Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse

Doomed to an early grave?: Photo by Mark Ryan
Doomed to an early grave?: Photo by Mark Ryan
Does it seem like all your favorite rock and roll stars are already dead? Do you feel personally slighted because music icons such as Elvis, Janis, Kurt, Jimi, Sid, and Tupac, have all checked out before their time? Well, according to a new study by scientists in Great Britain it shouldn't be a big surprise. It seems members of that particular subculture who high-speed it down the fast lane of life are two to three times as likely to die at an early age than the rest of us mere mortals.

Researchers studied over 1000 music artists and found that of the 100 stars who had died between 1956 and 2005, those from North America died at an average age of 42, while their European counterparts died on average at an even earlier age of 35. More than 25% of the deaths were attributed to excessive drug and alcohol use – an apparent mainstay in the industry.

According to Mark Bellis, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University and the study’s author, part of the problem is living with the high pressure of fame.

"Generally, affluence enhances people's lifestyles and prolongs life,” he said. “Whereas in this particular case the exposure to fame and what comes with it is associated with a mortality which is higher than that in the general population."

Is this really news to anyone? And is it important or even necessary research? I don’t know. I suppose it could serve as a deterrent to the 1 in 10 young whippersnappers out there (at least in Great Britain) who are thinking about becoming a pop star. But it seems to me that deterrents are already in place in the industry. For instance, one look at Rolling Stone guitarist, Keith Richards (who, despite his appearance, is actually not dead), could be enough to push just about anyone toward a career in accounting or car sales.

But additional forces seem to be at work.

"Being a pop star is a crash-and-burn sort of lifestyle," said rock journalist John Aizlewood. "If you go into it, you want adulation. You want to respond to the crowd. You can't be a pop star in isolation. If you need that adulation, you obviously have other needs.”

It’s no secret that sudden fame and tons of money often leads to easy access to all sorts of illegal substances and instantaneous need-quenching behaviors. That fact’s a boilerplate used in every rock band documentary that’s aired on VH1.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the excessive behaviors have led to all manners of megastar death.

Michael Hutchence of INXS died of strangulation apparently from autoerotic asphyxiation; rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas; Kurt Cobain of Nirvana committed suicide, and the Door’s front man Jim Morrison died of a heart attack (at least according to the official record) in a Paris apartment.

After binging on various chemicals, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham both choked on their own vomit, a fact parodied in the mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, where the film’s fictional band’s second drummer is reported to have died choking on someone else’s vomit.

There is some hope, however. If our beloved rock stars can hold on for 25 years or so the mortality rates return nearly to normal, at least in Europe (in the US they continue to die off a bit faster than the rest of the population). Guys like Paul McCartney (who was pronounced dead but evidently wasn’t) and Bob Dylan and most of the Rolling Stones have all made it.

The results of the Bellis study can be read in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. But despite all the current interest, journalist Aizlewood doesn’t see the present trend as anything new.

"If you look back to Victorian times -- Byron, Shelley those kind of people,” he said, “being creative requires living on the edge in a way that being in insurance doesn't."

Still it’s a little different today. For one thing, rehabilitation centers are much more prevalent. So when someone like singer Amy Winehouse gets all caught up in the dizzy swirl of the rock star life and requires rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, and possibly anorexia and self-cutting, well, help is out there for her. Of course she’ll have to want to "go, go, go".


BBC website story
Guardian story
Amy Winehouse website

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Don't forget Mama Cass.

posted on Thu, 09/06/2007 - 4:55pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Most bands sing the same song over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over....

Like if you listen to top 40 music its the same thing over and over and over and over and over....

That might be why bands turn to drugs and alcohol to make it easier to hear the same song. And some of the older bands are able to last because they may have a long list of hits to choose from when they do a concert.

posted on Fri, 09/07/2007 - 2:02pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options