, enhanced by the supposed glamour of their decease.

Other suicides include Richard Manuel of The Band, and folk singers Phil Ochs, and, astonishingly, two members of the light pop group Badfinger, Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Both hanged themselves.

None of these, though, had the sort of following among teenagers enjoyed by Curtis and Cobain, and latterly Richey James, whose songs dealt graphically with his depression, alcoholism and anorexia.

Melody Maker has for some months now been publishing letters from readers about James and Cobain. Melody Maker writer Dave Jennings says: "It frankly took everything over for a while, completely dominating our letters columns. We got masses of letters from people who empathised with Kurt and Richey. One girl wrote in saying she had cut herself and it had relieved the pressure on her, and she couldn't see why there should be a stigma about it. Indeed, several wrote in about self-mutilation."

Mat Snow, editor of Mojo rock magazine, thinks it is living dangerously rather than committing suicide which is the driving force in rock culture. "Living on the edge has always been the zen rock n roll state to be in. Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse. It's not suicide but it's playing fast and loose with your own life, which you do anyway when you're young."

Yet there seems to be an increasingly fine line between living on the edge and dying by your own hand. There have always been nihilistic voices in rock music, right back to Leonard Cohen in the Sixties. And they have inspired cult followings, particularly among adolescent males. But not until now have they been among the dominant voices.

The interesting and possibly unique aspect of Kurt Cobain's demise was that he was not a depressive warbler singing in a folk club. He was a hugely wealthy, loud and extravagant singer of aggressive rock music. He showed that beneath all the outward signs of success and a macho rock lifestyle one can be a hyper-sensitive depressive. And so too, perhaps, for Cobain's fans: beneath the surface their vulnerabilities and trauma may be all the harder for our hyperactive society to detect.