LONDON — Rock ‘n’ roll will never die – but it’s a hazardous occupation.
An academic study published Thursday confirms that rock and pop musicians are more likely to die prematurely than the general population, and finds that solo artists are twice as likely to die young as members of bands.
Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University and Britain’s Health Department studied 1,489 rock, pop, punk, R&B, rap, electronica and New Age stars who became famous between 1956 and 2006 – from Elvis Presley to the Arctic Monkeys.
They found that 137 of the stars, or 9.2 percent, had died, representing “higher levels of mortality than demographically matched individuals in the general population.”
The researchers dismissed the “fanciful but unsubstantiated” popular myth that rock stars tend to die at 27 – as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse all did. The average age of death was 45.2 years for North American stars and 39.6 for European ones.
Solo performers had twice the death risk of members of bands. Lead researcher Mark Bellis speculated that could be because bands provide peer support at stressful times.
“Solo artists, even though they have huge followings, may be relatively isolated,” said Bellis, director of the Center for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University.
Music critic John Aizlewood agreed that solo artists receive more attention and adulation – and also more pressure.
“And when you are a solo act, irrespective of what they say in interviews, it’s an incredibly egotistical thing,” he said. “So you tend to be dealing with people who are more emotionally extreme. They have an ego in the way a drummer or even a lead guitarist in a band doesn’t.”
In good news for aging rockers, the study found that, after 25 years of fame, stars’ death rates began to return to normal – at least in Europe. A European star still living 36 years after achieving fame faces a similar mortality rate to the European public. But U.S. artists continue to die in greater numbers.
Bellis said factors contributing to the difference could include longer careers – and thus longer exposure to rock ‘n’ roll excess – in the U.S., a huge, populous country with greater opportunities for aging stars to stay on the road. Europe’s stronger social safety net and socialized medicine may also play a role, he said.
The research, which updates a 2007 study by the same team, was published in the online journal BMJ Open.
The study suggests the infamous rock `n’ roll lifestyle may not be entirely to blame for rock stars’ death risk.
The researchers looked for the first time at the role of “adverse childhood experiences” – such as physical or sexual abuse – on stars’ later behavior.
They found that performers who had had at least one adverse childhood experience were more likely to die from drug and alcohol use or “risk-related causes.”
“Substance abuse and risk-taking in stars are largely discussed in terms of hedonism, music industry culture, responses to the pressures of fame or even part of the creative process,” the researchers said.
However, they said, “adverse experiences in early life may leave some predisposed to health-damaging behaviors, with fame and extreme wealth providing greater opportunities to engage in risk-taking.”
But Ellis Cashmore, a cultural studies professor at Staffordshire University and author of the book “Celebrity/Culture,” said it would be wrong to overlook “artistic frustration” as a factor in artistic self-destruction.
He said troubled artists from Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway to the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson all illustrate “the torment that creativity brings with it.”
“Perhaps it is the continual striving for some sort of unattainable artistic perfection that drives them,” he said.