Deadly Fentanyl Invades Rock Music’s Permissive Sanctuary
Rockers such as Tom Petty and Prince succumbed to Fentanyl, a drug accountable for 74,000 American deaths last year.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of acclaimed jazz drummer Elvin Jones, an integral part of saxophonist John Coltrane’s quartet that included McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison. One day, the story goes, Jones borrows Coltrane’s car and crashes it in a drug-induced stupor. This gets back to Coltrane and instead of firing Jones, he shrugs and says:
I can get another car, but not another Elvin Jones.
That’s one reason musicians use drugs: the good ones tend to be indispensable. They become immune to consequences. In Elvin Jones’ case, he was the only drummer who could keep up with the great John Coltrane.
Why Do So Many Musicians Use Drugs?
This is intuitively familiar to most. Starting out playing in bars and spending months on the road deny musicians a homespun, cozy existence that’s often a ticket to happiness. Having tons of downtime can often lead to drugs or alcohol filling the void. Musicians live in a world in which their fans assume drugs are part of the deal and thus transgressions are easily forgiven. Accountability gets lost.
Musicians use drugs because…they can. They are wizened people who have learned the lessons of Hendrix and Joplin and know when to let up.
That might not be good enough today.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, was created in a lab in 1959–no poppy fields required. It is estimated that Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, as the above photo illustrates. The sparse amount in a dose means that even the most experienced drug user can underrate its potency. Naturally, this leads to overdoses and death, for which Fentanyl can claim top prize.
Even as medical advances lengthen people’s lives (90 is the new 60!), Fentanyl is the decisive factor in causing US life expectancy to decline to its lowest level since 1996. One sobering statistic: Fentanyl was responsible for one-third of deaths among Americans 25-34 in 2022.
To make the high last longer, Fentanyl is often mixed with xylazine, a powerful animal tranquilizer that goes by the street name of “Tranq.” Importantly, Tranq is not an opiate although it binds to the same brain receptors as an opiate, making withdrawal an even more living hell. Tranq also causes hideous skin lesions, mostly at the site of injection.
It is now common to add Fentanyl to popular drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine. This has deadly consequences when done without the user’s knowledge. Drug users are now rolling the dice every time they inject.
Pain of the Road
Musicians are touring more than ever, “because that’s where the money is,” Harold Owens, senior director of MusiCares, told Rolling Stone. “So they go off on these long tours, and physically it’s horrible. They’re not eating right or taking care of themselves.”
Guitarist Bonnie Raitt explained, “We’re older and people are starting to have carpal tunnel and injuries from playing. It’s very difficult to not take pain meds.”
One last tour, to mark his 40th anniversary with the Heartbreakers. 19 venues spanning April through September, 2017. Tom Petty would not let a fractured left hip deter him. So he wore a Fentanyl patch and used a golf cart to putter around backstage. A week after his final performance, Tom Petty, 66, was dead.
The medical examiner reportedly found three derivatives of Fentanyl in Petty’s system, including Acetyl Fentanyl, which has not been approved for medical use in the US. How did illicit Fentanyl get into Tom’s pain meds?
Here is a clip of Tom Petty’s last concert at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, 2017. This poignant performance of “Wildflowers” is published by HawksAndDoves (in a front-row seat) via YouTube:
A year and a half before Petty’s untimely demise, rock legend Prince, 57, was found dead in an elevator at his Paisley Park studio in suburban Minneapolis. The cause of death was Fentanyl toxicity. Found nearby was a bottle of Vicodin, a common painkiller, that had been laced with Fentanyl. “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea that he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him,” remarked County prosecutor Mark Metz. It’s still unclear how Prince obtained the drug.
Prince was a dynamic performer with a penchant for stage theatrics like jumping off piled-high speakers. It obviously took its toll: He reportedly became addicted to opiates in 2010 after undergoing hip surgery. Six years later, a true music icon was no longer.
Mourning Roll Call
The deaths of high-profile musicians from Fentanyl poisoning are clustered between 2009 and 2022, not coincidentally a period when Fentanyl infiltrated the opiate drug supply across America. Here is a partial list: Jay Bennett (Wilco), age 45, 2009; Coolio (rapper), 59, 2022; DMX (rapper), 50, 2021; Phil Gray (Slipknot), 38, 2010; Lil Peep (rapper), 21, 2017; Mac Miller (rapper), 26, 2018; Tom Petty, 66, 2017; Prince, 57, 2016; and Matt Roberts (3 Doors Down), 38, 2016.
Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) discerns two encouraging trends in the existential battle against opiate abuse. One is the imminent deluge of settlement money paid by errant pharmaceutical companies that will be earmarked for expanding drug treatment programs. The other is ensuring better access to Naloxone, the overdose-reversing miracle device recently approved for over-the-counter purchase.
It’s not certain whether Naloxone could have saved Tom Petty’s or Prince’s lives. Both accidentally overdosed all alone. But it just might have given them a fighting chance.