Stairway to Heaven: Rock, Pop, Rap Stars Die Young

PHOTO: Whitney Houston
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Stephen Harris recalled a concert in the late 1980s when he was playing bass for The Cult, a huge rock band at the time, and the audience stormed the stage.

"One of my band mates jumped into the fray and kicked a security guy in the head – all the security guys were bikers -- and they chased us into our dressing room. We had to barricade ourselves in until the police came, as they were trying to smash down the door and beat us to death with crowbars and chains," he said.

At the time Harris, who also played with Guns N' Roses, said he found the incident hilarious, but as he looks back, many of his friends from his time in the spotlight are gone, dead from overdoses, AIDs or drunk-driving accidents.

Though rock and roll may never die, Harris has seen for himself that rock stars do. And according to a new report in the British Medical Journal, they die young.

The study, led by Mark Bellis of the Centre for Public Health in Liverpool, found that the average lifespan of American musical superstars in the pop, rock and rap genre is only 45. The average European stars doesn't even make it to 40 -- they die, on average, at age 39.

You don't have to think very hard to come up with high-profile examples of musicians who lived fast and died young: Amy Winehouse, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain are all part of "the 27 Club" -- famous musicians who died at age 27. Whitney Houston passed away earlier this year at the age of 48. And the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, lived to celebrate his 50th birthday – apparently a ripe old age by pop star standards.

Bellis said it's hard to pin down exactly how many years someone's life may be cut short when he or she shoots to fame in the music world. That's because "rock god" and "rap impresario" are fairly recent job descriptions, and many of the musicians who now top of the charts are still relatively young.

"We can show how much higher or lower the chance of dying is compared to a similar person in the population if they weren't a pop star," he explained. "So for instance at the extreme, a North American pop star 40 years after fame has a chance of survival of only around 87 percent of what would be expected in the matched general population."

Bellis said his team reviewed the lives of nearly 1,500 rock, pop and rap stars, including artists who found success on top 40 charts and in international popularity polls. They gleaned details about their deaths, personal lives and childhoods from websites, published biographies and anthologies.

During a 50-year period, from 1956 to 2006, 137 of their subjects – almost 10 percent – passed away. Solo performers were twice as likely to die before their time as someone who played in a band. Gender and the age they skyrocketed to fame didn't affect life expectancy but ethnicity did: Non-white stars were the most likely to die at an early age.

The most common causes of death? Many died of cancer and cardiovascular disease, which Bellis pointed out could very well be the result of living a hard-charging life. The younger a star died, the more likely it was the death was related to a risky behavior like drugs and alcohol, or violence or suicide. Nearly half of those who died as a result of drugs, alcohol or violence had at least one unfavorable factor in their childhoods -- for example, child abuse, domestic violence, or a close family member with mental illness. Four out of five dead stars with more than one of these childhood experiences died violently or from substance abuse.

What Bellis found interesting is that in the past, researchers suspected fame and fortune encouraged stars to throw caution to the wind. But it could be that risk-taking and wild behavior predate fame as a way to cope with a difficult past.

"A career as a rock or pop star may be attractive to those escaping an unhappy childhood, but it may also provide the resources to feed a predisposition to unhealthy and risky behaviors that may not necessarily be available to other people so easily," he said.

He also said he suspects musicians who play with bands live longer because their bandmates help buffer negative influences and provide emotional support.

Bellis said the results of his study and the short lives of pop divas and guitar heroes should serve as a lesson for aspiring musicians. "It is important that children recognize that substance use and risk-taking may be rooted in childhood adversity rather than seeing them as symbols of success."

As for Harris, he said he knows he's one of the lucky ones. After nearly 10 years of craziness, traveling and playing with various high-profile bands, he realized he wouldn't last long unless he walked away from "the life." He dropped out of the music scene more than two decades ago. Next year, he graduates from medical school and plans to deliver healthcare in developing African countries.

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