on musicians who ruined their careers (and lives) with “reckless behavior”

A YOUNGER MEMBER of Quora—meaning sig­nif­i­cantly younger than me—asked me to an­swer the ques­tion, “Which mu­si­cians ru­ined their ca­reers with their reck­less be­havior?” Quora is the place I seem to get rather easily dragged into on an al­most daily basis, gen­er­ally an­swering ques­tions about Elvis. This ques­tion was more gen­eral but ac­tu­ally en­com­passed Presley.

The ques­tion is a little vague, so I re­sponded by taking a bit of li­cense in how in­ter­preted it. My an­swer is also gen­eral: re­place “mu­si­cian” with any other vo­ca­tion you can think of (ath­lete, doctor, politi­cian, actor, nov­elist, po­lice of­ficer, etc.) and it works, if not quite as dra­mat­i­cally as with musicians.

My an­swer is in­dented be­tween the two im­ages below.


TheWho Tommy US DXSW 600

The Who’s land­mark two-record album TOMMY, which not only el­e­vated them from being a “mere” sin­gles band to an album group that the more se­rious rock fan could take more se­ri­ously but also res­cued them from years of fi­nan­cial insecurity.

Causes of reckless behavior

Steven Re­ichert (and I’m using your name here, young sir, be­cause I tie you—or at least your pro­file photo on Quora—into my an­swer at the end of my an­swer) asked me to ad­dress the ques­tion, “Which mu­si­cians ru­ined their ca­reers with their reck­less be­havior?” That’s a pretty wide open ques­tion, so I will make it a wee bit more specific:

1.  For “mu­si­cians” we in­clude mu­si­cians in the more pop­ular forms of music (jazz, blues, country, folk, rock, and pop—the un­fa­mous along with the fa­mous) but not mu­si­cians as­so­ci­ated with or­ches­tral music.


Damn it all and blow it all! Who thought I would fall a slave to demon al­cohol? 1


2.  For “ru­ined” we mean every­thing from crashing their ca­reer and turning them­selves into overnight has-beens (like, who re­mem­bers them, right?) to de­railing the arc of a suc­cessful ca­reer for sev­eral years but even­tu­ally get­ting back on track (Brian Wilson is an ex­treme ex­ample, de­railing one of the most suc­cessful ca­reers in pop music for more than twenty years) to ac­tu­ally killing them­selves (Brian Jones, Jim Mor­rison, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, etc). 2

3.  For “reck­less be­havior” we in­clude not only the overt be­havior that gets them banned or ar­rested or kicked out of a group, but also the pri­mary causes of that reck­less be­havior, in­cluding the evils of ex­ces­sive al­cohol and drug use. (And what’s more reck­less than overindulging in ei­ther?) 3

So if you were to write a 10-page bi­og­raphy of each jazz, blues, country, folk, rock, and pop mu­si­cian who ru­ined his ca­reer with al­cohol or drug-fueled crazi­ness, and you were to com­pile these mini-biographies into 500-page books (fifty artists per book), and you started writing im­me­di­ately, I doubt that I would live long enough to see all the books you would turn out!

Hell, Steven, maybe you wouldn’t live long enough to com­plete those books, and you look pretty young to this old fart!

The causes of reck­less be­havior among mu­si­cians all too often in­clude the evils of ex­ces­sive al­cohol and drug use. Click To Tweet

TheWho posed 1969 SteveWood 1000

FEATURED IMAGE: Pete Townsend, John En­twistle, Keith Moon, and Roger Daltry—The Who, 1969, making rock & roll his­tory by playing the en­tirety of their two-record, 75-minute album TOMMY on stage. Look how young and beau­tiful they were!

I chose The Who for this place of promi­nence to focus at­ten­tion on Keith Moon: he was per­haps the most en­er­getic, in­no­v­a­tive, and just plain en­ter­taining and en­joy­able drummer in all of rock.

Alas, he was also one of the most self-destructive people in rock with a rep­u­ta­tion for dis­man­tling en­tire hotel and motel rooms. Much of it was fu­eled by an ever-increasing con­sump­tion of alcohol.

By the time of his death at the oh-so-young age of 32 in 1978, the lean young man with the baby-face above was paunchy and looked decades older. For more on Moon the Loon, give “What Re­ally Hap­pened the Night Keith Moon Died?” by Mark Blake a read.



1   From the lyrics to the song Demon Al­cohol by Ray­mond Dou­glas Davies: “Oh, demon al­cohol, sad mem­o­ries I can’t re­call. Who thought I would say, ‘Damn it all and blow it all’? Oh, demon al­cohol, mem­o­ries I can’t re­call. Who thought I would fall a slave to demon alcohol?”

2   In 1966, Brian Wilson was ar­guably the single most cre­ative and po­tent force in the world of pop music. By 1968, he was a has-been. By 1970, he was a recluse seem­ingly hell-bent on self-destruction. Since then, he made the most re­mark­able come­back since Elvis in 1968. and in 2018 is among the most revered mu­si­cians in the world. Hope­fully, he’s also among the most content.

3   Tech­ni­cally, the pri­mary causes of reck­less be­havior are not the drugs and the booze, but the un­der­lying causes of the abuse, such as stag­gering in­se­cu­rity, chronic de­pres­sion, and other emotional/personality dis­or­ders and mal­adies. But that’s an­other story …


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It would be hard to find a better ex­ample than Lenny Breau, a gui­tarist’s gui­tarist, when it comes to self de­struc­tive be­hav­iour. I sus­pect that it has some­thing to do with their per­son­ality. Al­though the dele­te­rious im­pact of all of the “hangers-on” who, like lam­prey eels, at­tach them­selves to people in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dustry, should never be un­der­es­ti­mated. Duane Allman might be a close second when I think about it.…and then there was Bill Evans. Gene Lees (a friend) de­scribed Bill’s struggle with drugs as “the longest sui­cide in history”.

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