Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters performs onstage during the 2021 iHeartRadio ALTer EGO. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)
Artillery Row

Drum fast, die young?

Taylor Hawkins is not the only drummer to meet with an early grave

Taylor Hawkins, who died last week of a suspected drug overdose aged fifty, joins a long line of drummers who have fallen foul to the cliché of living fast and dying young. Rock fans across the world have expressed their disbelief that such a gifted musician could have died under such horrific circumstances, leaving behind a grieving family and the band he helped to forge.

Bonham died at 32 after consuming 40 shots of vodka

But should any of us really be surprised? In the mad, bad world of rock ‘n’ roll, drummers have a habit of being the first to go, often in a hail of their own excess. In the movie This is Spinal Tap (1984), the spoof rockers even perform a running gag about a series of new recruits popping their clogs in ever more surreal ways: there’s Peter “James” Bond who spontaneously combusts in the middle of a gig and Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs who chokes on someone else’s vomit. And who can forget the terrible fate of poor old John “Stumpy” Pepys, the victim of a bizarre gardening accident that the authorities said was “best left unsolved”.

Cut to the latest real life tragedy and what we find is an all too familiar tale of a rock star dying alone in his hotel room having imbibed a cocktail of heroin, antidepressants, marijuana and benzodiazepines. We may never know why a happily married father of two would put himself in such obvious danger but Hawkins trod a well-worn path to his own demise, one that has become almost mundane in its regularity.

The age-old story of a star reaching the pinnacle of success, only to discover there is nowhere left to go but down, could apply to any number of creative endeavours, but there is something about the act of drumming that seems to bring out the wild-eyed nihilist in even the most dedicated musician. Of course, it could be that wild-eyed nihilists are naturally drawn to a job that involves beating the hell out of their instruments.

Although the odds of surviving a career in rock seem worryingly low, even the most introverted young man will at some point dream of becoming a Taylor Hawkins with all the adoration and endless partying that comes with the package. In the case of Hawkins, his dream came true after seeing his heroes Nirvana play live. A couple of years later that band’s drummer Dave Grohl asked him to join his new band the Foo Fighters.

Unfortunately, rock ‘n’ roll dreams have a nasty habit of becoming nightmares. The heady mix of short, blistering highs followed by long stretches of tedium hardly makes for a stable life. As AOR (“album-orientated rock”) band Journey point out in their ode to touring, “they say that the road ain’t no place to start a family… And loving a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be”. Wannabe rockers take note: spend too much time away from friends and family, and those lonely hotel rooms become your home and the dealer your best friend. No wonder sensitive souls like Taylor Hawkins eventually lose a grip on reality.

The curse of the dysfunctional drummer has been with us since the dawn of rock. For The Who’s Keith Moon, who died at the age of thirty-two (of a drugs overdose, naturally), musicianship and madness were inextricably linked. Moon’s lunatic style of playing allowed him to exorcise many of his demons, but even hurling hi-hats across the stage couldn’t cure the notoriously depressing post-concert comedown. Like his hedonistic contemporary Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who also died at thirty-two after consuming forty shots of vodka, Moon relied on a cornucopia of chemicals either to numb the drudgery or to maintain the transitory highs. In the end, of course, they did neither.

Rock drummers in particular place their bodies under enormous strain

Perhaps it’s no surprise that drummers are so often the first to burn-out. Unlike singers and guitarists who can get away with lounging about at the front of the stage looking cool, the drummer has to remain laser-focused at all times. In effect, he or she is the engine of the band, holding all the disparate parts together. It’s relentless, exhausting and often underappreciated work — we’ve all heard the drummer jokes. Although banging away at a kit may look easy from the back of the stalls, it is a precise art involving huge amounts of concentration, split second timing, heaps of intuition and a level of ambidextrousness that boggles the mind. As well as all that, there’s the pressure of responsibility. The rest of the group will be looking to you for direction; one missed beat can throw your fellow band members off course, which is why they say that to be a great drummer you must be a driver not a passenger. Any musician will tell you that a mediocre band with a great drummer sounds better than a great band with a poor drummer.

As someone who has tried and failed to beat the skins, I can attest that hammering away at a kit, even for a few minutes, can be physically draining. Imagine having to play for two hours a night with the intensity of a Hawkins or a Moon — if you’re not in tiptop condition physically and mentally, something will eventually give. As such, there comes a time in every drummer’s career when he or she has to make a choice: remain true to the art or give in to the temptations of the road. Sadly, too many succumb to the latter.

In 2008 we lost The Rev aka James “Jimmy” Owen Sullivan, a titan of new wave metal, famous for his mighty triple bass kit. The twenty-eight year old died at his Huntington Beach home having overdosed on oxycodone, oxymorphone, diazepam, nordiazepam and alcohol.

Outside of the self-inflicted wounds, there is the horrifying physical deterioration that can occur from decades behind a kit. Rock drummers in particular place their bodies under enormous strain. Phil Collins remains in constant pain and has to walk with the aid of two sticks; tendon damage means he can no longer grip his drumsticks. During Genesis’ recent tour, Collins’ son took over drumming duties. Alan White of Yes has suffered a similar fate after undergoing major surgery to repair an injured disc in his lower back, caused by years on the road. Although he still tours with the band, his severe disability means he struggles to walk and is limited to playing only a couple of songs per set.

Despite the booze and the bombast, the adulation and the fantasies of living fast and dying young, the drummer’s lot is not a particularly happy one.

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