Steve Harwell, former lead singer of band Smash Mouth, dies of liver failure at age 56

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published September 6, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Former Smash Mouth leader singer Steve Harwell had been facing physical and mental health challenges for a decade when he passed away from liver failure on Monday.

  • Harwell was diagnosed with Wernicke’s encephalopathy in 2013, a condition that damages the brain and affects memory, energy levels, coordination, and vision. 

  • Harwell retired in 2021 after a string of increasingly erratic behavior linked to his Wernicke’s encephalopathy diagnosis

The former lead singer of the band Smash Mouth, Steve Harwell, passed away on Monday, September 4, 2023. Harwell retired in 2021 and has faced physical and mental health challenges for the past decade. He reportedly died peacefully and was surrounded by family in his Bosie, Idaho home. Harwell was engaged at the time of his death. He was 56.[] 

Harwell was diagnosed with both cardiomyopathy and Wernicke’s encephalopathy in 2013. The neurological condition is likely responsible for Harwell's increasingly erratic behavior in the latter years of his life. Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes brain damage in the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and cerebellum and results in symptoms such as low energy, confusion, vision difficulties, lack of coordination, and tremors. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is acute but linked with another neurological condition: Korsakoff syndrome.[][]

Wernicke’s encephalopathy progresses to Korsakoff syndrome if it isn’t treated promptly. As this happens frequently, these conditions are often referred to as a singular condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff (WK) syndrome. When WK syndrome progresses, symptoms can include severe trouble both making new memories and recalling past memories, experiencing hallucinations and delusions, having false memories, telling fabricated stories, emotional apathy, difficulty making decisions, and repetitive speech and motions.[]

Harwell had frequent onstage outbursts, including a 2015 incident in which he cursed at concertgoers and left the stage. In August 2020, Harwell drew controversy by playing to an allegedly mostly maskless crowd and making dismissive comments about the threat of COVID-19. In October 2021, Harwell was captured on video slurring words, threatening audience members, and making obscene and offensive gestures at the Big Sip Festival in upstate New York. He retired from the band following this incident. A representative for Harwell told the press that his actions at the festival were symptoms of his neurological condition and that Harwell would be stepping away for his health.[] 

In a statement, Harwell himself said, “I’ve tried so hard to power through my physical and mental health issues and to play in front of you one last time, but I just wasn’t able to.” 

Smash Mouth was founded in San Jose, California, in 1994 and first found success with the song “Walkin’ on the Sun” in 1997. The band is best known for the 1999 hit “All Star,” which reached number 4 on the Billboard Top 100 charts. The song was featured in several films, including “Inspector Gadget,” “Mystery Men,” and, most famously, the 2001 blockbuster, “Shrek.” The instantly recognizable song has become a modern classic. It is still used in movies, TV shows, commercials, and online media and has nearly 1 billion plays on Spotify.[] 

In the years, Harwell was the leader singer of Smash Mouth, the band sold over 20 million records. They also won a Grammy, had two number 1 hit singles, and 5 top 40 hit singles. In a statement to Rolling Stone following Harwell’s death, Smash Mouth manager Robert Hayes called Harwell an “icon” and “larger than life,” saying that those are qualities about Harwell that should be remembered.[][] 

“Steve should be remembered for his unwavering focus and impassioned determination to reach the heights of pop stardom. And the fact that he achieved this near-impossible goal with very limited musical experience makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable.” Hayes said. “Steve lived a 100 percent full-throttle life. Burning brightly across the universe before burning out.

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