(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 31.)
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1953, a powder-blue Cadillac pulled into an all-night gas station at Oak Hill, West Virginia.The driver, a man named Charles Carr, turned to speak to the lone passenger in the back seat. When there was no reply, Carr touched the man’s hand. It was cold.
Hank Williams, one of the first superstars of country music and still one of its most influential figures, had quietly expired while en route to his next engagement in Canton, Ohio. He was just 29.We tend to think of early deaths from drug abuse and general excess as a phenomenon of the rock era, but Williams was ahead of his time. He died of heart failure brought on by a lethal cocktail of alcohol and pills. His personal life had been an utter mess.
The brilliant black jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker was another early casualty of the destructive lifestyle often associated with the music business. Parker’s heroin addiction resulted in him being fired so many times that he was sometimes reduced to busking in the street.When he died in 1955 at the age of 34, the coroner who performed the autopsy presumed him to be aged between 50 and 60.
The British rock singer Joe Cocker, who died of lung cancer last week, could probably count himself relatively lucky. Cocker developed a serious drug and alcohol habit after his career went off the boil in the early 1970s, but he cleaned himself up. He lived to be 70, but you have to wonder whether his life was foreshortened by substance abuse.Cocker lived through an era when drug use was rampant among rock musicians. And the casualties didn’t always die young, as the sad story of Jim Gordon attests.
Gordon was one of three drummers who backed Cocker on his wild Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of America in 1970. He was greatly sought after as a studio musician and played on countless Los Angeles recording sessions.He was also a drug user whose abusive and erratic behaviour became increasingly problematical. Eventually Gordon murdered his mother, claiming her voice had tormented him for years. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and 30 years later remains in a California prison, having been ruled a continuing threat to society.
Was Gordon’s mental illness caused by his drug habit? I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems well established that mental illness can be greatly aggravated – if not triggered – by drug use.Some of Gordon’s fellow musicians have testified that he never eased up on his drug and alcohol intake, even after he began having auditory hallucinations. As a consequence, he may spend the remainder of his life in jail.
The death toll among rock stars seemed to reach a peak in the late 1960s and early 70s. Some deaths were accidental (Mama Cass comes to mind), but drink and drugs were frequently implicated – most notably in the deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin.Even when death wasn’t the direct result of drugs or booze, there was often ample evidence of destructive lifestyles. Sam Cooke was shot dead by a motel owner; a deeply disturbed Marvin Gaye by his own father.
These deaths have been well documented, but it was only recently that a Sydney University psychologist took the trouble to undertake a study of the overall phenomenon. Professor Dianna Kenny examined the lives and deaths of 12,665 musicians and found that rock stars have a lifespan up to 25 years shorter than average, with high rates of death from accidents, suicide and homicide.The unanswered question is whether some rock stars are predisposed to a high-risk lifestyle by their temperament (which is often fragile to start with), or whether we can blame the stress and pressure that often accompanies stardom. I suspect it’s often a combination of the two.
What can be said with certainty is that there’s nothing admirable or glamorous about an early death, which makes it all the more distasteful that many music writers insist on romanticising drugged-out, deeply flawed rock stars as if their lives are something to aspire to.Musicians are frequently celebrated in the media not so much for the quality of their music as for the quantity of alcohol and drugs they have ingested or for the antisocial way they have behaved. Some journalists get a vicarious thrill from recounting the chaotic lives of the people they write about.
I recently read a book review in which reference was made to the Australian singer and songwriter Nick Cave, who has made no secret of his drug use, arriving on the London scene with his “glorious drug-addled rabble”. Sorry, but it’s hard to see any glory in heroin addiction.A few months earlier I had read a fawning review of a book by the late Dave McArtney, of the Auckland band Hello Sailor. The reviewer wrote with almost breathless awe about the role drugs played in the band.
The irony is that McArtney’s fondness for the needle ultimately led to his sad death at 62 from liver cancer. I wonder whether, given his time again, McArtney might have chosen to exchange the drugs for a few precious extra years of life.