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Why Rock Stars Die Young



It’s been hard to avoid tragic tales of troubled musicians lately. Two recent documentaries, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (on HBO) and Amy (in theaters), chronicle the lives, and early demises, of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, respectively, beloved singers whose struggle with drugs, depression and the consequences of fame precipitated their deaths at age 27. Another recent biopic, Love & Mercy, takes us inside the head of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who only just survived such swirling forces and more in his own life.

In some ways, like Achilles, the legendary Greek warrior in Homer’s Iliad beset with inner conflict, these artists sense that joining the tour and pursuing earthly glory could mean dying young, but many choose to embrace it nonetheless. “[I]t’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Cobain wrote in his suicide note. Of course, such tales of downfall and destruction are not limited to musicians as well known as Cobain, Winehouse and Wilson. Indeed, according to the alarming findings of one new study, pop musicians more broadly tend to live up to 25 years less on average than the rest of us, and have much higher rates of death by accident, suicide and homicide.

But is it just the temptations, hazards and vicissitudes of life on the road and in the limelight that are to blame for such numbers and destructive tendencies? Or are these musicians really just playing out a life strategy that lies dormant within almost all of us should we be placed in the path of fame’s freight train?

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“I’d been shooting coke for three days straight,” Anthony Kiedis begins his 2004 book Scar Tissue. The tales of debauchery and drug addiction that the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ frontman relates in his memoir provide one of the more colorful windows into what the “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” lifestyle really entails. Kiedis offhandedly notes the “marathon sex/heroin sessions” that come with his profession the way you or I might mention brainstorming sessions on a dry-erase board.

Not every musician engages in routine sex marathons. “I’m just not turned on by naked bodies,” the celibate Morrissey once observed. Boy George famously quipped that he would “rather have a cup of tea” than sex. But, as anyone who reads rock memoirs and biographies can tell you, such abstentions are hardly par for the course in the business, particularly for its male participants. Take, for example, one band, Aerosmith, with 45 years on the road and two recently published memoirs. “A free-spirited woman with an affinity for unabashed sex and good coke may be seen as a gift from the heavens,” the band’s guitarist, Joe Perry, observes in Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith. Perry’s book — along with lead singer Steven Tyler’s 2011 memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? — is not shy about recounting the band members’ legendary sexploits (Tyler claims his first sexual experience was a ménage à trois at age 7 with the French twins who sat next to him in the church choir).

The temptation to indulge in short-term pleasures in the face of escalating long-term risks lies at the core of human nature.

Niko Wenner, a guitarist and co-founder of Oxbow (with OZY’s own Eugene Robinson) who’s played with Jellyfish, Swell, God, Whipping Boy and others, recalls the time he queried Aerosmith’s longtime road manager of said sexploits. “I naively and sincerely asked her if the whispered road-stories of their drugs, orgies, whatever, were true,” says Wenner. “Brief pause. And she looked at me with just the right mix of incredulity (‘Are you serious?’) and pity (‘You poor boy’) … and equally sincerely answered, emphatically, simply, ‘Yes.’”

The tales go on. But there’s something to be said for living to tell the tales as well, and Kiedis, Tyler, Perry and Wenner are among the fortunate ones who are able to do so, having reached a peak that many popular musicians never attain: middle age. Even if we all knew that life in the fast lane could be hazardous to one’s health, having a quarter century docked for being a modestly successful musician seems rather harsh. It’s a reality, however, that leads some to conclude, as the researcher behind the study, professor Dianna T. Kenny of the University of Sydney, tells OZY, “the music industry is more or less killing its musicians.”

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