Kurt Cobain

So it’s official, rock n’ roll can seriously damage your health. A respected scientific study, published this week in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, revealed that rock and pop stars are twice more likely to depart the world stage at an earlier age than the rest of us, with a life expectancy of just 35-years-old in Europe and 42-years-old in the US.

Without so much as an encore; suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, bizarre accidents and a high prevalence of cancer, heart disease and liver failure have robbed us of 100 of the most popular US and European musicians whilst at the peak of the creativity.

Yet in an industry notorious for self-destructive behaviour, the high instance of young deaths is hardly groundbreaking news.

You don’t need to be a scientist or university Professor to work out that a lifestyle fuelled by blackouts; bizarre stories of biting the heads off bats; nights spent choking on your own vomit; or lazy afternoons injecting oneself with enough Class A drugs to supply a small nation, is unlikely to lead to a long and fulfilling life.

A study of the 1,064 most popular artists in the world found that, of the 100 that have passed away, nearly a third of their deaths were drug or alcohol related.

Unsurprisingly, the study of the 1,064 most popular artists in the world found that, of the 100 that have passed away, nearly a third of their deaths were drug or alcohol related.

Cancer was the next biggest killer, whilst suicide, heart disease and violent death were also highly prevalent.

“We’ve looked at this as an employment industry just like any other,” says Professor Mark Bellis of Liverpool John Moores University, who led the report. “We are looking at it from the public health side and our research found that within the music industry, factors such as stress, changes from popularity to obscurity, and exposure to environments where alcohol and drugs are easily available, can all contribute to substance use as well as other self-destructive behaviours which may lead to death.”

Yet, though a high-octane lifestyle more often than not goes hand-in-hand with a successful career in the music industry, Professor Patricia Casey, a Consultant Psychiatrist with the Mater Hospital, says pop stars aren’t necessarily alone in having a higher mortality rate.

“Some (pop stars) would be at a higher risk given that they are perhaps placed in an environment where there behaviour is socially acceptable,” she says, “but in any group of substance abusers there is a high risk of death or serious illness. Alcohol and drug abuse can lead to major mental illness and disease, while accidental overdoses are also very common amongst drug users. Constant exposure to these elements would put anybody at a higher risk of death.”

Perhaps most interesting about the study though, is the prevalence of death amongst those newly introduced to the early excesses of fame. Frighteningly, in a world where every teenager dreams of winning The X-Factor and a life as a pop star, the study found that within the first five years of chart success, rock and pop stars are three times more likely to die than the rest of us.

This suggests that the first wave of fame is the most dangerous stage for a star and the period in their career when they are most inept at juggling a lifestyle of drink and drugs with the pressures of creativity, touring and promotion.

Such a statistic is buoyed by the high number of extremely young deaths within the industry. Artists who fall into this category include Kurt Cobain, 27 (suicide); Jeff Buckley, 30 (drowned); Nick Drake, 26 (overdose); Sid Vicious, 21 (overdose) and Janis Joplin, 27 (overdose).

With this in mind, the current plight of modern-day stars such as Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse is brought into sharper focus. Given their self-destructive lifestyles, both Winehouse and Doherty are stars we expect to see make a tragic exit sooner rather than later.

Last week, Winehouse added an alleged drug addiction to her litany of problems (which include periods of anorexia, bulimia, manic depression and heavy alcohol abuse). She is currently four years into her career, though her recent problems have arrived hand-in-hand with a huge rise in her chart success internationally. It is only in the last eight months that her profile has rocketed in the US.

It’s a horrible feeling to arrive into work each morning thinking that you’re going to get a phone call to say that Peter’s died.

Doherty, meanwhile, has proved the indie poster boy for heroin and crack cocaine excess. Two year’s ago he was voted the coolest rock star in the world by UK music magazine, NME and in the last five years the 28-year-old Babyshambles frontman has shot to fame as he effectively plays Russian roulette with his life, having overdosed a number of times on a cocktail of drugs.

“It’s a horrific thing to be around the centre of,” says Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records, who was Doherty record label boss from 2002-2006. “It’s a horrible feeling to arrive into work each morning thinking that you’re going to get a phone call to say that Peter’s died. It’s not a good feeling, and to actually feel very powerless in not being able to do anything about it. But you know that is the problem with junkies. It reaches a point where you are powerless and it becomes up to the individual to actually take some action for themselves.”

Yet should the industry as a whole be doing more to castigate those who embark upon a self destructive path? In his research paper, Professor Bellis suggests that: “Pop stars’ health and, in particular, risk-taking tendencies should be addressed by the music industry – and not just in the short term. More widely, public health consideration needs to be given to preventing music icons promoting health-damaging behaviours amongst their emulators and fans”.

Travis, to his defence, points to his label having funded numerous rehab attempts for Doherty in the past. Winehouse’s label and management have also done the same, while Professor Bellis’ study does show a drop in mortality rates post 1980, suggesting greater awareness of the perils of substance abuse in the last 25 years.
Changing the culture entirely however seems an impossible task. This, remember, is a way of life founded on the slogans ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll’, as well as memorable lyrics such as The Who’s line – “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old” and Neil Young’s “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away”.

We, the public, may also be arguably part of the problem. We expect our rock stars to live fast, die young and, in the process, to leave a good-looking corpse, and though we publicly condone the lifestyle choices of Pete Doherty, et al, our fascination with his behaviour fuels his celebrity.

One could even argue that Doherty has been rewarded by the public and the music industry for the drug use which has made him a household name. Despite the fact that many would struggle to name one of their songs, Babyshambles will play their biggest shows to date this November, while last year they penned a coveted deal with EMI records, one of the biggest labels in the world.

“I suppose that there is a certain car-crash fascination when it comes to the likes of Peter,” notes Geoff Travis, who ended his contract with Doherty last year. “There’s something in our psyche that attracts us to people who are self-destructing before us. I mean there is a strand to it which is exciting, but that whole rock n’ roll lifestyle has become rather tawdry now. People like Peter are at risk of becoming casualties. Our view with him was that if he were to sort himself out, we’d love to make more records with him. We tried to point out people like Shane MacGowan as examples of great talents squandered. Peter’s answer was “Shane’s still going”. What can you say to that?”

Originally published in The Irish Independent, 2007