On Nov. 15, 21-year-old Lil Peep — a fast-rising rap artist and one of the most popular acts on SoundCloud — was found dead in his hotel room in Tucson, Ariz., of an apparent overdose of Xanax. (An investigation is pending).
Peep’s is the latest in a string of high-profile musician deaths connected to addiction and mental illness. In May, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, 52, committed suicide by hanging himself after struggling for years with substance abuse. Two months later, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington — a close friend of Cornell’s — hanged himself at the age of 41, on the day that would’ve been Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Prince was found dead of an opioid overdose at his Paisley Park home in Minneapolis in April 2016 at the age of 57, and Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland, 48, died of an accidental overdose in late 2015.
Often sensitive by nature, surrounded by sycophants and isolated for long stretches on the road, musicians can have their mental health issues compounded by the drinking and drug use that pervades their worlds. Their suicide rate is about three times the national average, according to research by Steve Stack, director of the Center for Suicide Research and a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.
But the wave of tragic headlines has overshadowed some encouraging trends. The music industry is offering more resources than ever to help its own cope with mental illness and addiction, while its top executives and artists are increasingly leading by example.
“I don’t think many of the elder statesmen get too high anymore,” says Sony/ATV Music Publishing vice president Neil Lasher, who, at the Grammy Awards in 1997, helped launch the industry’s first “Safe Harbor Room,” a backstage 12-step meeting. (He covered bottles of alcohol in the designated bar area with bedsheets.) Since then, that sober gathering space has been replicated at an array of other awards shows and conferences, and festivals from Coachella to Lollapalooza.
The list of music icons who’ve committed to recovery, meanwhile, reads like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: Such artists as Trent Reznor, Billy Joel, Elton John, members of Aerosmith and Pearl Jam, Flea and Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ian Astbury of The Cult, Pete Townshend, Ringo Starr, Johnny Marr and the late David Bowie all embraced sobriety at crucial times in their lives, often followed by emphatic comebacks in their careers.
Even infamous party animals like Joe Walsh, Billy Idol, Moby and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Duff McKagan have thrived after adopting the 12-step approach to staying clean of drugs, alcohol and other addictions.
“I tell people we’re in the business of facilitating recovery,” says Harold Owens, who helps lead The Recording Academy’s MusiCares foundation in addressing substance abuse, addiction and recovery in the music business. During the past 13 years, the organization has provided close to $10 million in assistance to nearly 3,000 people in need of help.'”
Sitting inside his office tucked in the southwest wing of The Recording Academy’s sleek headquarters in West Los Angeles earlier this year, Owens, a certified addiction counselor and recovering opioid addict, said he had been working closely with Bennington on maintaining his sobriety before his suicide, while attempting to reach out to younger sobriety ambassadors who could connect with artists in genres like hip-hop and dance music.
While his job sometimes means helping addicts find financial support for medical bills, “other times it’s about getting someone into treatment — getting them spiritually connected with other people and bringing them back to life,” says Owens, who once dabbled in music and who himself exudes a low-key rock-star vibe. “My own recovery was a rebirth of sorts, and we get to see the light turned on with a lot of people.”
MusiCares has raised money through its annual benefit concert, which in 2017 honored U2 bassist Adam Clayton for his personal and philanthropic commitment to sobriety. “This is the first time I’ve received an award for not doing something,” joked Clayton in front of the crowd at New York’s PlayStation Theater in June. (Clayton followed previous honorees like Ozzy Osbourne and 2016 award winner Smokey Robinson.)
After hitting rock bottom — famously missing a U2 concert in Sydney after an extreme binge — Clayton was encouraged by Eric Clapton to seek help. Clapton, who has discussed his recovery from heroin and alcohol in his biography and numerous interviews, even started his own recovery clinic, Crossroads, in Antigua, for which he holds all-star benefit concerts every year.
“After two particularly heavy benders where I really thought I’d blown it, Eric Clapton reached out to me,” recalls Clayton. “He was on the end of a phone with some tough love. He said, ‘You have to get into a treatment center now. You’ve got to give up drink, and your life will change.’”
The music business has a growing number of sobriety gurus, such as artist manager Jeff Jampol, whose clients range from the estate of Michael Jackson to blues legend Muddy Waters. A trained addiction counselor and intervention leader, Jampol is president of the board of Impact, the acclaimed treatment center in Pasadena, Calif., where he was finally able to start his own path to recovery.
Another leader is artist manager Michael McDonald, whose clients have included John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne. Now the board chairman of MusiCares, McDonald began his journey to sobriety when he contacted the organization seeking help for his alcoholism, which had grown out of control and potentially threatened his status within the inner circle of his then-employer, the Dave Matthews Band.
“I actually used MusiCares’ Musicians Assistance Program to get sober,” says McDonald. “They provided two group therapy sessions a week. Eighteen years later, I’m sober.”
Sobriety has become so common among music’s top ranks that some non-sober executives say they have started to feel left out by what some call the “sober mafia.”
Starr is among the regulars of an exclusive, invitation-only 12-step meeting held every Monday in Beverly Hills, which one music producer who attended likened to “a secret society,” while a major-label veteran even recalled struggling recently to relate to her openly sober boss as well as her sober colleagues did. “I felt like I could never get his attention,” she says.
But Jampol says he embraces the term “sober mafia” as a sign that “recovery has become part of the zeitgeist.”
“There is a language we all speak in relating to each other as addicts, which can cut through the bullshit,” says Jampol. “I’m just happy to see that we have this overall support, and an intrinsic, entrenched community that’s growing every day.”