“I’ve lost a lot of friends on this highway, so long, everyone, I watched them all sail into the distance, like a setting sun, they’d only just begun, and we just lost another one…” Graham Nash, 2002
It’s a sad truth that the creative arts fields — music, film, literature — have had more than their fair share of gifted artists who have died prematurely. In popular music in particular, a disturbing number of promising, successful talents have left us at a young age. Considering that the average age of death in the US these days is nearly 79, anyone dying in their 40s or 50s has died young. Those passing away in the 20s or 30s have died WAY too young.
In rock ‘n roll’s first couple of decades, it seemed to be an almost monthly occurrence that we’d lose a major player to drugs, or suicide, or a plane crash, or a bullet, or a terminal illness. I don’t know about you, but for a while there, I got really tired of grieving for yet another musical hero who bit the dust for whatever reason.
There are many dozens of talented musicians who died before their time from illnesses beyond their control. Some well-known examples: Bob Marley (melanoma, 1981, age 36); Freddie Mercury (AIDS, 1991, age 45); Frank Zappa (prostate cancer, 1993, age 53); Laura Nyro (ovarian cancer, 1997, age 49); George Harrison (lung cancer, 2001, age 58); Dan Fogelberg (prostate cancer, 2007, age 56); Phoebe Snow (cerebral hemorrhage, 2011, age 60).
And there are those who met their fate in fiery accidents such as plane crashes or motorcycle incidents: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper (plane crash, 1959, ages 22, 17 and 28, respectively); Otis Redding (plane crash, 1967, age 26): Duane Allman (motorcycle/truck collision, 1971, age 24) and Berry Oakley (motorcycle/truck collision, 1972, age 24) of The Allman Brothers Band; Jim Croce (plane crash, 1973, age 30); Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines of Lynyrd Skynyrd (plane crash, 1977, ages 29, 28 and 29, respectively); Rick Nelson (plane crash, 1985, age 45); Stevie Ray Vaughan (helicopter crash, 1990, age 35); John Denver (plane crash, 1997, age 53).
Depressingly, there are a few instances of artists who were murder victims. John Lennon was only 40 when he was assassinated in front of his New York City apartment building in 1980 by a deluded fan, and Marvin Gaye was just 44 when he was shot to death in 1984 by his own mentally unstable father.
But the ones that tend to hurt the most are the ones deemed to be avoidable. Far too often, creative types have fallen victim to the vicious circle of ongoing substance abuse. Apparently, many of those born with the innate talent to compose, sing, play instruments, act, write and perform also tend to have the addictive personality gene, and many come from difficult backgrounds full of alcoholism, trauma and dysfunction. These things can conspire to make them more susceptible to the lure of “sex and drugs and rock and roll” that has been enticing musicians for half a century or more. Their newfound wealth from fame often makes things worse; they can afford to get whatever they want whenever they want, and their self-destructive tendencies and struggles with addiction can become a downward spiral that ends tragically.
When a brilliant talent succumbs to drug addiction, alcohol abuse and other seemingly preventable behaviors (poor eating habits, neglected health care, foolhardy pursuits), the reaction is a very profound sorrow, along with “What a waste.” Perhaps these deaths could have somehow been averted, we think, if only someone had reached them in time to intervene, or they had come to the realization on their own, before it was too late.
These include artists who, according to coroners’ reports, died of heart attacks brought on by reckless or harmful behavior. Karen Carpenter died in 1983 at age 32, officially from cardiac arrest, but it resulted from chemical imbalances caused by her struggles with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Cass Elliot of The Mamas and Papas died of a heart attack at age 33 in 1974, but drug abuse and overweight were said to be contributing factors (and NOT, as was widely believed, the urban myth that she choked on a ham sandwich; no food was found in her windpipe). Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead died of a heart attack in 1995 at age 53, but he had a long history of drug abuse/addiction, weight problems and diabetes. Lowell George of Little Feat died of heart failure at age 34 in 1979, but he too had problems with weight and drug abuse. The Who’s John Entwistle was a 2002 casualty at age 57, officially of a heart attack but exacerbated by chronic cocaine abuse.
It’s rare, but some rock musicians suffered from severe enough depression to take the desperate act of suicide. Probably the most famous of these was Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who left a suicide note in 1994 at age 27 before putting a shotgun to his head. Pete Ham, leader and guitarist of the ’70s band Badfinger, hanged himself in 1975. Charismatic vocalist Michael Hutchence of the ’80s Australian sensation INXS hanged himself in a hotel room in 1997 at age 37, leaving a note that tends to poke holes in the urban myth that he died in an act of “autoerotic asphyxiation” taken too far.
Perhaps saddest of all are the blatant examples of serious and chronic over-imbibing in the various recreational substances (including alcohol) that, although consumed moderately in the past, escalated to persistently dangerous levels that ultimately caused death. Coroners in England came up with the phrase “death by misadventure” to describe what happens when someone takes unnecessarily dangerous risks in an attempt to have a grand old time at the party. More often than not, their deaths were unintentional rather than suicidal, but they serve as examples of people who lost control to the cunning, baffling, powerful urges that drugs and alcohol can have over otherwise level-headed, talented individuals.
Within 14 days in October 1970, two of the most important, influential figures of the Sixties rock scene perished from overindulgence. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin couldn’t be more different in most respects, but they were both 27, both widely revered for their game-changing artistic expression, and both apparently unable to manage their excessive intake of the drugs and alcohol that ultimately killed them. (Coincidentally, a disproportionate number of rock’s dead have died at age 27, and our morbid pop cultural vultures have named this the “27 Club.” Members include Cobain, Hendrix, Joplin, Ham, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and 1930s blues icon Robert Johnson, among many lesser known rockers.)
Gram Parsons was an enormously influential country rock trailblazer with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and also made an impression on Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as they dabbled in country stylings in the 1969-1972 period. Parsons died of a morphine and alcohol overdose at only 26 in 1973.
The pioneering rocker of them all, Elvis Presley, devolved from a vibrant ’50s icon into a bloated Las Vegas mess by the ’70s, largely because he put himself in the hands of doctors who set him up with all kinds of sedatives, painkillers and other drugs that he felt safe taking because they were prescribed, not handed down from street people. But the grim truth is, these medications were overprescribed, and upon his death in a bathroom in 1977 at age 42, Elvis was a pitiful shadow of his former self, unable to keep himself upright on stage or in a studio.
The Who was a band that always pushed the envelope from the very beginning, with guitarist Pete Townshend and drummer Keith Moon destroying their instruments at the end of most concerts in a fit of visual bravado. They were the epitome of excess, gleefully trashing their hotel rooms while having their way with multiple wenches as they ingested numerous drugs and liquors of all kinds. That sort of thing can’t go on forever, as Moon eventually learned, and he eventually sought treatment in 1978 to detoxify his system. But what did he do? He took way too many of the detox meds, hoping to accelerate the process, and died of that instead, age 33.
Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham, nicknamed “Bonzo” for his over-the-top behavior, finally reached his limit at age 32 in 1980, just as the band was ready to head out on the road for yet another sold-out world tour. He had four double vodkas for breakfast, more vodka during a midday rehearsal, and still more well into the evening, 40 shots in total. He didn’t wake up the next morning, and the rest of Led Zep, shaken to the core, chose to retire. (“What a waste.”)
More recently, we have the tragic stories of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, two supremely gifted singers who were haunted by the demons of booze and drugs, and died well before their time. Amy was yet another 27-year-old who had barely begun her meteoric rise to fame and fortune when she died of excessive alcohol consumption one night in 2011. Whitney, meanwhile, had enjoyed two decades of stardom with her sonically magnificent voice, but wrestled with substances and toxic relationships that eventually cut her life short in 2012 in a Beverly Hills bathtub. Such a painfully unnecessary waste of gifted talents, both of them.
Lastly are the deaths that are still shrouded in mystery — sort of the JFK assassinations of rock ‘n roll. The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, an excellent swimmer, drowned in his backyard pool in 1969. Really? Even his fellow bandmates have reservations about that conclusion. R&B vocalist extraordinaire Sam Cooke died of a gunshot from a motel manager in a 1964 incident that may have been self defense but may have involved robbery or a murder plot. And what are we to make of the murky end of The Doors’ Jim Morrison, supposedly from an accidental heroin overdose, whose body was never autopsied and some conspiracy theorists think is still alive? Were these murders? Acts of negligence? Or overdoses? We’ll probably never know conclusively.
Even superstar Michael Jackson‘s death in 2009 has uncertainty surrounding it. His physician was under scrutiny for over-prescribing sedatives and anti-anxiety meds, and many wonder: was it mere negligence, or possibly foul play, considering that he was gearing up to stage an ambitious new multi-million-dollar show/tour.
It’s not all that surprising that we continue to idolize our dead rock stars. After all, their body of work was extraordinary enough to merit attention while they were alive, and it deserves to live on, regardless of the manner in which its creators died. In 1974, The Righteous Brothers reached #3 on the charts with a comeback single called “Rock and Roll Heaven” that pays tribute to the departed, mentioning several by name:
“Jimi gave us rainbows, Janis took a piece of our hearts, and Otis brought us all to the dock of a bay, sing a song to light my fire, remember Jim that way, they’ve all found another place to play, if you believe in forever, then life is just a one-night stand, if there’s a rock ‘n roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band…”