Andy Gill: In rock music's cruel lottery, living fast and dying young is for the lucky

Gerry Rafferty’s was a long, slow decline into the ravages of alcoholism, bereft of any tainted glamour
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The Independent Online

Unlike other, more normal jobs, the pop industry is built on incredible highs and unbearable lows.

Choose law, accountancy or medicine, and you know that, with diligent application and steady perseverance, you will one day reap the rewards of high office in your chosen profession. Become a plumber or mechanic, and you should still be able to buy your own home and put enough away for your retirement. But there is no pension plan in pop.

This was made evident by the sad death this week of songwriter Gerry Rafferty, which brought home once again the precarious nature of life in the pop industry. A far cry from more high-profile rock tragedies, Rafferty's was a long, slow decline into the ravages of alcoholism, bereft of the tainted glamour still surrounding the likes of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, who were lucky enough – if that's the appropriate term – to follow the showbiz stricture to "live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse".

It's this glamour, the siren promise of sudden fame and fortune, which lures the young and starstruck into a life fraught with jeopardy, a lottery in which only the lucky few ever win. Every time a star gets out of a limousine looking gorgeous, or a rapper brandishes their bling, that desire is ratcheted up, little by little, in the hearts of kids for whom "being famous" has come to be regarded as a career option in itself. It's there in all the TV talent-show footage of hopeless singers at whose ineptitude we are invited to guffaw: when Simon Cowell slams the guillotine down on their dreams of stardom, the crushing tragedy is instantly apparent in their faces. What are they to do now? This was their only hope, their ticket out of the yawning abyss of tedium they now envisage stretching in front of them.

It's there too in the rise of stage schools wherein the offspring of those who can afford it can acquire professional showbiz abilities and hone their raw talent. But that training is no guarantee of success, for the simple reason that pop is built on the fickle whims of public taste. If you're not in, you're nowhere at all. And that pressure never lets up. Quite the opposite: the more hits you've accrued, the higher the stakes become. When your last three singles all charted straight at No 1, for the fourth merely to make the top five must be a terrifying premonition of that inevitable moment when the public turns its back completely. It's a perilous existence of manic swings of exultation and disappointment, which can't help but inculcate something of a corresponding bipolar mentality in its practitioners. Hence the prevalence of drink and drugs in the industry.

Some pop stars get into booze and pills to magnify and extend the glorious euphoria of success, others to soften the pain of failure. And for many, it's just the done thing, part of The Life. Performing is an unusual profession with unusual hours: when punters head off home after a show, contented and ready for bed, the performers are still buzzing with adrenalin and ready to party for a few hours more. For a performer, no drug or sexual desire is as exhilarating as the high they get from an audience's acclaim, and they'll do anything to sustain that high, usually with cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol. Then a few hours later they'll require some form of downer to counteract that effect and enable them to sleep. That's the lifestyle that ultimately led to Hank Williams dying in the back seat of a Cadillac between gigs; to Elvis Presley's heart giving out on the toilet; to all the Joplins, Joneses, Jims and Jimis whose deaths helped to put the coffin lid on the hippie dream; and to many more performers you've never heard of, whose deaths represent the collateral damage of showbiz glamour.

For some, the pressure simply gets too much to bear. Kurt Cobain is the most obvious example, although his suicide was probably less to do with fear of failure than with a perception that his success involved an unbearable betrayal of his punk principles. And though it is unseemly to speculate too deeply on the psychological processes leading a person to suicide, it surely can't have helped someone like Adrian Borland, who threw himself under a train at Wimbledon station, that his band The Sound had suffered such a disparity between critical acclaim and commercial failure.

For others, indulgence in hallucinogenic drugs led to psychological problems that resulted in the temporary or permanent abandonment of their career. Fleetwood Mac leader Peter Green was perhaps the most sensitive and gifted guitarist of his generation, but a catastrophic series of LSD experiences led to him becoming a recluse who grew his fingernails so long he couldn't physically play a guitar; only in the late Nineties, after a quarter-century of silence, was he able to begin performing again.

In a different way, massive doses of LSD led Pink Floyd songwriter Syd Barrett to become lost in the world of childlike whimsy which marked his songs. And while the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson has returned to performance and recording in recent years, it is apparent to anyone attending his shows that the man is still bearing the scars of the problems that led him to retreat to his bed for several years at the height of the group's success. In all three cases, these men were the creative mainsprings of their respective bands, responsible for providing the raw material at the core of their success – in Wilson's case, writing and producing up to three albums' worth of songs a year. Small wonder that they all buckled under the pressure when drugs eroded the foundations of their coping mechanisms.

At least they survived their dark nights of the soul (though Barrett has since passed away). But even those whose deaths may be considered in some way glamorous, notorious or tragic – whether it's Gram Parsons overdosing on morphine in the Mojave Desert, or Tupac Shakur being shot in Las Vegas – might be said to have acquired a certain cachet in their passing. By contrast, there is nothing glamorous about the deaths of those who became victims of the pop lifestyle at its most quotidian level, through accidents while touring. Metallica's Cliff Burton was killed when the band's tour bus crashed, while a notable series of deaths – including those of Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Stevie Ray Vaughan and several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd – occurred in air crashes: in all cases, the violent suddenness of their deaths dispelled any sense of tragic glamour.

In Gerry Rafferty's case, there is likewise no redemptive sense of glamour, which is perhaps appropriate for a songwriter whose best-known works, "Baker Street" and "Stuck in the Middle", are marked by an almost existential sense of being marooned in the wrong place, stranded in a world beyond his control. Perhaps he was: we know so little about his life, both during and since his Seventies success, that it's hard to say. But if it's any consolation to Rafferty's family and friends, there is a sort of nobility in his being remembered for his work, rather than for his lifestyle.

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