Last Updated 03 Jan 2023

Rock And Roll Stars And Their Reckless Behaviour

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The birth of rock 'n' roll was said to have taken place in 1954 with the debut of Big Bill Turner's Shake, Rattle and Roll, Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock, and Elvis Presley's It's Alright Mama. Rock music pumped fresh life into mid-century mainstream culture and, with it, reckless behaviour. Bill Haley was also a pathological smoker, and after years of opioid addiction, Elvis died of a heart attack. The lifestyle of rock bore other sinister risks including hepatitis and HIV. It seems like young rockers had to relearn the lesson jazz musicians eventually learned after years of disaster.

The list of drug and alcohol overdose deaths is lengthy and tragic, including: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, guitarist Michael Bloomfield, drummers John Bonham and Keith Moon, talented singer-songwriters Gram Parsons and Townes van Zandt. For other unlucky artists, it was not enough to come clean from opioids, considering the untreated viral hepatitis picked up (mostly) from infected needles. Steven Tyler, the Aerosmith's impulsive lead singer, is one famous sufferer who had gone public with his addiction and hepatitis C infection.

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Well-known hepatitis C-treated performers include Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender, Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh, Beach Boy David Marks, ZZ Top bass player Dusty Hill, Three Dog Night singer Chuck Negron, Allman Brother Gregg Allman, singer-songwriter David Crosby, and songwriter Natalie Cole. Fender, Lesh, and Crosby successfully underwent liver transplants, though Fender died from other medical conditions a short time afterwards. Cole eventually underwent a kidney transplant for nephropathy due to hepatitis C.

If alcohol use was one of rock 'n' roll’s unsavoury elements, adult promiscuity was the other. Women and drugs and rock 'n' roll are what my brain and body needs: Ian Dury (a victim of polio) sang in the 1970s, and most rock stars would have been identified. Given the emphasis on erotic imagery in popular pop music and the promiscuity image of rock stars, it may come as a shock that very few rock stars are known to have died from AIDS. Various websites list around a dozen or so well-known artists, the most notable of whom are the Israeli singer Ofra Haza, the riveting Nigerian singer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Creedence Clearwater Revival co-founder Tom Fogerty (who allegedly acquired HIV from blood transfusion), NWA rapper Easy-E and the most famous: Queen frontman Freddie Mercury (not least among the consumerist youth, owing to the release of the recent film on his life).

Taking HIV/AIDS into consideration: no other epidemic of the last few decades influenced more literature, from music and musicals (Rent) and plays (Angels in America) to books (The Band Performed On) and films (Philadelphia). The HIV/AIDs epidemic of the late 1980s sparked a wealth of inspired music, many of which about the disease itself are not openly recognizable. Queen's Another One Bites the Dust and TLC's Waterfalls are two of those that come to mind more popularly. Songs about HIV/AIDs may in itself be a sub-genre given the overwhelming numbers dedicated to the disease.

In 1987, the eccentric jazz pianist Liberace died of pneumonia at the age of 68 due to complications linked to the diagnosis of acquired immune deficiency (AIDS). His death, together with the demise of film star Rock Hudson two years earlier, fixated public attention on the growing epidemic of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), in a way that simple statistics and scientific studies never would have done. These deaths, as well as those of other well-known artists, have posed controversial concerns about the relationship between art and disease. The interrelationship of music and deadly diseases is complicated and long.

Fela (1938-1997), widely known simply by his first name, was a highly influential singer and songwriter who was as well known internationally for his political activism as he was for his songs. He was a vigorous supporter of African-style polygamy and boasted of his sexual exploits: Sex is one of life's most important things, man. It is Christianity and Islam that have made sex unethical. Ironically enough, the last song he wrote, Condom Scurry and Scalawag, was a polemic against condoms, as these were considered by him to be Anti-African. Fela declined to be screened for HIV during his premature illness but his uncle, after his death and in a late attempt to raise awareness about Nigerian AIDS, announced that Fela had died of AIDS-related sarcoma. 

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