It’s not easy being in rock ‘n’ roll, especially if you achieve success. You can have how whatever you want, how much of it you want, whenever you want, wherever you want.
A musician’s lifestyle almost invites craziness into it. The music business is one of the few industries where not only can crazy people participate, but where these individuals are actually rewarded for…well, for being crazy.
Mental illness, whether from birth, drugs, or lifestyle is tragic. Some of our most gifted musicians have suffered through incredibly destructive and heartbreaking lives due to drug abuse, personal eccentricities, or crippling mental illness. Many careers have been shortened, potentials unfulfilled.
The 11 stories below are examples of the various career derailments that have plagued some of our most talented and flawed creators. Let their tales serve as a warning of what can and does happen in the oh-so-fleeting world of music success, and excess.
11 Jim Gordon
At one point, Jim Gordon was one of the rock’s most highly-sought session drummers. His playing was revered by artists, producers, and managers alike. Gordon’s drumming can be heard on albums by Little Richard, Derek & The Dominos, Delaney & Bonnie, The Beach Boys, Mason Williams, Gene Clark, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa and Steely Dan, just to name a few.
He even won a Grammy with Eric Clapton in 1993, for the live version of Layla from Clapton’s Unplugged album.
However, Gordon will likely be remembered more for his mental illness than his laundry list of impressive musical accomplishments. Sometime before the 1980s, Gordon began hearing voices, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, which kept him from working, sleeping, or relaxing.
Overpowered by the voices, in 1983 Gordon bludgeoned his own mother with a hammer, then stabbed her to death. “To end her suffering,” he would say. Gordon is still in prison serving his sentence of 16-years-to-life.
Jim Gordon’s legacy is a tragic tale of missed opportunity. He should have gone on to be a drum legend – among the greats to ever man a kit – but instead his is a story of illness, sadness, and murder.
10 Roky Erickson
Roky Erickson can be considered acid rock’s pioneer. His band, The 13th Floor Elevators, essentially created the genre that would be called psychedelic rock and Roky Erickson was one of the songwriting voices of the San Francisco scene.
Among the artists who have covered Roky Erickson or cited him as an influence are R.E.M., Robert Plant, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, ZZ Top, Henry Rollins, T-Bone Burnett, Julian Cope, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Television, Sonic Youth, and even The White Stripes.
As leaders of this burgeoning genre, he and the Elevators openly espoused the use of hallucinogenic drugs. But drug use took its toll on Erickson. At a gig in 1968, he became belligerent and started speaking in gibberish – the onset of a full-out mental breakdown.
A diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia led him to a stay in a Houston psychiatric hospital that administered electro-shock therapy on him. When he was arrested for marijuana possession a year later, Roky pled insanity to avoid a 10-year sentence, but ended up residing in psychiatric care again until 1972.
After his release, Erickson’s behavior continued to be erratic, believing that aliens inhabited his body, saying in interviews that he is “friends with the Devil”, and so on. In 2001 his brother Sumner got custodianship of Roky and began patiently nursing and rehabilitating him back to health.
Despite his mental state, Roky Erickson has been leading a limited but somewhat normal life. He released a new album in 2010, and makes occasional live appearances.
Roky’s story was documented in the 2005 film You’re Gonna Miss Me.
9 Gary Glitter
Sure, he’s responsible for one of the most-played songs at professional sporting events (Rock & Roll Part 2), but Gary Glitter has become much better known for his…lurid hobbies.
Besides his numerous drunk-driving arrests, Glitter also has a history of pedophilia – not that he’d call himself a pedophile, though. The law had its own opinion, booking him on child pornography charges in the late 1990s, when files were found on his computer. He was also accused of statutory rape by a woman who would have been 14 at the time of the affair. He was acquitted, but apparently they did date for “some time”.
Consistently ridiculed by society for his dark dealings, Glitter took to the sea – he drifted around the world on his yacht, hiding out in exotic locales including Spain, South Africa, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Portugal, Brazil, Thailand, and Cambodia, where he was until deported to Vietnam on – you guessed it – suspected child sexual abuse.
All the while, Rock & Roll Part 2 continues to be played at sporting events, generating more and more revenue for Glitter (providing an endless supply of yacht fuel for his incessant globe-trotting).
8 Peter Green
While some stories on this list end with darker tones, Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green’s tale is a bit more uplifting – since he rose above his issues and is still around today.
After leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1970, Green began his decline. Years of drug abuse and a deteriorating mental state led to a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia. He bounced around a handful of psychiatric hospitals until sometime in the middle of the decade, when he brandished a shotgun at his accountant Clifford Davis, over some money disagreements.
When that was resolved, Green began picking up the pieces of a once-proud career (in which he inspired awe in legends such as B.B. King and Eric Clapton, who lauded his guitar skills). He remains a recording and touring musician to this day, making him a truly rare case: Green was able to overcome some of the very same obstacles that destroyed other musicians, reclaiming and extending his career in the process.
7 Jaco Pastorius
Jazz bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, though, wasn’t as lucky.
Pastorius, a gifted innovator whose work would influence legions of future four-stringers, set the jazz world afire with his debut solo album and works like Heavy Weather, the Weather Report’s 1977 opus that revolutionized the jazz fusion genre.
Pastorius had some critical personality flaws that he was sadly incapable of overcoming. He was bipolar, but his symptoms were largely overlooked for most of his life, passed off as mere “character quirks.” At some point in his adult life, he was officially diagnosed, and his bipolarity combined with a growing appreciation for drug and alcohol abuse that began his rapid downfall.
His wife committed him to Holy Cross hospital in New York in 1982 and again in 1986. A year later, after being kicked out of a Carlos Santana concert, Pastorius engaged in a violent scuffle with a nightclub bouncer, sustaining facial fractures and lapsing into a coma. He died of a brain hemorrhage a few days later.
Still, Pastorius’ legend lives on – he’s widely considered one of the most important figures in jazz history, and many bassists credit him as being their foremost inspiration. It’s a shame he couldn’t stick around to see what he had accomplished.
6 Bud Powell
Bud Powell, often called the “Charlie Parker of the piano,” is considered responsible for the rockin’ evolution of bebop and contemporary jazz.
Sadly, he’d never quite live up to the promise that he possessed at a young age. When he was 20, Powell was badly beaten by a policeman in Philadelphia, after being deemed “drunk and disorderly.” His recovery was laborious, so much so that Powell was sent to numerous institutions. Powell suffered from various mental disabilities presumably caused by the beating, and amplified by his alcohol consumption.
Shortly after becoming musically active again, Powell got into a bar fight during which a bottle was smashed on his head. He went first to a hospital, but later to several more psychiatric institutions – where he began receiving electroshock therapy. He’d never fully recover.
He pressed on, releasing and creating more music in the next few years, although he remained eccentric due to the mental issues and boozing. He died of liver cirrhosis in 1966 at the age of 41. While Powell is still considered a key figure in jazz piano, his story is a tragic example of musical promise dashed by unfortunate circumstances.
5 Per Yngve Ohlin of Mayhem
Crushed by chronic depression, Per Yngve Ohlin - the former vocalist of black metal pioneers Mayhem – renamed himself “Dead” – and he really meant it. He wore corpse paint live, sniffed a dead crow before shows “to perform with the stench of death in my nostrils,” and was an all-around dark dude.
After rupturing his spleen in a schoolyard battle at a young age, Ohlin was legally dead for a few minutes, and the obsession began there. Over the years he became withdrawn and immensely despondent, ultimately leading up to his gruesome suicide.
When his band went out into a deserted cabin in the woods in 1991 to work on an album, he opened both wrists and then blasted himself in the face with a shotgun, leaving behind a note that said “please excuse all the blood.” Oh, and an image purported to be from the scene of his death was used on a live Mayhem bootleg later on. (Warning, it’s graphic).
4 Sid Vicious
It would do a disservice to the theme of this list to ignore the Sex Pistols mascot – er, bassist. Vicious demonstrated that in order to be in a seminal punk band, you don’t even have to know how to play your instrument. Just sneer at everyone, be hopelessly addicted to heroin, wear swastika t-shirts and have a perpetual look of contempt, and you’re in!
That he maybe-but-probably-totally-likely killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, at the famed Chelsea Hotel in NYC only adds to his candidacy as one of our stops on this guided tour of rock ‘n’ roll figures who blasted themselves into the upper echelon of infamy for their antics. Some, like Vicious, never even owned a rocker from which to fall – his short life was one of chaos, vitriol, and unpredictability.
3 Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence
After stints in Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane, Skip Spence co-founded the eclectic psychedelic band Moby Grape.
But Spence’s heavy drug abuse led to a declining mental state and a schizophrenia diagnosis in the late 1960s. Spence was confined to Bellevue mental hospital following an LSD haze in which he took a fire axe to the hotel room of bandmate Don Stevenson.
Spence’s story is an example of some pretty “out there” hallucinogenic excess, but it’s not as if he wasn’t a gifted musician – his sixth month stay in Bellevue gave him the perfect atmosphere with which to record his now-classic 1969 album Oar. Sadly, it would be the only record Spence would be able to produce. For the next thirty years, he’d end up back in various institutions due to his heroin and cocaine abuse, when he wasn’t floating around as a transient or relying on the help of his former band mates for room and board.
Spence died of lung cancer in 1999, after a few more decades of remaining in the shadows, an erratic and tragic figure who had occasional bouts of genius creativity but altogether too much difficulty achieving what he was most likely more than capable of accomplishing.
2 Syd Barrett
No discussion of erratic musicians is complete without a take on Syd Barrett, whose frustratingly unpredictable antics forced the rest of Pink Floyd to kick him out in 1968.
Childhood friend David Gilmour stepped in to replace him live on several occasions, after Barrett would wander around the stage like a lost child, not really caring enough to take part in any actual performing.
Barrett’s abuse of hallucinogenic drugs is well-documented, and it really took its toll on him. It became apparent that the rest of his band simply couldn’t rely on him at all.
He would sit mute during interviews, down-tune his guitar while onstage, and the rest of Pink Floyd generally didn’t have a clue as to whether or not they could count on him to carry his weight in any manner. He only lasted long enough to be involved with the band’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and on one track from A Saucerful of Secrets.
In 1975, he appeared unannounced at Floyd’s Abbey Road recording sessions bald, overweight, and his former band mates barely recognized him. This was basically the last time anyone in the band officially saw Syd, as he lived with his mother in Cambridge until his passing in 2006.
1 G.G. Allin
There are those that fell off their proverbial rockers, and then there are figures like G.G. Allin, who wasn’t ever close to owning a rocker in the first place.
G.G. was born Jesus Christ Allin to an unstable father who said he’d been visited by Jesus in the hospital, prompting his mother to name him after the Messiah (and set his life on its bizarre trajectory from the get-go).
After becoming a vitriolic punk musician, Allin attained attention for his self-destructive live performances: he took laxatives in order to defecate onstage, cut himself, and picked fights with and sexually attacked members of the crowd…all to their joyful (if fearful) amusement.
A chaotic, relentlessly unpredictable figure, G.G. Allin lived a life of bizarre eccentricity, fueled by hard drugs and a “no fear” mentality. His personality and onstage antics may have overshadowed his actual musical output, but there’s no hiding the fact that his is one of the most notorious names in the history of music, especially when considering just how many individuals have gone off the deep end. Allin, though, maybe never was in the “shallow end.”
Always threatening to end his life on stage, Allin ultimately succumbed to a heroin overdose in 1993, termed accidental. His death occurred just as his biopic Hated was nearing completion. The film was released in 1994.