The music business is not nearly as dark as it might seem on the surface. While there are some artists that can grow jaded as the years go on, musicians still have a heart, and it grows that much more heavy when they see their fellow musicians pass away. As such, it’s not uncommon for the deaths of peers to inspire musicians to share their grief through song.
Although not all of these songs tackle death in the same way, you can hear the musicians wrestling with their emotions and trying their best to move on after losing some of the most important people in their lives. It might not be easy, but these are the kind of songs that are more than just notes on a page. These tracks are what help musicians and fans move on from tragedy.
Check out these 13 Rock + Metal Songs Written in Tribute to Late Musicians below.
“Friend of a Friend”
Foo Fighters Tribute to Kurt Cobain
After Kurt Cobain’s tragic passing it would be totally understandable for Dave Grohl to never pick up an instrument again. When he started to soldier on with the Foo Fighters though, it felt like Dave was using it as a way to move on from his trauma.
With years under his belt, “Friend of a Friend” from 2005’s In Your Honor is one of the few songs where Dave opens up about Kurt, talking about the old days when they were sharing an apartment together when Nirvana were first getting big. A decade had gone by since Kurt’s passing at this point, and just hearing Dave and a guitar gives us a little peek behind the curtain, as if we’re a fly on the wall in those early pre-“Teen Spirit” days. For all of the manic screams Kurt gave us on Nirvana records, this is a look at the gentler side of him we didn’t see too often.
“Aesthetics of Hate”
Machine Head Tribute to Dimebag Darrell
Whenever a giant passes away, there’s always going to be musicians willing to pay their due respects. When Dimebag Darrell passed away though, one journalist wasn’t so kind, making disparaging remarks about Darrell’s playing just a week after his murder. The metal community was never going to take kindly to that, let alone Robb Flynn from Machine Head.
From the first few seconds that Flynn opens his mouth, he is ready for war, taking this critic to task for disrespecting one of the greatest players to ever pick up a guitar. While everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, “Aesthetics of Hate” is about a manner of respecting those who have passed on. Everyone can be a critic sometimes, but in the house of Machine Head, no blasphemy of Dime is going to be tolerated.
Slipknot Tribute to Paul Gray
Throughout Slipknot’s career, the 9 have always acted like metal brothers in arms. And when bassist Paul Gray passed away from a drug overdose in 2009, there was no way the band was going to sidestep the issue, dedicating their entire next album to Paul’s memory.
While the shadow of Gray’s memory looms large over most of .5 The Gray Chapter, “Goodbye” is when the lyrics get a lot more personal. In just over two minutes, Corey Taylor is really wearing his heart on his sleeve. The only way to get through that darkness is acceptance, though, and the Knot were able to move on and become stronger people with this song, paying tribute to the crazy mother****** who kept the good times rolling through the years.
Def Leppard Tribute to Steve Clark
At the height of their fame in the ‘80s, it almost felt like Def Leppard were cursed to some extent. While they notched up hit after hit, they had to deal with production struggles on 1987’s Hysteria with the absence of Mutt Lange, record executives constantly asking about when the album would be due for release, and even soldiering on after drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car accident midway through the production.
Then again, nothing cut deeper than losing guitarist Steve Clark to drug abuse in 1990, and the band finished off the recording of their next album, Adrenalize, with “White Lightning” acting as an epic in Steve’s memory. With the title taken from a nickname Steve had while on the road, Phil Collen had even mentioned the spookiness of recording the album after his passing, almost like having the ghost of Steve by his side as he was playing his parts. Because even if Steve wasn’t there in the studio anymore, his presence was still tied up in between this recording.
“To Live Is To Die”
Metallica Tribute to Cliff Burton
Many of us would-be musicians can only dream of doing half of what Cliff Burton did before his passing. It looked like Burton was going to be one of the most accomplished bass players of all time, before a tragic bus accident on Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” tour in 1986 brought everything to a halt.
And as much as …And Justice for All gets a lot of flak for having the bass mixed fairly low throughout the entire record, “To Live Is To Die” is a touching tribute to Cliff, where the band makes an instrumental featuring some of the final lines that Cliff ever wrote spoken by James Hetfield at the tail end of the song. Listening to this song almost feels like you’re seeing the band deal with his death in real time, from the sad midsection being a depiction of the accident and spending the rest of the song coming to terms with what they just experienced.
It was going to be a long road back to normal, but these were the steps that Metallica needed to take to carry on.
“in My Darkest Hour”
Megadeth Tribute to Cliff Burton
While we’re on the topic of Cliff, Metallica weren’t the only ones left grieving over his passing. Across the world, Dave Mustaine ended up hearing the news of Cliff’s death relayed to him second hand by Maria Ferrero from Megaforce Records. Needing to vent out his frustration somewhere, Dave came up with “In My Darkest Hour,” which works as both a ballad to Cliff and a way for Dave to work through his only feelings about it.
Though it has been described as a breakup song by Mustaine, you can still feel that initial spark from hearing about Cliff’s passing, almost acting as another shade of black to Dave’s sadness. While this is a lot softer than most Megadeth songs, it never loses the edge that makes it a metal song either. Cliff was always a fan of heavy music, and this is the kind of epic sendoff that he deserved.
Red Hot Chili Peppers Tribute to Kurt Cobain
Throughout the Chili Peppers’ career, Anthony Kiedis was never shy about opening up about the dark side of life. And when the band had to soldier on without John Frusciante in the guitarists’ slot, things were getting a lot more depressing, with later songs like “Warped” off of One Hot Minute in 1995 alluding to Anthony Kiedis relapsing on hard drugs. While the rest of the album had a dark streak, there’s a beautiful ballad buried underneath everything in “Tearjerker,” which was written in tribute to Kurt Cobain.
Since Anthony Kiedis had known Kurt from Nirvana opening the “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” tour, this is the kind of song that feels like an outsider looking in. Anthony had said that he never got to know Kurt personally on the tour, but always thought of him as a gentle soul and was in awe of his music despite how much darkness was tied up in his story. Some songs might act as a eulogy for musicians, but this song feels more like a celebration of life.
“So Far Away”
Avenged Sevenfold Tribute to The Rev
In the wake of Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan’s death, Synyster Gates said that Avenged Sevenfold spent a week wondering whether they should even continue on. These guys were musical brothers, and losing one of their own was going to leave a gaping hole in their sound. In the final days of recording Nightmare, “So Far Away” was made in memory of Jimmy, with lyrics that are enough to leave any listener in shambles.
Though most of the record was well into production before Jimmy’s death, this is where everyone starts to process the loss of their musical brother in song. Instead of being angry or bitter over his musical brother passing on, this is a way for M Shadows to look back and think of all the things that he could say to Jimmy but doesn’t have the chance. While the band did have the intent of making a concept record with Nightmare, things really shifted focus after The Rev’s passing, and you can still feel his spirit onstage whenever they play this song.
“Say Hello 2 Heaven”
Temple of the Dog Tribute to Andy Wood
Whereas some supergroups come together for the fun of it, Temple of the Dog was one of the purest collaborations ever made. After rooming with Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone in the early days of grunge, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden was shattered when he heard of Wood’s passing midway through a tour.
While he didn’t anticipate his tribute songs being an album at first, “Say Hello 2 Heaven” is the kind of hard rocking slow burn where you can feel every bit of emotion dripping out of his voice. After drafting in Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament in tow to help fill out the record, this is Cornell pouring his heart out for his fallen friend, with the rest of his grunge brethren standing right by his side. The Seattle scene was always a tight knit community, and this was a time to grieve and heal those raw nerves.
Alice in Chains Tribute to Chris Cornell + Layne Staley
The entire Seattle scene has had to deal with its fair share of darkness. Even before Kurt Cobain’s death, Alice in Chains already had their fair share of turmoil, as Layne Staley struggled with heroin addiction throughout most of the band’s run. Though they managed to document their substance abuse on Dirt, the band reached its tragic end when Staley succumbed to an overdose in 2002.
While Jerry Cantrell managed to soldier on by sharing harmonies with William DuVall, Alice hadn’t forgotten where they came from, as “Never Fade” pays tribute to Layne as well as Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, who died the year before the record was due for release. While the eeriness of Alice’s sound is still accounted for, the message behind this song is a lot more wholesome. Just because their friends might be gone doesn’t mean they’ve been forgotten, and we will be remembering these fallen icons for years to come.
“Above and Beyond”
Deep Purple Tribute to Jon Lord
When Deep Purple were told that their beloved keyboardist Jon Lord had passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2012, it was a heavy blow. While Lord had stepped away from the band all the way back in 2002, his keyboard lines are still some of the most untouchable riffs in the world of hard rock, guitar or otherwise.
His spirit lived on in Purple’s music even without him there, and Ian Gillan wanted to pay his due respects in song on Now What?! In 2013. For “Above and Beyond,” Gillan wrote the lyric “your souls had been touched are forever entwined” specifically in tribute to Jon’s memory. Purple had certainly moved on since Jon’s departure with Don Airey assuming the keyboard throne, but if you look at these lines, the impact Jon had on the band is stronger than even mortality.
Pearl Jam Tribute to Johnny Ramone
As grunge started to flood the airwaves in the early ‘90s, rock fans certainly got a reality check with subjects of mortality. Alice in Chains had already mentioned the horrors of substance abuse, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam was no stranger to a bit of darkness either, like covering teen suicide on “Jeremy” on their debut album Ten. You get a lot more perspective on death as you grow up though, and Eddie seemed prepared to take on the passing of a dear friend on the track “Life Wasted.”
Written as a tribute to Johnny Ramone, the lyrics are a lot more optimistic than most tribute songs, seeing death as an opportunity to cherish the moments that you have while you’re still here. By PJ standards, Eddie basically wrote his own version of a Ramones song here, sticking to the straight ahead rhythm and power chords that smack you in the face from the minute they start. Much like the classic Ramones tracks he loved, Eddie learned one important lesson: there’s no time to screw around, so you might as well get to the point.
“Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do”
Van Halen Tribute to Kurt Cobain
It could not have been easy for Kurt Cobain to deal with the pressure of being the voice of grunge. Fame can be a tricky tightrope to walk, let alone for someone like Kurt who had openly dismissed his own masterpiece Nevermind in the press.
When the darkness got the better of him back in 1994, Van Halen‘s Sammy Hagar was really affected by it and wanted to say his piece about anyone who might be dealing with the same struggle that Kurt had. While “Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do” was reworked in the recording process to be a lot less specific, the message of pushing on when times are tough were untouched. Even though Kurt’s demons become too much for him to bear, that doesn’t mean that we have to live the rest of our lives in the shadows as well.