A new e-book explores the violent deaths of industry greats from Marvin Gaye to Tupac Shakur and Amy Winehouse.
The stories are sad—and sordid.
Marvin Gaye, the singer who brought us “Sexual Healing” and “What's Going On?”, shot to death by his own father, in his own home, after a cocaine-fueled fight in 1984. Soul crooner Sam Cooke, murdered in a motel after a tryst-gone-wrong.
Tejano superstar Selena, killed at just 24 by the president of her own fan club. Jim Gordon, the celebrated drummer who played on songs like “You're So Vain” and “After Midnight,” and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. After years of drug use, he stabbed his mother to death in 1983.
And then there are those who did themselves in: Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and, most recently, Amy Winehouse. Stars felled by drugs and the particular madness that seems to accompany success in the popular music business.
But which comes first: the drugs and fame, or the propensity to dangerous behavior?
In “Death by Rock n' Roll,” a new e-book from Crimescape, veteran crime writer and TCR contributing editor David J. Krajicek explores the intersection between artistic fragility, a life on the road surrounded by yes-men, and easy access to drugs, alcohol and guns.
The Crime Report: You've been writing about crime for decades. Why focus on rock and roll?
David Krajicek: I've been singing in bands since I was in junior high school and nowadays I perform in a band in the Catskills [New York State] called the Blues Maneuver. This project kind of pulls together the two great passions of my life: music and murder.
TCR: Why do you think there is so much violence in the lives of so many rock stars?
DK: One of the people I interviewed, Corky Laing, who was a drummer for the band Mountain, said that musicians are artists, and artists are often vulnerable and fragile. A lot of brilliant people are semi-insane and there are a lot of brilliant people in rock and roll. I think it's partially that; these are people who go through life with a little bit more intensity than most of us, and then they get involved with what Susan Rayburn. the California psychologist I quote in the book, called “difficulties with self-regulation”—a phrase I love.
Rock stars live a crazy lifestyle. They're on a bus half their life. They work nights, then get home at two in the morning and they're all hopped up; so they're awake sometimes doing things they shouldn't be doing until seven or eight, then they sleep all day. All of a sudden your life becomes this pattern of dysfunction. A number of people I spoke to for the book said essentially the same thing: if you don't have someone who's saying, honey don't forget you have to pick up the kids this morning, if you don't have that structure in your life, it leads to this lack of self-regulation.
TCR: It also leads to drugs.
DK: Right. Dave Marsh, the rock writer that I talked to, basically says that the reason so many musicians become drug- and alcohol-addled is that musicians live a life very much like a long haul trucker. They arrive at places at weird times of the day and night; they perform at weird times of the day and night. It's a form of stress. He said that's why people start taking drugs: the drugs are a survival technique for the about working conditions. And drug and alcohol problems can lead to placing yourself in dangerous and violent situations.
TCR: But sports stars, for example, live like long haul truckers—always on the road, under a lot of pressure. Yet you didn't write a book about how professional sports can kill you.
DK: One big difference: drug tests. Sports stars can go get their ya-yas on gambling or dangerous sex or whatever, but they're limited in their drug use by the fact that they're liable to get tested at any time. Amy Winehouse needed that. She needed drug testing. She missed out on most of her career (when she was) on this drugged oblivion, and the more screwed up she got the more attention she got about it.
TCR: When I was growing up, I remember there was a lot of handwringing about violent lyrics in rock music. Bands like Megadeth and Black Sabbath got a lot of flack, but many of the people you write about who died violently, or committed violence, were soul singers or soft rockers.
DK: Yeah. Marvin's music was all about peace, love and understanding. But his life was the opposite of that. He was a mess, and his relationship with his father was sort of where it all started. As it turned out that's where it all ended. Sam Cooke is another example of somebody who basically had a notion of himself as being like Perry Como, wearing cashmere sweaters and so forth. Then places himself in a situation where he basically got himself shot in a tawdry motel.
But that's an interesting point. One of my favorite sections was the section about “Dimebag” Darryl Abbot who was a heavy metal guitar king. It was a really horrible case where a so-called fan shot him onstage in Columbus, Ohio.
Dimebag had all the tattoos, all the trappings of the hard living heavy metal rock star—he had a bizarre beard and the hair—and yet when he wasn't on stage doing his head-banging act, he was quite a gentle guy. He was very well-spoken and he understood that he was playing this role on stage. But he also went out of his way to be nice to fans and to promote himself in the media and so forth. It's not necessarily the ones who have the violent reputation who end up dying.
TCR: Except in the hip-hop community where, at least historically, the lyrics are often about violence, and artists like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls died by the gun.
DK: I think everyone who is interested in music was shocked by what was happening from about 1996 on in hip-hop. Dimebag Darryl posed on stage as a heavy metal guitarist, then he went home to Dallas and lived a normal life. But some of the gangster rappers, they felt they needed to live the life they rapped about. So they armed themselves, and hung out with others who were armed, and for a while it looked like they were all gonna kill one another—like rap was gonna die by murder. But they seem to have sort of figured out that death is forever. It's one thing to sing about dying, it's another thing to die.
TCR: If you or I were carrying drugs everywhere we went, and packing guns, likely we'd run into some legal trouble pretty quickly. Do rock stars tend to get a pass from law enforcement? I wonder if it's harder for rock stars to hit bottom because there are so many people covering for them.
DK: The pattern seems to be that a large percentage of these people go around with narcotics and guns. And yet, the tour buses generally don't get pulled over. I think with Marvin Gaye there could have been some law enforcement intervention in his case that might have kept him alive. Just before his father killed him, he came home from an aborted tour, completely out of his mind with cocaine, and holed up in his house freebasing cocaine and angel dust. He had couriers bringing in drugs, and at some point they brought in a machine gun, which is pretty much the last thing he should have ever had his hands on.
The rappers are another example of a group of people who needed some law enforcement intervention. You know, they're packing weapons, or their entourages are packing weapons. Maybe a stop and frisk might have done somebody like Biggie or Tupac some good.
But rock starts are insulated from many of the rules of society. They have different kinds of lives than you and I. It's like that great Lady Gaga comment, that her life of pop stardom is a show without an intermission.
Julia Dahl is acting Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.