Why Do Great Artists Die So Young?

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Think about your favorite artists, the ones that have changed your life.

Now, think about how many of those artists had their lives cut short.  Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G…. even Mozart died in his 30s.  And, earlier this week, we learned that Nate Dogg passed away at 41, still ‘tender’ in the grand scheme of things.

Sure, Nate Dogg’s legacy will live a few tiers below the aforementioned greats.  But that’s not the point.  Because premature deaths are incredibly common in the music world, especially for talented performers and genius artists.  And there seem to be a million explanations for why that is.

Just think about the range of killers.  Often they are drug-related, or the result of some tragic inability to cope with fame or emotional issues.  Cobain preferred suicide over the glare; Eazy-E overindulged and ultimately succumbed to complications related to AIDS.  And in the case of a rapper like Tupac, the reasons stemmed from an extremely violent rap subculture, one that also claimed B.I.G. and other rappers as well.

But is there something ruinous about fame, or a self-destructive shadow that accompanies incredible musical talent?  Just yesterday, Dave Dederer of HP – and formerly of the Presidents of the United States of America – suggested that superstars are completely different than you or me; they have this insatiable and pathological appetite for fame, recognition, and big-scale creative expression.  And those distorted desires go hand-in-hand with extremely self-destructive habits, relationships, and impulses.

But the truly gifted, creative mind can also be the tortured mind.  It lives outside of the mainstream, and it screams for anything but normality or a 9-to-5.  It goes on the road for months, and it can also crave drugs, escape, and self-destruction.  In fact, on these very comment boards, executives sometimes complain about flaky and erratic artists, while managers often find themselves playing babysitter for the geniuses they represent.

But tragic endings aside, the question is whether most of these artists had already delivered their greatest works before passing away.  Michael Jackson was 50, and it seems hard to believe that another Thriller or Off the Wall was in the works.  And one classical afficionado even felt that Mozart had already delivered his most fantastic work upon his incredibly premature departure.

Sadly, it seems that the most memorable work oftentimes comes from personalities that ultimately implode.  And it may all be intertwined.  Because the Jim Morrison that lives to 80 is a different person entirely, and perhaps too saddled with practicality and moderation to create the same lasting art.

Paul Resnikoff, publisher.  Written while listening to the Doors.