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Musicians at risk of early death – especially if they’re solo

Amy Winehouse performs at Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2007.

Brian Kersey/AP

The Who didn't really want to die before they got old, but Keith Moon died anyway. The drummer's demise at age 32 from a drug overdose capped his reputation as a reckless character, and earned him a place in a new study about how very dangerous it is to become a famous, popular musician.

Dying to Be Famous, a scholarly-looking probe by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University and the U.K. Department of Health, could have been called Too Famous to Live. Its findings suggest that famous British musicians such as Moon might have had a longer life toiling in obscurity in Sierra Leone (life expectancy: 42.6 years) than he did in music's fast lane.

A scan of 50 years' worth of music celebrities, from Elvis Presley to Arctic Monkeys, drew a sample set of 1,489 musicians who had achieved and held Top 40-level fame for five years or more. Of those, 137 were dead, with a median final age of 45.2 for American musicians and 39.6 years for Europeans (mainly U.K.).

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More alarming, solo musicians were twice as likely to die young as those who played in bands. One really is the loneliest number, as we were learned from Harry Nilsson, who died at 53 and rented the flat where Moon swallowed his last pills.

The names aren't listed, but we can all make our own catalogue, according to our tastes, and to the scars left on our psyches when Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Tupac Shakur or Amy Winehouse were found with no vital signs. But not Patsy Cline or John Coltrane – the study's authors decided that country, jazz and blues weren't sufficiently mainstream to deliver fame with a capital F.

They certainly wouldn't have looked at Lhasa de Sela, the Montreal global-folk singer who died of cancer in 2010 after three beautiful albums and a measure of international fame. Without offering a breakout of all deaths in their survey group, the British researchers confirm the tabloid belief that an unusually high proportion died from more or less self-inflicted causes, including drug and alcohol abuse.

The Liverpool study also points out that musicians who died from "risk-related causes" were also more likely to have had "adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs) – physical, sexual or verbal abuse, or traumas related to growing up in a violent, fractured or substance-abusing households.

So the same miserable childhood that many of us suspect is a requirement for pop genius also tends to doom the successful to early demise. Presumably we can thank the lower-order celebrity offered by the blues for the relatively long lives of Muddy Waters, Son House and Buddy Guy, to name a few, whose early years were probably well-stocked with ACEs.

The 9.2 per cent of dead musicians in the survey dragged down the overall survival rates for famous musicians to well below that of any anonymous Joe in Liverpool or Nashville. But as people got used to being famous – or lived long enough to do so – their chances of dying old increased.

All this must be of keen interest to elder rockers such as Mick Jagger, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in July. In rock music terms, Jagger is a survivor's survivor, not only alive after five decades of fame but still prancing across stages looking for the kind of Satisfaction that can keep a bloke living in fine style. It may have helped that Jagger's father was a physical-education instructor. He learned the value of staying healthy, even while living wild.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More


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