Rockstars May Die Young But
At Least One Chameleon Is 66
In case you’re desperate for another frivolous celebrity trivia, the British Medical Journal has the perfect antidote for you: a study about how famous rockers do indeed die young. They probably think that you never heard of such a rehashed leftover from the Romanticism.
David Bowie though, once a self-destructive and flamboyant performer, has beat all odds and is 66 years old today. Despite wearing as many faces and costumes as the number of his songs, he still produced a steady flow of high quality music, to pry open the stereotype.
That might make the John Moores University team of researchers at (of all places) Liverpool to at least blush a little bit, since mascara is something that even Bowie hasn’t applied on in ages. We don’t doubt the intentions or rigor of their scholarship, but come on, is that really necessary?
Talking about rock, which was once a favorite of millions of teenagers around the world, there’s yet another study, about teen rebellion, certainly the nth time anyone attempts to explain it. Guess what? risk-taking may not be a bad thing at that age, that is, if it doesn’t kill them. What do you know?
It’s hard for this kind of research into over-exposed subjects to produce new insights or even originality. Still, in this particular demographics, results often track the social mores of the day. It’s almost as if, at this age of corporate fun and sponsored concert arenas, there’s a new need for youth rebelliousness to be common currency again.
Or so we wish. The author of the study, University of Arizona researcher Bruce J. Ellis, sees the new acceptance of teenage anger as a departure from old views, which considered ‘risky or anti-social behavior as the result of disadvantaged or unstable environments. In challenging or unpredictable circumstances, (risk-taking) may lead to social and ultimately evolutionary benefits.’
WHO HOPED TO DIE BEFORE GETTING OLD?
It’s, as they say, a risky proposition, and parents of teenagers may not be the only ones startled at the seemingly liberal bias of the study (which in fact has none). Kids will be kids and all that, and it’s virtually impossible for the young to grasp concepts that imply long term analysis, such as, well, the importance of surviving your early years.
The Liverpool researchers ‘studied 1,489 rock and pop stars who became famous between 1956 and 2006’ (you can ask your friends over to play a game of how many can they name). Since 137 died, at average age 45, in the U.S. and 39 in Europe, they concluded that musicians suffered ‘higher levels of mortality than demographically matched individuals in the general population.’
Gee, can you imagine why? But there’s more: in the U.S., even if the average age is higher than in Europe, those 137 represent a survival rate that’s lower than that of the general population, compared to Europe. That led the team to conclude, with all seriousness and gravitas required, that ‘fame can be hazardous to a popular musician’s health.’ Wow.
All the fun and games aside, though, there’s at least one very insightful angle that the study exposed: the deaths caused by the now proverbial substance abuse. Traumatic childhood experiences such as hardship, abuse, and other woes ‘are often overlooked in discussions about musicians who abuse drugs or alcohol, or who commit suicide.’
Also, the pursuit of an artistic career is frequently linked to a desire to escape an adverse and dysfunctional upbringing, according to the Liverpool researchers. They deserve credit thus for going beyond the usual stereotypical causes attributed to any superstar’s seemingly premature death: excess, indulgence and pressure from stardom.
Left unsaid, of course, is the endurance and still relative popularity of those who also rose to fame in the 1950s and 60s, but survived and are still around. Take a jumping Mick Jagger, for instance, or an arena-packing Paul McCartney, arguably the biggest icon of the era, among many others, and perhaps that bit about fame being hazardous should be at least remastered.
THE LIVES HE’S LIVED ON ROUTE TO HIS 66
For the record, in rock and roll history, Jan. 8th has been a placeholder for Elvis Presley, who’d be 78 today, ever since the Tupelo, MI, apprentice of truck driver decided to gift his mom with his recorded voice. But since he’s physically no longer with us, we have the luxury to pick and choose the most rounded dates to celebrate his life. Next stop: his 80th, in two years.
So it’s been up to the very much living, although semi-recluse, David Robert Jones, from Brixton, U.K., to carry the date heaven hopes for many years more. There are obviously many special things about this singer songwriter, and he’d have already achieved his place among rock heroes even if he hadn’t also excelled at his extra-curricular activities. Just ask Ricky Gervais, who interviewed him in 2003.
It would be an injustice to call him solely a fashion icon, which he is, or a visual fixture of the music scene, circa late 20th century, which he’s also most definitely became. For David Bowie is arguably the finest actor coming out of that scene, and could’ve easily been known solely for that. And we still would be very grateful indeed.
His performances in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, or Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, to name but only two, are certainly academy grade. He had a memorable turn on Broadway, as The Elephant Man, and on several short movies and BBC productions, one of which is featured here, the 1918 Bertold Brecht’s Baal, shown in 1982, where he makes a convincing case in the title role.
For someone so identified with visual and dramatic arts, it feels like a waste, and a lack of imagination, to merely list his accomplishments as an artist and visionaire. That’s why we’ve collected a few examples of his performances throughout the years, in no small thanks to Dangerous Minds and its generous archives.
Since his 2004 heart attack, David Bowie hasn’t been seen much around New York City, and most surely hasn’t performed ever since. Perhaps for him the straw that broke the Diamond Dog’s back came in the form of a lollipop a fan threw at him that same year, while performing in Oslo, that got momentarily lodged inside his left eyelid.
It was an emblematic incident, since Bowie, as everyone and Pete Townsend’s dad, have known for years, is the most famous carrier of heterochromia iridis, a rare genetic condition in humans, but that in his case, happened in consequence of a punch in his eye from a childhood friend.
So here’s to the White Thin Duke, the Pin Up Jean Genie, Ziggy and Major Tom, the man with a thousand faces, the artist not completely unraveled just yet, the latest Garbo to exchange the attention (and projectiles) of his adoring fans for a walk back into invisibility. And why not? Even if he’s just released a new song and a new album is on the way. Happy Birthday, Mr. Jones.
* January 8