The Rock Star Killer

Fame and drugs tend to go hand in hand. Whether you do them or not, many would associate the availability of drugs with the level of celebrity status. This could explain why so many of our beloved rock stars’ deaths tend to be drug-related in someway—and the drug of choice is usually heroin.

Heroin comes in waves of being a huge epidemic or just a problem, but since its introduction back in the 19th century, it has always been a catalyst for abuse.

The drug was first introduced to the U.S. in the late 1870s as a means to combat addiction to morphine. Morphine’s intended use was for medical purposes only, but it quickly became an epidemic within only 10 years of its introduction. In fact, the use of it was so seemingly magical and helpful for patients enduring painful procedures or ailments that doctors didn’t pay attention to its highly addictive properties until after the Civil War.

Though no actual statistics were kept during this time, the amount of wounded soldiers from the Civil War who were exposed to morphine and became addicted was so massive that another drug had to be brought in to combat the widespread addiction.

In 1874 a German doctor brought a miracle drug to the market that was said to be a “safe, non-addictive” substitute to morphine; he called it heroin. It was sold over the counter–as basic as aspirin is to us now–until the 1920s. Since then, people plagued with heroin addiction can be found in almost every modern society and culture around the world.

Almost everyone in the “27 Club” died of a drug-related issue—many of them from heroin. If you’re unfamiliar with the 27 Club, it’s a term that’s used to recognize the vast number of musicians and artists who have died at the age of 27—Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse are just several of the artists found on this list.

Rock stars and punk rockers tend to be the most affected by this drug. Why? Well, let’s look into it.

By the time rock music was in full swing, with Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones, heroin had been integrated into society for many, many years—so getting your hands on the drug, especially as a celebrity, was quite easy. Musicians are on tour most of their lives, and life on the road can be complicated—it can create not only mental issues, but physical ones as well. Since musicians push themselves by playing shows, then going to after parties, and then hitting the road again, a go-to drug is usually acquired. It may start as aspirin, but that quickly stops feeling effective, so you switch to something stronger, maybe prescription drugs, then once that starts to feel ineffective, you switch to illegal drugs—all of that mixed with alcohol can be a kiss with death.

Let’s focus on punk for a second, just because many punk rockers are very open about their heroin use.

In the 1980s, during the height of punk rock, heroin was the drug of choice in many bustling metropolises. Cities such as New York and London were having full-blown heroin epidemics.

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, courtesy of Flickr user nico7martin.

Dying from heroin was probably kicked-off in the punk community by Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols—one of the first very popular and well-known punk musicians to pass away as a result of heroin use and have it covered all over the news. In 1979 he overdosed on heroin, not so shortly after his longtime girlfriend had passed. He was only 21-years-old. Then that first year of the ’80s alone brought death to many punk rockers. In 1980, front man for the popular punk band The Germs, Darby Crash, died of a heroin overdose. That same year, singer for the punk band The Ruts overdosed on heroin. Also that year George Scott III, a prominent bass player in the “no wave” punk scene, also overdosed on heroin. Sadly the list goes on a lot longer, and that’s just for the first year.

This also carried into punk rock during the ‘90s. Even though other drugs were becoming more popular in this decade, drugs like ecstasy, heroin was still a leading cause for overdoses.

During this decade musicians like Jonathan Melvoin from Smashing Pumpkins, Bradley Nowell from Sublime, Kristen Pfaff from Hole, Kurt Cabain from Nirvana, and Johnny Thunders from several well known punk bands, were just a few rockers that were either addicted to heroin or died due to a heroin-related incident.

Even today musicians still struggle with the drug. Albert Hammond Jr., most known for playing bass for The Strokes, struggled with heroin and other drugs for years, and Zachary Cole Smith, front man for the popular indie band DIIV, recently had to check himself back into rehab for heroin.

Amy Winehouse struggled with substance abuse throughout her short career. Courtesy of Flickr.

Is heroin perpetually going to stay the rock star’s drug of choice, or will it take its ghastly grip off of these talented musicians? Is it alluring because it’s a rebellious drug that’ll get you close to death? Is it cool because other cool musicians have become hooked on it? Is it actually somewhat helpful for life on the road? No matter the answer, until our culture has completely eradicated the drug, it’ll continue take the lives of many rock stars and rock fans.