Why Rock Stars Die Young

Why Rock Stars Die Young

Why you should care

Because we’d all rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, but it ain’t the good who are dying 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.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Singer Anthony Kiedis performing in 1988. Gettyimages 86105132

Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis performing in 1988.

Source Paul Bergen/Getty

Kenny came to her disturbing findings after examining the life histories of more than 12,000 musicians across all popular genres who died between 1950 and 2014. More than 90 percent of those in that group were male — something that, as we shall see, may not be all that surprising. Kenny found that musicians, in addition to having dramatically shorter life spans, are five to 10 times more likely to die an accidental death, and two to seven times more likely to commit suicide — even if there was no evidence to substantiate the so-called “27 Club,” named for the famous musicians, like Cobain and Winehouse, who died at the age of 27. Of course, musicians are not the only ones prone to living fast and dying young, and as research from a number of disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics and anthropology, demonstrates, the temptation to indulge in short-term pleasures in the face of escalating long-term risks lies at the core of human nature.

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Broadly speaking, every species faces a trade-off between survival and reproduction. Biologists who study life history speak of two broad strategies that different species pursue to maximize those ends. “K-selected” species like elephants and other large mammals, which evolved in stabler environments, generally invest more parental resources in fewer offspring, while “r-selected” species like insects, which evolved in more unpredictable circumstances, invest resources in making more offspring, often at the expense of their own survival.

Humans generally fit the K-selected model, but we are certainly capable of more r-selected strategies and sex drives, depending on the environment in which we find ourselves. “The constellation of traits and behaviors that comprise the fast life,” Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, once summarized in Psychology Today, “may have evolved through the course of human evolution as a strategy to enhance reproductive fitness in dangerous and unstable environments.”

Triggers in our environment can thus “activate the fast life genes,” as Kaufman puts it, and by making the fast-life behaviors rewarding and pleasurable, evolution ensures that we pursue them doggedly, up to and including Kiedis’ sex-heroin marathons. A number of environmental factors can serve as triggers, including several quite relevant to the life histories of many well-known musicians. For example, having a father who hasn’t invested much in caring for his children increases the likelihood that boys will live a fast life of delinquency and aggression, and that girls will employ shorter-term mating strategies (having learned not to count on men as long-term providers).

In general men, whose minimal investment in offspring has been set much lower by evolution than women’s, are also more likely to adopt higher-risk, fast-life mating strategies, Catherine Salmon, a professor of psychology at the University of Redlands, tells OZY. But women are perhaps the most important aspect of the male environment — a man’s behavior is typically only as good (or bad) as his options. “How much fooling around men do depends on how willing women are,” says Salmon. “If there are lots of women available and willing to have sex, then men are not going to say no, for the most part.”

Amy Winehouse at the Barfly Club

Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011.

Source Getty

And most male rock stars do not make a habit of refusing their many female admirers. Nor would many of the rest of us if placed in their spandex and shoes. “Given the particular temptations that go along with that lifestyle,” says Salmon, “there are relatively few individuals who would not engage in it when given the opportunity, especially when it’s given to you as a young male.”

Which is not to say that people don’t change, and change their life-history strategies throughout their lives, based on their environment. If people did not become rock stars until they had already achieved middle age, Salmon points out, you would probably see much different behavior.

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Musicians, of course, are not merely participants in some sex-filled pageant of song and smack. They are artists, public figures and role models, constantly communicating messages to impressionable young people, including about the fast-lane lifestyle itself. “I’m living la vida rapido / Die young, but fuck it, we flew first-class,” rapper Rick Ross intones in his 2010 hit with Kanye West, “Live Fast, Die Young.”

Such songs advertise the fast life, embodying the fantasies of their listeners — usually without a corresponding discussion of la vida rapido’s risks and hazards. To the extent the music industry encourages such messaging and is complicit in the fast-lane lifestyle, says Kenny, it valorizes the destructive behavior that contributes to the high rates of depression, suicide and death among its artists. And most young musicians are not so mature to say “enough” to the stresses and indulgences that accompany life on tour or in the business. “The difference between indulging in too much of every good thing and destructive behavior quickly becomes academic,” adds Wenner. “In other words, you might say destructive behavior is self-valorized.”

Indeed it is, and often with a tragic ending, one not consolable by references to flying first-class or the evolutionary benefits of r-selected mating strategies. “Because of the job I do and the industry I’m in, there’s just so much opportunity to go out every night and get smashed,” Amy Winehouse candidly informed the Mirror in 2007, already in the midst of a high-profile struggle to control her drinking. “I’m still going to misbehave!” she insisted, despite it all.

Four years later Winehouse was dead, from alcohol poisoning. One more glorious, ill-fated Achilles snuffed out on the altar of the music gods.

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