Good-looking rock’n’roll corpses are few and far between. Those aspic encased icons – the Kurts, Jimis, Jims and Amys – who glare tragically from atop a million 27 Club articles are but a pinnacle of a far less photogenic iceberg. Behind their tortured glares lie an incalculable number of lesser-sung casualties who got dragged along by the music industry juggernaut and ultimately fell beneath the wheels; the wrecked, burnt-out roadkill of rock’n’roll.
Bodies: Life And Death In Music, a new book by esteemed rock writer Ian Winwood released last week, delves into the stories of numerous cases of musicians we’ve lost to a damaging and outdated musical ideology. Arriving in the wake of the loss of Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins and alongside a documentary on the final years of Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon,All I Can Say, the book has opened up a much-needed debate about the nature of the music industry as an insatiable meat grinder for creative souls with an instinct for self-destruction. If music’s #MeToo moments have forced a welcome reassessment of the manipulative behaviours lurking behind the ‘sex’ part of ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’, Bodies blows apart the rosy mythologies of the ‘drugs’ (and booze, and prescription medications, and ceremonial Fleetwood Mac sphincter straws) element too.
We have, after all, too long celebrated and encouraged the raging damage that musicians do to themselves in pursuit of the great rock dream. The months of touring surrounded by well-stocked dressing room fridges every night, with local venue ‘contacts’ on call and a post-gig adrenaline rush to ride out: we’ve historically spot-lit those who admit they couldn’t handle these environments as having a ‘problem’, but it takes superhuman restraint and self-control to not fall into harmful habits when your entire world feels like being in a COVID bubble with Boris Johnson.
Add in the short-lived nature of so many pop careers, made or broken on the whims of a fickle public – like an emperor at the Coliseum forgetting to do the thumb thing because he’s been distracted by a model playing chess with herself on Instagram – and you’ve got the perfect recipe for post-fame overdose and widespread middle-age sclerosis. To come out of rock unscarred and well-adjusted is akin to surfing the lava out of Pompeii.
It’s all built on an ancient mindset, smelted in the ‘60s counterculture – the idea of a life in music as outside and beyond the moral expectations and nine-to-five structures of Squaresville, baby. Supposedly unshackled and free-spirited, musicians have been expected to exist in an art-serving, consciousness-expanding dreamworld for decades, the hedonism at its core hyper-charged by the historic excesses of the multi-platinum dinosaurs of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. By the ‘90s, rock bands were already chasing the ghosts of their mushy-livered forebears, living their wildest life because, well, it was what rock bands did.
Now there was – and remains – a wilful self-sacrifice to much of this. One of the major draws of being a musician is the belief that you can extend your teenage rebel period well into your 40s, rage indefinitely around the world with your best mates on the major label dollar and live a ‘free’ life of ultimate self-autonomy, unbothered by alarms, train delays, six-month reviews, Excel and lacklustre fire drills. The reality of a musician’s life, once you throw in all the travel, promotion, label pressure and hurry-up-and-wait, is a lot more workaday than many expect, but it will always draw people with a thirst for non-conformity and excess. The issue raised by Bodies is: how can we change the music industry so that it no longer spells inevitable disaster for them?
It’s a timely question. With tours now the primary source of income for many acts and day jobs often a necessity, rising musicians need to remain fit and functioning without going to the straight-edge extremes of getting Xs tattooed on their wrists and turning into Minor Threat circa 1981. And that’s going to be largely down to the industry around them taking their duty of care more seriously.
Let’s be honest – from managers to promoters, PRs, journalists, A&Rs and so on, the music industry is populated by people who aspire to the same kind of lives of thrill and freedom but via our own skillsets, rather than looking great in plastic trousers. And that plays out when the circus comes to town. The bands, with their riders and aftershows and chase-the-party attitude, become the fount from which the rest of the industry gets its vicarious taste. Acts are encouraged – expected, even – to drink late, drug hard and sleep when they’re dead, night after night, because their very presence is every new town’s one brief chance to binge on the lifestyle it thinks they lead.
Which is not to say the party has to end. Just that, within the industry, the rock’n’roll lifestyle should be an option, not an expectation. That warning signs need to be spotted early and inner circles must be unafraid of shouldering the responsibility to point them out and offer help. And that the welfare of the talent should always be put before their money-making potential.
Another new book, Touring And Mental Health: The Music Industry Handbook by music psychologist Tamsin Embleton due in October, looks to be the antidote to Bodies, offering guidance on confronting and tackling issues before they become headlines. Required reading, because living fast and dying young has become distinctly over-rated.