They say it comes in threes. The death chime. When three celebrities die in a row, in terms of the news cycle, that's an omen. So they say. But if you were in the insurance business, well then, let's just look at the law of averages. Getting the facts using, for example, math, one realizes the omen was missing a digit. If you simply ask "starting when?" in discussing the law of threes, an actuary would measure it out to an endless string of celebrity deaths. In fact, death at large is always booming. Yet as the calculation narrows evermore into focus, you have to admit it's almost, just almost, beyond logic. When it comes to musicians, why do the good die so young?
The first "starting when" takes us back to ancient Greece, to a story of a famed lyre player by the name of Terpander, who was essentially the Mozart of his age. What made him unusual was his popularity. He had become a true super star in the emergent stadiums-made-of-stone industry, kept things hummable, simple, yet breaking out all kinds of new chord patterns and arrangements, making him also one of the great musical innovators of his time. He was the so-called "father of Greek music," especially with his lyric poetry on the lyre, which he had basically Jack White-ed into a seven-string instrument from a four-string. Greek society had developed to the point where folks had time for songs, as opposed to fighting off natural disasters, the hordes or famine, and the performance venues were drawing crowds.
During his concerts for large numbers of drunk people in what can only be imagined as a new kind of bacchanalian fest among the masses, Terpander was a public spectacle, introducing songs influenced by other lands, and known far and wide for his drinking tunes. Summoned to play by the Delphic Oracle, he gained the big Grammy at a festival in Carneia, held in Sparta in honor of Apollo Carneus. However, as that old saying goes, then comes the drugs and alcohol and the trappings of fame. According to Wikipedia.org: "Terpander is said to have died, around Skiades ("shady place" of the Carneia), by choking on a fig when the fruit was thrown in appreciation of one of his performances."
So now let's flash forward 2,700 years and Marilyn Manson is injured during a show in London. A stage sculpture featuring two crossing giant pistols collapses on him after he tried to climb it, sending him to the hospital, lights out, on a stretcher. Then, of course, there's the news of old Tom Petty. Just what is it that made that one so sad? It's more than him simply being the kid that got to hang out with the grizzled Wilburys. There was a teenager in healthy rebellion with Petty that will always live on with his music, if not even his own fate of overdosing on the pain killer fentanyl after taking his space ship out one last time, like a Ulysses who knew perfectly well what the price might be for heading out to the sea again at age 65 for one more victorious Heartbreakers tour, knowing fully well he could return home in just what kind of shape, exactly.
Looking at these two “starting whens,” we must ask: What is this tendency for rock stars to have so many deaths, mishaps and other generally woeful endings?
A Sedona performer by the name of Ray, who leads a crack Jethro Tull cover band called Living With the Past, to the point of being good enough to gaining the attention of Ian Anderson, and after having many years of those kinds of contacts in the music industry, sums it up right down to pure physics: "Electricity."
"Over the last few years alone, how many musicians have died? And why are they always dying so young?" he asks. It's the stress of the "lifestyle," he says, "and always being around this electrical field while you are on stage. It screws their system up, which is one of the things why weird things happen and how dangerous it is."
That theory certainly fits the early 1970s, when a rash of deaths to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and the godfather of electrification, Jimi Hendrix, found a new generation of performers unable to contain the energies they unleashed, the spirit of lifting off the stage for some higher purpose, driving wild engines with ancient drums into the space age with supercharged guitars and the never-ending need to feed off heavy fuels to answer the bell, to get the Mojo runnin'.
Life on the road can be loaded with mishaps due to mere chaos theory. Bad food. Strange stages, steps, lighting situations, lack of sleep, complete lack of orientation in a city you can only make a bad guess at the name.
As Brandon Decker says, "I did have a rollover accident on tour once. Band member ejected from vehicle, broke a bone in her neck, airlifted, et cetera. In terms of on stage never anything too crazy other than the occasional electric shock."
The underworld of the rock'n'roller also makes it a dangerous business. Says another Flagstaff musician, Donivan Berube, "I've never been injured or experienced a stage collapse, but have been robbed twice on the road. Once was in Washington, D.C. when someone broke into our tour van while we were inside the venue playing the show. You can always count on losing your voice and getting sick on the road as well, traveling all day, every day, meeting new people, sleeping in strange places and exhausting your body. Once I stayed with a friend-of-a-friend who ended up being a drug dealer and asked me to sell ecstasy at my own show. In the morning, I snuck my gear down the fire escape so as to avoid talking to him."
However, these are acts of wisdom. Good survival skills.
"Besides the regular old rickety stages and sketchy electrical systems," says Andrew Baker of Summit Dub Squad and Tha 'Yoties, "we love playing outdoor shows, festivals, and more times than I can remember, as soon as we bust out the Native American flute, the clouds gather ... We've played many a set amongst monsoon rains ... technically terribly hazardous, but spiritually uplifting and rejuvenating, especially when the crowd keeps dancing in the rain!
"Also, playing anything but country music at country bars could prove dangerous, but we have been able to blast 'em with the SDS funky dub hop and Tha 'Yoties Irie-Zona Reggae Rock without incident so far!"
The sheer violence of rock explains a lot. Not just rock, though, but revolutionary music. Beethoven caused riots with his early symphonies, amped up as they were in those orchestral days.
"Tull sold out a show at Red Rocks, and people were trying to get in and got into a riot at the gates," Ray says. "It got to the point police had to tear gas a crowd. He was singing during a show in New York when some idiot threw a rose at Ian right in the eye and ripped it open. He had to immediately go to the hospital and they had to do minor surgery."
Here's another Ian Anderson story related by Ray, who met him in Denver at a hotel while Jethro Tull was on tour: "We are in a room and he says, 'Ray, do you see how I'm standing here? With my back to the wall. I've been told by security people to do that. So you always know what's around you, and no one can come back from behind you.' "
Musicians who lead insanely clean lives, under the circumstances, are most assuredly among those who endure, including Tull's Anderson. Ray says the classic rock icon, as well as someone like Frank Zappa (who nonetheless died of cancer), "were two of the craziest musicians in the world but they were straight as an arrow."
There you have it, a 50-50 split. Guess the good insurance agent would put it all down to how Roger Daltrey started singing in the Who's "Quadodrophenia": "Do you see the real me, Doctor?"