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Are pop stars destined to die young?

Greg Hall, Case Western Reserve University

Prince’s autopsy has determined that the artist died of an accidental overdose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The news comes on the heels of the death of former Megadeth drummer Nick Menza, who collapsed on stage and died in late May.

Indeed, it seems as though before we can even finish mourning the loss of one pop star, another falls. There’s no shortage of groundbreaking artists who die prematurely, whether it’s Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley or Hank Williams.

As a physician, I’ve begun to wonder: Is being a superstar incompatible with a long, healthy life? Are there certain conditions that are more likely to cause a star’s demise? And finally, what might be some of the underlying reasons for these early deaths?

To find out the answer to each of these questions, I analyzed the 252 individuals who made Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest artists of the rock & roll era.

More than their share of accidents

To date, 82 of the 252 members of this elite group have died.

There were six homicides, which occurred for a range of reasons, from the psychiatric obsession that led to the shooting of John Lennon to the planned “hits” on rappers Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay. There’s still a good deal of controversy about the shooting of Sam Cooke by a female hotel manager (who was likely protecting a prostitute who had robbed Cooke). Al Jackson Jr., the renowned drummer with Booker T & the MGs, was shot in the back five times in 1975 by a burglar in a case that still baffles authorities.

An accident can happen to anyone, but these artists seem to have more than their share. There were numerous accidental overdoses – Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols at age 21, David Ruffin of the Temptations at 50, The Drifters’ Rudy Lewis at 27, and country great Gram Parsons, who was found dead at 26.

And while your odds of dying in a plane crash are about one in five million, if you’re on Rolling Stone’s list, those odds jump to one in 84: Buddy Holly, Otis Redding and Ronnie Van Zant of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band all died in airplane accidents while on tour.

The 27 Club: Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse all died at 27 years old.
High Star Madrid

A drink, a smoke and a jolt

Among the general population, liver-related diseases are behind only 1.4 percent of deaths. Among the Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists, however, the rate is three times that.

It’s likely tied to the elevated alcohol and drug use among artists. Liver bile duct cancers – which are extremely rare – happened to two of the top 100, with Ray Manzarek of The Doors and Tommy Ramone of the Ramones both succumbing prematurely from a cancer that normally affects one in 100,000 people a year.

The vast majority of those on Rolling Stone’s list were born in the 1940s and reached maturity during the 1960s, when tobacco smoking peaked. So not surprisingly, a significant portion of artists died from lung cancer: George Harrison of the Beatles at age 58, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys at 51, Richard White of Pink Floyd at 65, Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations at 52 and Obie Benson of the Four Tops at 69. Throat cancer – also linked with smoking – caused the deaths of country great Carl Perkins at 65 and Levon Helm of The Band at 71.

The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek died of a rare liver bile duct cancer.
Tom Hill/CNN

A good number from the list had heart attacks or heart failure, such as Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones at 47 and blues greats Muddy Waters at 70, Howlin Wolf at 65, Roy Orbison at 52 and Jackie Wilson at 49.

We recently saw The Eagles’ Glenn Frey succumb to pneumonia, but so did soul singer Jackie Wilson at age 49, nine years after a massive heart attack. James Brown complained of a persistent cough and declining health before he passed at 73, with the cause of death listed as congestive heart failure as a result of pneumonia.

Currently, the U.S. is in the midst of an opioid abuse epidemic, with heroin and prescription drug overdoses happening at historic rates.

But for rock stars, opioid abuse is nothing new. Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, Gram Parsons, Whitney Houston (who didn’t make the list), Michael Jackson and now Prince all died from accidental opioid overdoses.

Two key findings

One of the two shocking findings of this analysis deals with life expectancy. Among those dead, the average age was 49, which is the same as Chad, the country with the lowest life expectancy in the world. The average American male has a life expectancy of about 76 years.

Factoring in their birth year and a life expectancy of 76 years, only 44 should have died by now. Instead, 82 have. (Incidentally, of the 44 we would have expected to be dead by now, 19 are still alive.)

The second shocking discovery was the sobering and disproportional
occurrence of alcohol- and drug-related deaths.

There was Kurt Cobain’s gunshot suicide while intoxicated and Duane Allman’s drunk driving motorcycle crash. Members of legendary bands like The Who (John Entwistle, 57, and Keith Moon, 32), The Doors (Jim Morrison, 27), The Byrds (Gene Clark, 46, and Micheal Clarke, 47) and The Band (Rick Danko, 55, and Richard Manuel, 42) all succumbed to alcohol or drugs.

Others – The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and country star Hank Williams – steadily declined from substance abuse while their organs deteriorated. Their official causes of death were heart-related. In truth, the cause may have been more directly related to substance abuse.

In all, alcohol and drugs accounted for at least one in 10 of these great artists’ deaths.

Does a quest for fame lead to an early demise?

Many have explored the root causes behind these premature deaths.

One answer may come from dysfunctional childhoods: experiencing physical or sexual abuse, having a depressed parent or having a family broken up by tragedy or divorce. An article published in the British Medical Journal found that “adverse childhood experiences” may act as a motivator to become successful and famous as a way to move past childhood trauma.

The authors noted an increased incidence of these adverse childhood experiences among famous artists. Unfortunately, the same adverse experiences also predispose people to depression, drug use, risky behaviors and premature death.

A somewhat similar hypothesis is proposed by the Self Determination Theory, which addresses human motivation through the lens of “intrinsic” versus “extrinsic” life aspirations. People who have intrinsic goals seek inward happiness and contentment. On the other hand, people who possess extrinsic goals focus on material success, fame and wealth – the exact sort of thing attained by these exceptional artists. According to research, people who have extrinsic goals tend to have had less-involved parents and are more likely to experience bouts of depression.

A good deal of research has also explored the fine line between creative genius and mental illness across a wide range of disciplines. They include authors (Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway), scholars (Aristotle and Isaac Newton), classical composers (Beethoven, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky), painters (Van Gogh), sculptors (Michelangelo) and contemporary musical geniuses.

Psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig, in his meta-analysis of over 1,000 people, “The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy,” concluded that artists, compared to other professions, were much more likely to have mental illnesses, and were prone to being afflicted with them for longer periods of time.

Meanwhile, Cornell psychiatrist William Frosch, author of “Moods, madness, and music: Major affective disease and musical creativity,” was able to connect the creativity of groundbreaking musical artists to their psychiatric disorders. According to Frosch, their mental illnesses were behind their creative output.

My review also confirmed a greater incidence of mood disorders among these Great 100 rock stars. Numerous studies have shown that depression, bipolar disease and related diagnoses come with an increased risk for premature death, suicide and addiction.

By following the relationship between genius and mental illness, mental illness and substance abuse, and then substance abuse, health problems and accidental death, you can see why so many great artists seem almost destined for a premature or drug-induced demise.

The Conversation

Greg Hall, Assistant Clinical Professor, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Sean Price, The Loss of a Legacy

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When Price died a few days ago with no immediate known cause or reason, it sparked interest in an otherwise overlooked rapper by the world of pop culture. Sure, Pitch Fork will do their piece and so will countless other media sources now that he’s passed, but the legacy he left behind is up to the true underground artists that surrounded him and embraced his presence to carry on. Most musicians have countless tracks on the shelf, demos of material yet to be set in stone, so the question remains: will we get to hear any of it on the road ahead?

Price was always on the lookout for producing new music with other underground artists, as can be seen by one of his last tweets before he died:

He had collaborated on 9 records, including one that was still in production when he passed (and will hopefully be released later this year) with Heltah Skeltah, and had produced three solo albums over the past 15 years, the latest Mic Tyson reaching #9 on the U.S. R&B charts

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What might Pluto sound like? Our musical love affair with the cosmos

Liam Viney, The University of Queensland

Fans of astronomy who also have a musical bent may have experienced a “what if” moment this week. With NASA’s New Horizons currently thrilling the world with the best ever images of the dwarf planet, it would have been the perfect time to bust out a recording of Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite, The Planets, and propose a toast to Pluto.

Unfortunately, Holst didn’t write a movement for Pluto. Exactly one hundred years ago, Holst was half way through composing what would become his most famous work, but Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930, four years before the composer’s death.


Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets (1914-16).

Holst was apparently disinterested in updating his planetary audio tour, slightly resenting the work’s popularity and the corresponding attention deficit afforded his other compositions.

Resentment may have given way to pride had he known just how influential and ubiquitous The Planets would become, especially in cinema.

The Imperial March from Star Wars, for example, was clearly based on Mars, The Bringer of War, the first movement in the video of The Planets above. Not so much as stealing, John Williams was probably honouring George Lucas’s request to recreate the spirit of Holst – an acknowledgement of the grip Holst’s music has on the public’s imagining of outer space.


John Williams – Star Wars’ The Imperial March (1980).

The fact that Holst was actually composing music based on astrologically inspired themes rather than astronomical (hence no “Earth” movement) is curiously beside the point now – we are so used to hearing this music appropriated for the purpose of making imagined outer space audible.

Humans have always turned to music to help deal with the profoundly confronting enormity of the cosmos.

From humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to a child at bedtime while peering through the window at the night sky, to Stanley Kubrick exploiting the raw power of Strauss and the luminous intricacy of Ligeti in 2001: A Space Odyssey, somehow music and the cosmos go together.


Opening sequence for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

One of the most emotionally-resonant items aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, on its interstellar journey, is of course the Golden Record, with its extensive and diverse musical selection.

The 90-minute sampling of music from around the globe is hardly tokenistic, and it implies that humanity regards music as a very good foot to put forward when sending messages to alien civilisations.

The Music of the Spheres

This is all nothing new – music and astronomy have been intimately linked since antiquity.

An inaudible expression of mathematics via harmony, the Music of the Spheres was thought to determine the celestial dance moves of the planets and moons.

It all stemmed from Greek mathematician Pythagoras’ discovery that pitch is proportionally related to the length of the sounding body such as a string or air column, and that what humans perceive as “harmonious” sounding intervals (two pitches sounding at the same time) corresponded with simple mathematical ratios.

Pythagoras’ 2,600-year-old suggestion that planetary bodies emit a kind of orbital hum may have been off the mark in terms of function (believing the inaudible vibrations affected everyday life on Earth) but not in substance.

Translations of radio and electromagnetic waves from space into audible sound make for eerie listening.

The pioneering American composer Terry Riley wrote an evening-length composition based on sounds collected from across the solar system in collaboration with a scientist and the Kronos string quartet:


Kronos Quartet: Sun Rings (2002).

You can even listen to a live performance by space 24 hours a day, seven days a week if you so desire, or a playback of all radio waves that have travelled away from Earth since we began transmitting radio.

Despite this history of recruiting our aural imagination to help get our minds around space, I do wonder what kind of humanly-constructed sound could actually do Pluto justice.

Rejected for a time by size-ist scientists, invited back on new terms, and for many ever-associated with a cute dog cartoon by Disney, the sheer mysteriousness of Pluto is somewhat obscured by the jokes.

So many educational posters line the planets up like snooker balls, for eminently practical reasons, that our sense of Pluto’s vast distance from us is rarely accurate.

A recent video on Vox explains that if Earth were the size of a basketball, then Pluto would be a golf ball. Maintaining that scale, the two objects would have to be more than 80 kilometres apart to accurately reflect how far away Pluto is.

Words like “cold” and “lonely” don’t seem to capture the devastating isolation Pluto endures, a vantage point from which the sun appears as a not much more than a bright star.

The visionary German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen wasn’t afraid to venture past Pluto, into deep musical space, and his mid-1970s musical drama Sirius brings us some fantastically original and imaginative sounds courtesy of four emissaries from a planet orbiting Sirius. The extensive use of electronically generated sounds in addition to the live performers gives this music its unearthly quality.


Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sirius, Part 1 of 2 (1975-77).

A lonely planet

At least one composer has taken up the challenge to complete Holst’s Planets, but his version of Pluto was designed to work well in a complete performance of the original suite, more or less connected to the planets-as-astrology approach of Holst.

Are there undreamt-of sounds lurking in humanity’s various musical languages that could truly evoke Pluto-ness in all its mind-bending solitude? Will even deeper relationships between sound and space be discovered by scientists?

I suspect the answers will be yes, and I can’t wait to hear what the music will be like.

The Conversation

Liam Viney is Piano Performance Fellow at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.