Dead Rock Stars: Heaven’s Best Pick-Up Band (Or Hell’s)

Saw a headline right out of The Onion today: Rock Stars More Likely to Die Early. Yes, it was an actual study conducted by academics in England, the blockbuster follow-up to their famed Drunks More Likely to Suffer From Liver Maladies work. No kidding around, this was a real study:

A study of more than 1,000 mainly British and North American artists, spanning the era from Elvis Presley to rapper Eminem, found they were two to three times more likely to suffer a premature death than the general population.

Between 1956 and 2005 there were 100 deaths among the 1,064 musicians examined by researchers at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University.

Turns out that rock stars are “at a disproportionate risk of alcohol- and drug-related deaths.” Color me gob-smacked. But it was a good excuse to start a list. The ten best rockers to depart before their times. No oldies: Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, even Jerry Garcia (53), Roy Orbison (52), George Harrison (58), Johnny Ramone (56), and John Entwhistle (whose coke-inspired demise came at 58) and the like all had their time. So, sub-50, taken from us. In their prime. In order. Here goes:

1. John Lennon
2. Elvis Presley
3. Otis Redding
4. Johnny Thunders
5. Duane Allman
6. Keith Moon
7. Buddy Holly
8. Kurt Cobain
9. Jimi Hendrix
10. Gram Parsons

Elvis is the only guy (and they’re all guys though Nico almost made it) over 40. He still had so much to give. Who’s on your list in the little outfit I call, The Great Hereafter?

Comments 40

  • If you give any weight to future potential I would put Jeff Buckley at #1 and Nick Drake at #2. Two guys who could have gone on to do so much more.

  • Oh, Tom, I’ve got a chick for your list: Janis Joplin. I saw her twice as a callow teenager, once at the original Electric Factory here in Philly. She was just amazing.

    Also: Jim Morrison.

  • Provocaton alert!

    Janis was ok I guess, but seems to me (I never saw her) that she doesn’t make the list. Morrison…well, he is dead, that’s true.

  • Oh, no, I can see another great debate coming on like the infamous “Great American Band” dust-up a while back!

    Yeah, sure, Jim Morrison was a prancing drunken fool, but I think that’s his picture in Webster’s next to the word “rockstar”. I don’t even have any Doors albums any more, and haven’t listened to them since about 1971, but those first two LPs meant all the world to me as a snot-nosed punk teen.

    And of course if you don’t have the Doors you don’t have “Apocalypse Now”.

    It’s hard to express just how new and different (for good or ill) the Doors stuff was when it came out in 1967. But in those days you just dug it all, and you actually looked forward to the next Beatles album, the next Stones. I used to go see the Velvet Underground at the 2nd Fret folk club here in Philly; they’d come down and play from a Wednesday to a Saturday. There’d be about fifty people in the audience. Lou would chat with the customers, take requests.

    I remember Janis Joplin’s sweat just flying off of her, like a boxer in the ring, she was pure emotion.

    Okay, enough nostalgia.

    I think all of us have a special place inside us for music that first hit us when we were adolescents, especially if it was new music by people we could actually go out to hear. You might not want to listen to the music any more when you grow up, but the effect it had on you — back when you were the aforementioned snotnosed punk with dubious taste — is always alive.

  • Dan – another example on this blog of a wonderful comment being better than the original post! You were there and I wasn’t – so you can certainly have Morrison on your list. Man though, I wish I was there for that Velvets run.

  • James – Nick Drake, good one. Could have been a contender, you’re right.

  • Ian Curtis is my Jim Morrison…
    Don’t forget Brian Jones, and Joe Strummer, either.

  • Oh, Christ, Out of C — how could I forget — of course Brian Jones!

    Now there was a goddam rock star.

  • I did consider Brian Jones on my list, but he didn’t make it. He was quite the scene-maker and did form the Stones, but really, Keith and Mick made the band their own and wrote the songs.

    Strummer – yea, an early death and I loved the man – but he was 50. Loved that last record, especially “Coma Girl.”

  • Sam Cooke,33, Jackie Wilson,49, Marvin Gaye,44 Gene Vincent,36.

  • Marc Bolan, T. Rex. Only 30 years old and pure rock star.

    And what about Bob Marley? Does he qualify as a “rock star”?

    And…to risk bringing back the infamous Grateful Dead debate: Pigpen!

  • Marley! Sound of palm hitting forehead…yeah man he qualifies. And Sam Cooke was so young….

  • Grasshopper wonders how old Mama Cass was when she died.
    But I told her rock lists are a guy thing, and not to get involved…

  • Manny, Grasshopper wonders how old Mama Cass was when she died.
    But I told her rock lists are a guy thing, and not to get involved…

    grasshopper and I are going to have to beat you up.

    Judo chop! Squared!

    Dan, I used to go see the Velvet Underground at the 2nd Fret folk club here in Philly…

    Lucky, lucky you. Oh and…

    Yeah, sure, Jim Morrison was a prancing drunken fool…

    Let’s not forget the *gorgeous* part.

    How ’bout Harry Chapin and Jim Croce.

    They rocked the house each in their own way.

  • Blue Girl, We girls obviously need to stick together here. The Mama Cass question was a little joke I made during dinner. But after my beloved husband put it up here–with my avatar!–I naturally thought about her opposite; how old was sad little Karen Carpenter?
    True, these ladies were far from hard rockers and certainly had nothing to do with my budding adolescence. But they did die young, right? And again, I’m too lazy to check but wasn’t Minnie Riperton, not too fat and not too thin, shy of forty?

  • Turns out that rock stars are “at a disproportionate risk of alcohol- and drug-related deaths.”

    Airplanes too.

    All good stuff, but I grew up on a slightly different side of the tracks and the loss of a Californian by the name of Randy Rhoads was a crushing blow to my musical world at the time.

    Listen to the outro to “S.A.T.O” from Diary of a Madman and anybody who doesn’t hate rock will hear why this guys light went out WAY too early.

  • Hey, I did say Nico almost made the list!

  • I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier.

    Freddie Mercury died at 45. Today is his birthday.

    He was one cool cat.

  • I can’t believe no one mentioned Paul McCartney.

    Among those more certainly dead, I’d mention Ronnie Van Zant as one who seemed to have a lot more good music to offer when his band’s plane went down.

    A couple who died *really* young – so young, it’s hard to know what they might have done had they lived – are Ritchie Valens and Bobby Fuller. (The latter is also a contender for Weirdest Rock Death, as well.)

    I think Jesse Belvin had a lot more to give, both as a songwriter and a singer, at the time of his too-young death in a car crash.

    Of the names mentioned already, Sam Cooke is the loss that hurts the most for me. As a songwriter, singer, and executive (head of SAR Records, where he showed a sharp eye for talent), Cooke’s potential was unlimited.

  • What about Stiv Bators? All the dead Ramones? All the other dead NY Dolls? And how could you possibly forget Wendy O Williams?

  • Yeah, Billy Murcia we hardly knew ye…

  • The article quotes broadcaster John Aizlewood as saying:

    “It was ever thus. If you look back to Victorian times — Byron, Shelley those kind of people. . .”

    Note to Mr. Aizlewood and the AP: Shelley died in 1822 and Byron in 1824. Victoria’s reign began in 1837.

  • Best Rock and Roll death is still Johnny Ace—either he killed himself playing drunken Russian Roulette or was murdered by his manager and Big Mama Thornton.

    I always thought Nico’s bicycle accident was satisfyingly strange end to a strange life, kind of like Roland Barthes dying slowly from injuries caused by a laundry truck.

  • BG – So you’re saying a live, in-person, newcritics battle of the bands…

  • Hey, Blue, not only did I used to catch the Velvets at the 2nd Fret, but I saw the Doors at the Civic Center, and Morrison was fantabulous. I guess the other really great dead guys I saw were Jimi Hendrix, who was totally cool and amazing, and Pig Pen, who was just too cool for words. Ah, but Janis…

    For the back-up dead guy team I nominate Arelster “Dyke” Christian of Dyke & the Blazers, who recorded my #1 fave R&B song ever, the original “Funky Broadway”. I highly recommend their greatest hits collection (there’s two of them out there, a big one and a sorta big one) for anybody who loves really really nasty 60s soul. Poor Dyke got shot by some fool when he was only around 28…

  • Tom, maybe you could pull some strings and get Peter T. to judge it.


  • Hell no, he’s writing me a song and playing lead guitar – for MY band.

  • Hell no, he’s writing me a song and playing lead guitar – for MY band.

    Can I sing in your band?


    ….we’ll totally win.


  • Ouch, blue girl, I didn’t know you were listening!
    I didn’t mean to be chauvinistic. I must have prancing around last night like a drunken fool.

  • I hearily agree, Blue Girl. Manny gets a reprieve. He’ll never sing as well as Robert Palmer–let alone you! (I want this newcritics band for real. Wasn’t Brendog a demon ska heart-throb fewer than ten years ago?)
    Anyway, Manny has made me his main mission most of my life. Wherever that much goodness comes from needs discovery and world-wide proliferation.

  • It’s not just about age, but also about what it means to be in one’s “prime.”

    About half of your list was cleary not in the prime of their careers, as anyone asked the day before they died would have judged it. At least, Lennon, Presley, Thunders and Moon have to come off the list, on that basis.

    While the Who were floundering (albeit with a minor comeback album) at the time of Moon’s death, Zep was rolling on (albeit with a minor setback album) at the time of Bonham’s death. If we’re really talking prime, and not just preferences, he should be the 70’s stadium-rock drummer on the list.

  • Where is my brain? Don’t answer that, but how could I forget another great woman:

    Sandy Denny.

    I’ve never gotten tired of listening to the albums she did with Fairport Convention.

  • Back in the days before everybody who could play three chords was richer than God and a working class boy in Providence could afford to see genuine giants at venues like Rhode Island Auditorium, the field house at Brown, Veterans Auditorium , the shore dinner hall at Rocky Point, and a hole in the wall on Thayer Street whose name is lost in the mists of time,I saw at those venues Cream, Hendrix, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the J. Geils Band (then a Boston-area band unknown elsewhere) and Joplin. (I also saw, all on the same bill, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Mose Allison. For five bucks. From a fourth-row seat. And in 1966, in a field in Newport, I discovered both Tim Hardin and Taj Mahal on the same afternoon.) I saw Joplin three times and Hendrix twice. Anybody who tries to claim that Janis was anything less than a force of nature and a god of rock and roll will have to answer to me.

    Mighty interesting survey, though. Soon, they will prove that rock stars consume an inordinate number of recreational chemicals, and that they get more ass than the toilet seat at Larry Craig’s house.

  • Sandy Denny, yeah Dan – who knows where the time goes?

  • Hey Jim,

    Yeah, one of the nice things about the 60s was that rock hadn’t got so damn popular yet. Until around ’69 I don’t remember many bands playing stadiums unless they were the Beatles. I came from a working-class Philly hood, and it was no big hardship to me to use my teenage after-school supermarket-job money to hear good music at cheap prices in small venues. It is kind of mind-boggling to think we heard people like Hendrix and the Cream and Janis and the Mothers and the Dead in medium-size clubs and college basketball auditoriums for about five bucks a shot.

  • TK – Who Are You was, in many ways, a minor record, but the single was huge and has endured big-time. And Moon’s drumming drives it. Besides, I’d take Moonie over Bonzo 100 times out of 100, taking nothing away from Zep either.

    I based the list of people I wished I could have heard more from who died under 50.

  • Oh, and Jim, thanks for jogging my addled brain cells again, but your comment reminded me that somewhere on the list of great guys who lived too hard and died too young were Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. The first two Paul Butterfield Band albums are a couple more that I’ve never gotten tired of.

  • Dan, you’re certainly right about Bloomfield and Butterfield, and about the far cheaper costs of admission back in the late 60s. Balanced against five buck tickets, though, it’s only fair to remember that minimum wage (which I was getting as a bus boy in a Chinese restaurant) was about a buck and a quarter.

  • D. Boon (Minutemen)

  • im gunna hafta say Cliff Burton deserves to be on this list, Died at 26 i believe, being one(IF NOT THE) best bassists to ever walk the earth!