Death by recreational misadventure is so ‘60s. Legal prescription drugs seem to be an increasingly common culprit when stars are taken from us.
When the truth came out about Tom Petty’s addiction to various painkilling drugs, no one had to wonder why—certainly no one like me, a now ex-jogger who’s had three painful knee surgeries.
The autopsy statement released by Petty’s family said he’d been suffering from emphysema, chronic knee problems and a fractured hip that turned into a full break during his most recent tour. His pain was real and unimaginable.
The generation that grew up with rock as the soundtrack of its life had once seen its heroes die prematurely from “recreational” drugs—many at the weirdly significant age of 27. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (and later, as if maintaining a morbid tradition, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse).
And now? Death by recreational misadventure is so ‘60s. Ostensibly, legal prescription drugs seem to be an increasingly common culprit when stars are taken from us. It is a truism about the opioid epidemic that people don’t become addicts for a lark. They usually become addicted by being prescribed painkillers for one condition or another, without proper oversight.
Prince also suffered from chronic hip pain (and stage fright, which he also medicated) before his premature death. Michael Jackson had a debilitating bulge in his lower spine.
Some performers are more physical than others. (James Brown was still doing splits onstage in his 60s). And as they grow older, they may feel a responsibility to their fans to defy the vicissitudes of age. Athletes are forced to retire and recover as best they can from a lifetime of injuries and their aftermath. But for rock stars, with millions of dollars waved in front of them to keep going, what is the price of playing a young person’s game?
Bill King, the artistic director of Toronto’s Beaches International Jazz Festival, was Janis Joplin’s musical director and keyboardist in the aftermath of the breakup of her band Big Brother & The Holding Company.
King said the difference between someone Joplin’s age doing drugs and Petty’s is the difference between emotional and physical pain. Beyond a certain age, emotional pain is still real, but you’ve lived a life, and experience has probably taught you coping mechanisms and perspective.
“Janis felt she wasn’t attractive, she had terrible acne. Plus, she had issues with her hometown in Port Arthur, Texas. She was bullied in school and was an outcast. Some of that came into play, the numbing affect made her feel better,” King says.
“When I was with her, she was on heroin. Then I didn’t see her for 10 months and she had cleaned up. My band opened for her on the Festival Express. My wife was there, and Janis was just jubilant, in the best frame of mind. She wasn’t doing drugs, she was drinking wine instead of hard liquor. So, I was surprised later when she took an alternate route and cashed out accidentally.