After Whitney Houston, Musicians Say: I’m Afraid

Why the music industry is still plagued by early deaths and fearing strokes more than bullets

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Phil McCarten / Reuters

Whitney Houston at a music-industry event in February 2011

The death of Whitney Houston has inspired some soul-searching in the music world. “I’m obsessed with why our heroes are not making it past 50,” Questlove told me on the Grammy red carpet as I interviewed him for Fuse. He sounded alarmed and said he now knows he must make changes in his life and in the lives of musicians around him. “I already gave my whole band the speech. We gotta live different. Lack of sleep, not watching what we eat, extra patron in the rider. No more. I wanna be old. This is a wake-up call like no other. And I’m obsessed with the health of everybody I know in this industry.” He’s already in the process of hiring a trainer and a nutritionist. “I’m not worried about bullets, I’m worried about strokes. Strokes are the new bullets.”

Whitney was 48 years young, and we don’t yet know why she died. She was found unconscious submerged in a bathtub, but her age links her to a slew of musicians who recently died prematurely, from Michael Jackson at 50 to Heavy D at 44 to Nate Dogg at 41 to Amy Winehouse at 27. Rock once had an ethos of live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse, but those days are long gone. We’re in a more corporate era, where artists are often business savvy and focused on building lasting careers. This year’s Grammys opened with a song by Bruce Springsteen and closed with a performance by Paul McCartney, evidence that longevity is being celebrated. So why are we still seeing singers and rappers dying prematurely of suicide, drug overdose and heart attacks that are suggestive of bodies and minds being mistreated over long periods of time?

(MORE: Whitney Houston’s Death: Hallmarks of a Battle Against Addiction)

This may not be as tragic as other societal epidemics, but there’s never an appropriate time to play “Whose Pain Is Worse?” The deaths of treasured artists are a loss for us all and send out horrible messages about what it means to be one. So what I’m wondering is, Why are so many talented musicians not making it to senior citizenship?

Before I spoke to Questlove, I interviewed Rick Ross, who recently suffered two seizures in one day. He told me he blames the seizures on “exhaustion,” (which could refer to many things). He said he had been getting two hours of sleep a night. I asked him if he’d made significant life changes. He said he was sleeping more now. Like four hours a night.

The attitude that sleeping is for losers is endemic to America and especially the music business. “I used to think there was something heroic in not sleeping,” Questlove said, “then I ended up in the hospital for four days. Happened last November. I’d planned my time on two hours of sleep a day for 20 days in a row. I’d work out, go do the Jimmy Fallon show, work on the Roots album from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., work on D’Angelo’s album from 2:30 to 6, catnap on his couch then go to the gym. Did that 15, 20 days in a row, but if you don’t sleep that long your immune system is worn out and you’re susceptible to all kinds of diseases. I got coxsackie virus, which adults aren’t even supposed to get. I couldn’t work for two weeks. Couldn’t even hold a drumstick. The result of not sleeping. You think it’s cool and rebellious, but it’s not.”

I think Ross and Questlove are typical of most successful modern artists in that they never really stop working. Nowadays hot stars must remain in our faces and ears perpetually; they must be ubiquitous, releasing albums and mixtapes and doing guest verses on other people’s songs as well as shooting videos, doing press, occasionally acting and relentlessly touring. When Ross had his seizures, he was flying to do multiple shows in multiple cities in a day. Surely he isn’t the only one attempting that. That can be done once in a while but placed within a year of incessant globe-trotting and almost ceaseless work amidst poor health, bad nutrition, insufficient sleep and the infusion of liquor and unhealthy chemicals, well then it can add up to a potent cocktail.

(MORE: Whitney Houston: A Life in Photos)

Most fans have no understanding of the physical challenge of touring. That these artists are living a dream is true and beside the point. The roar of the crowd is seductive and lucrative, but to hear it there’s a price to pay. You perform at the edge of your physical and emotional capabilities or as Kelly Price said, by the end of a show, “We’re drained physically, spiritually and emotionally and need to be poured back into.” But instead they’re jumping on a bus or a plane and doing it again a night or two later and repeating this pattern for months on end. Questlove said, “If you’re traveling by plane, I can definitely see sleep deprivation happening because plane trips are not long enough to get quality sleep. But on a tour bus you’re going 70 mph over bumps, and you have to be mentally trained to do it. I know people who want to go home after three days. To make it, you have to desensitize yourself and be a robot. I’m 60% human and 40% work machine.”

Many artists nowadays use downtime while touring to record new music, either in a special tour bus or in studios along the road. This adds to the physically rigorous, athletic challenge of touring, one that can break some people. An industry exec once told me, “I’ve seen touring make grown men cry.” Longtime music exec Lisa Ellis said, “People don’t realize the physical aspect of touring. As a younger artist or if you’re not a superstar you’re not traveling first class, you’re not getting escorted through, and it’s a grind and it can make anyone snap and lose it. And when you’re making money for people, it’s worse because the ecosystem around you grows larger and hungrier because they’re more reliant on you.”

This can take a toll on the body and also leave you struggling to find yourself as you’ve been away for months in a strange, otherworldly bubbled existence. Adele told me about the emotional impact of touring, saying she felt lost when she returned home from tour to find her best friends married to men she’d never met or holding children she’d never seen in the womb. Life was passing her by. That sort of dislocation from the real world, as well as the intoxication of the cheering, can lead some to fill the void with chemicals legal and illegal, that can give you a rush and take away the pain. Temporarily.

(MORE: Touré on Jay-Z’s ‘Glory’ for Blue, One of Hip-Hop’s Greatest Love Songs)

Athletes do something similar to touring, but they have teammates to help them rest during the contests. Also, because they’re athletes, most of them take care of their bodies. The world of music, with its big money, fast-lane excess, has many temptations. Destructive behavior is excused and even encouraged as it can make artists seem cool because it harkens back to that old live-fast/rock vibe.

Also because the people around the artists know of the immense pressures they deal with. Ellis said, “The media is the most stressful thing of all. Being in favor and then out of favor leads to anxiety and stress and makes worse all the other pressures like being on the road and not seeing your family and not sleeping and still having to sing to perfection every night. We’re all human and there’s only so much hate you can take. Even if you’re rich and famous, hearing people say negative things all the time can hurt you deeply.”

(ARCHIVEWhitney Houston, the Prom Queen of Soul)

There’s also the drive to stay on top. Some artists work so hard because they fear going broke, no matter how irrational that sounds. “Why I have to work all the time, even though I’m part of an eight-figure empire is I don’t want to end up living with my mom.” For others, there’s the competitive fire. Seeing yourself replaced in the firmament, or worse, watching yourself fall off is a nightmare. “The drop to the bottom is too embarrassing and too hard to handle,” Questlove said. “Would Whitney rather have gone out like Melba Moore or like this? Cuz Melba Moore is not an option. She’s gone to the bottom; she was destitute.”

We cannot know what exactly made Whitney’s body give out, but she is part of a pattern that is too large to ignore. There is a body-ravaging norm of excess that is claiming too many music stars and a culture of enablers surrounding them who are comfortable looking the other way if they’re productive. Longevity has to do with good health and sometimes protecting someone from themselves is required. I’ll never forget talking to RZA about him watching Ol’ Dirty Bastard do crack shortly before his early death. RZA will spend the rest of his life wishing he’d done more to save his brother. If we do nothing, the entire music community will swell with more regretful RZAs and dead Ol’ Dirty Bastards.