It’s really no secret that entering into the world of rock 'n' roll is bad for your health, and in turn your life expectancy. From Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison to Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, our most revered musicians are almost invariably those who have taken the principles of ‘live fast, die young’ and ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’ both a bit too literally. In 2007 a study by Liverpool John Moores university found that in the first five years following chart success, mortality rates amongst musicians are 3 times higher than those for the rest of us, whilst those poor individuals who end up six feet under ahead of time die at an average age of 42 in the States and just 35 in Europe. Basically, the moment guitar strumming turns into professional playing or desk tapping turns into drum fills that echo around arenas, your chances of departing from this world with a single grey hair or a few crow’s feet drop dramatically, whilst for many reaching pipe and mobility scooter stage just aint gonna happen.
We’re unfortunately familiar the all-too common tragedy of the overdose, which explains most of the premature deaths amongst our most talented musicians. But what about those who have succumbed in more unusual ways? From the puzzling and shocking to the tragic and even somewhat comic, rock n roll has shown there’s a myriad strange ways to die…
Whilst the circumstances surrounding Gram Parsons’ death are all too familiar – he reportedly died of an overdose of morphine and alcohol aged 26 – his send of was more than a little unusual. The country-rock pioneer’s stepfather had arranged a private ceremony in New Orleans, without any of Parsons’ music industry pals present. However, his friends knew the singer had wanted to be cremated at the Joshua Tree National Monument in California.
Accompanied by a friend, Parsons’ road manager Phil Kaufman stole the body from Los Angeles airport and drove it to Joshua Tree in a borrowed hearse. When they arrived the pair doused the coffin on petrol, fulfilling Parsons’ wishes by setting it alight, sending him off in a fireball. The two were arrested several days later, but since there was no law prohibiting stealing a body they got away with a $750 fine for theft of the coffin.
Soul legend and writer of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, one of the greatest protest songs ever recorded, Sam Cooke died aged 33 at the Hacienda Motel in L.A. The woman who is believed to have fatally shot him, motel manager Bertha Franklin, claimed he had stumbled, inebriated, into the motel’s office, wearing nothing but a sports jacket and one shoe. He was apparently chasing a prostitute who had fled his room after stealing his trousers. Franklin told police that after Cooke became violent she shot him in self-defense before proceeding to beat him over the head with a broomstick. The coroner’s jury declared it a case of justifiable homicide, but Cooke’s friends and family refused to accept the verdict, believing the story a cover-up of a more sinister plot to kill the singer. Another superstar, Etta James, claimed that when she saw Cooke’s body in the funeral home, the injuries he had suffered did not match those of Franklin’s testimony, for it seemed to her he had been so badly beaten his head was virtually separated from his shoulders. Almost 50 years after his death, the details of how Cooke died are still under dispute.
King of kitsch and camp and owner of some unnervingly thin eyebrows, French popstar Claude François (known affectionately by the French as CloClo) had a penchant for sparkly costumes and questionable dance routines. Will all that pomp, it makes sense that he penned ‘Comme d’habitude’, which was to be adapted by Paul Anka into Frank Sinatra’s huge hit ‘My Way’. His death, however, wasn’t so spectacular. In March 1978 after recording a television special for the BBC he returned home to his Paris apartment. Standing with wet hands in a filled bath, he decided to try and straighten a lighting fixture. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next. Yes, ‘CloClo’ was fatally electrocuted. He died aged 39 and France went into mourning for the sparkly star.
As one of the most recorded drummers in history and founding member of American rockers Toto, you might have expected for Jeff Porcaro to drum himself to death. Instead, somewhat embarrassingly, Porcaro departed from this world when he fell ill after spraying insecticide on his garden. An allergic reaction to weed killer? Oh dear, you can imagine Hendrix and Morrison laughing him out of heaven. Never mind, because in the end the L.A County Coroner’s Office listed his death as a heart attack caused by hardening of the arteries due to cocaine use – seems it was a different kind of chemical which led to his demise after all. That’s surely an end more fitting than one caused by trying to tidy up his garden a little, no?
It’s not unremarkable to hear of a musician shot to death – John Lennon, Tupac, Marvin Gaye and the aforementioned Sam Cooke are just a few who met their maker that way. But in a disturbing twist in 2004 founding Pantera member ‘Dimebag’ Darrell was shot to death on stage whilst performing with heavy metal band Damageplan. During the band’s gig in Columbus, Ohio, crazed metalhead Nathan Gale shot Darrell at point blank range in the head, killing him instantly with his third shot. Gale went on to shoot six others, killing three people, before being shot dead himself by a police officer. In chilling video footage of the murder used in news reports you can see the crowd unmoving, in shock and no doubt disbelief, whilst screaming is audible in the background.
Michael Edwards was not a stadium superstar – he was a shy cellist who taught music. He played with Electric Light Orchestra between their first gig in 1972 and leaving of his own accord three years later. Unfortunately his strange death has garnered far more attention than his music ever did. Driving on the A-381 in Devon, he was killed in a freak accident when a bale of hay weighing 300kg rolled down onto the road, colliding with his van. In an even more tragic turn of events it was reported that not long before his death Edwards had beaten cancer, having been treated for melanoma.
Steve Peregrin Took
Most music fans know about the sad demise of T.Rex’s Marc Bolan, who died aged 29 in a car crash, but what about the band’s other founding member, Steve Peregrin Took? Though his funeral may not have been as star-studded as Bolan’s, Peregrin Took had an undeniably unusual end. Despite a morphine and mushroom binge the evening before his death, it wasn’t drugs that killed him. Instead the coroner’s verdict was death by asphyxiation. He had choked on a cocktail cherry.