Destruction and depravity is normalised in the transgressive world of rock’n’roll. Is it too late to reassess the human cost?
In 2000, Ian Winwood, a longstanding writer for hard rock magazine Kerrang! – was sent to interview an up-and-coming rock band. He liked them immediately, recognised their potential and struck up a friendship with them. He watched, delighted, from various degrees of proximity, as they rose in popularity – sold-out shows, platinum albums, a very real chance of breaking America – then looked on aghast as things started to go wrong. The lead singer became an egotistical liability, developing a drug problem that made him unreliable, alienated him from his bandmates and caused his teeth to start falling out. The size of the venues they played began to shrink, America turned its attentions elsewhere, relations between the singer and the rest of the band soured into violent altercations backstage. Their time in the sun was drawing to a close: some members began discussing splitting up, then possibly returning to catch a wave of nostalgia, playing their old hits as a “pension plan”.
That should have been that, but it wasn’t. The group were Lostprophets, the lead singer Ian Watkins. Before the band had the chance to split, he was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with minors and possession of indecent images of children and “extreme” animal pornography.
The saga of Ian Watkins is, by some distance, the most shocking in Bodies, a book filled with shocking stories. The details feel exceptionally ghastly, even by the grim standards of rock star depravity. But for Winwood, it’s also a telling story: Watkins’s bandmates and management were aware that he had problems, and had attempted to help, but had no idea how bad things actually were, because the problems they thought Watkins had were so commonplace within the music industry, where drug addiction and “gruelling and maddeningly dysfunctional behaviour” are normalised. “The reason the Lostprophets failed to identify the presence of something uniquely vile within their ranks,” he writes, “was because Ian Watkins could take his pick of routine ruinations behind which he could so easily hide.”
This is Bodies’ central thesis. The music industry has long allowed abnormal behaviour to become normalised, even celebrated. From Keith Richards to Kurt Cobain, fans tend to buy into a mythologising of addiction and illness, either enamoured by “the image of musician as outlaw” or some vague notion that “capable art should be underwritten by human suffering”. Behind this preposterously romantic, transgressive image lurks personal horror and tragedy, which Winwood recounts unsparingly, but with authentic empathy: the story of his own drink-and-drug fuelled collapse, which results in several stays in psychiatric hospitals, is woven through the book. There’s the bassist who severs a femoral artery while injecting drugs into his groin and watches as his toes turn black and drop off (his leg is later amputated); the grim fates that befell the frontmen of literally every major Seattle grunge band save Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder; the frail and oddly melancholy figure cut by Motörhead’s ostensibly defiant frontman Lemmy in his final years, with his evident regrets and his voice marked by “the aerosol-can rattle of someone thirsty for air”.
It’s a situation compounded by a noticeable lack of duty of care on the part of management and record companies. Bodies relates a number of incidents where an artist is pushed or feels impelled to work despite being clearly unwell, sometimes with terrible consequences. With the royalty split from streaming simultaneously filling record labels’ coffers while decimating musicians’ capacity to earn from recordings – labels earned £1bn from streaming last year, while an artist needs 7,343,157 streams per month just to generate the UK’s minimum wage – the only way to make money is to tour relentlessly. That means longer periods living in an unreal environment where drink and drugs are ever-present, bad behaviour is indulged and where, at the lower end of the ladder, working conditions sound enough to make even the most level-headed musician consider rendering themselves insensible. Bodies’ description of life on the Vans Warped Tour – a coast-to-coast travelling punk rock festival that Winwood calls “a working model of hell on earth” – is genuinely eye-popping, a brutal corrective to the idea that life in a band is infinitely less trying than a “proper job” and that everyone involved should stop whining and count their blessings. Finally tipped over the edge, one British band’s drummer attempts to stab their guitarist during an argument over a spilled beer. “That wasn’t out of the ordinary,” comments another band member. “That was normal behaviour … shit like that was happening all over the site.”
It should be a harrowing read, and it frequently is: that it doesn’t make you despair entirely is down to Winwood’s skill as a prose stylist. He makes a compelling argument and overturns some long-held notions about “rock and roll excess” by deftly tying together a vast amount of information – from first-hand accounts to interviews with psychologists – and liberally lacing it with dark, self-deprecating humour. It’s clearly a book with limitations: Winwood sticks with the world he knows best – heavy metal, hard rock and punk predominate – which means the vast majority of the interviewees are male and almost all are white. But what he’s saying seems universally applicable: there’s no way of telling directly from Bodies if things are different in, say, the world of hip-hop, but the mortality rate among young rappers strongly suggests they’re not.
It ends relatively happily, with its author sober, stable and married, and with some faint glimmers of hope on the horizon for the music world. The conversation about mental health has become more public in recent years, although Winwood notes sharply that the music industry’s willingness to have that conversation seems “contingent on it not interfering with the workings of an unjust business model”. It’s telling that the most pro-active organisation Bodies describes is a charity partly funded by musicians themselves, which plans to set up hubs in venues and provide a kind of mental health MOT to audience members and performers alike. Whether it works remains to be seen, but at least someone’s doing something.
Bodies: Life and Death in Music by Ian Winwood is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.