Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Death, drugs and rock 'n' roll: What makes a music star flame out?

Whitney Houston strikes a pose during her performance at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Monday, April 10, 2000.


Even in at the height of the drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll era, when the heady 1960s slurred into the excessive 1970s, Burton Cummings had a limit.

Sure, he had a reputation for partying on tour with the Guess Who. But he also knew he couldn't stay up all night, every night, as some other musicians and hangers-on could. It's the gospel that singers – if they want their careers to survive – try to abide by: The voice has to have rest, or it will be destroyed.

The vulnerabilities of musicians to substance abuse is a subject on the mind of the Canadian rock 'n' roller after the sudden death of singer Whitney Houston, 48, on Feb. 11. While there has yet to be an official announcement of the cause of her death, it was widely known that Houston's career had been largely destroyed by drug use despite her having sought treatment several times in the past decade. And just six months ago, superstar singer Amy Winehouse, only 27, died of alcohol poisoning.

Story continues below advertisement

"Of course it's sad that's Whitney's gone, but I don't think the world was all that surprised and shocked," Burton said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles this week.

What makes a music star succumb to substance abuse? While every situation is different, experts point to certain commonalities among those facing the problem. A growing sense of entitlement, a non-stop schedule and entourages whose interests often revolve around maintaining a substance-fuelled status quo, all can bear down on artists. Along with those factors, fame often creates the formation of a hermetically sealed environment around the performer where problems can fester. And criss-crossing the world on what can seem like a non-stop tour just ramps up the dangers.

"We all keep ourselves sane in different ways," Cummings said. "The road to me is a big grind, it's hard."

Separating yourself from people and environments where drugs and alcohol are prevalent is a necessity for a start. Singer Chaka Khan, a friend of Houston's who has struggled with alcohol and drugs herself, says she would have never arrived in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards parties and functions so many days before the actual awards show. (Houston was found dead in her Beverly Hilton hotel room the day before the Grammy Awards.)

"Whoever flew her out [to attend a party held by recording-industry mogul Clive Davis]should have provided someone to be there, to somehow just keep the riff-raff out of the situation. Just keep some of the dangerous people away," Khan said in a CNN interview.

But what if a singer can't separate herself from the same people or environment that bred her addiction? Then the trick is to create a clear strategy to alter the situation, said Dennis James, a psychologist and deputy clinical director of the addictions program at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

"So a performer might make arrangements to meet somebody who is supportive right after their performance, and they do something that is different than using [drugs or alcohol]" James said. "Rather than avoiding, it's 'How do I cope with this?' "

Story continues below advertisement

A heightened sense of entitlement can make this more difficult. As Harry Haroutunian, physician director of the Betty Ford Center near Palm Springs, Calif., said, it's the feeling that, "I need to do this. I don't need to go by the rules. I'm above the law. I can master my own environment. I can obtain anything and everything that I need or require."

Add to that the star's ability to pay exorbitant fees, sometimes to a number of physicians at once, or to one unscrupulous doctor, Haroutunian said. On the road, this is easy. A musician who can't sleep or feels achy gets prescribed a painkiller that can often be some form of highly addictive opiate. One city leads to the next, and one doctor to another: The addiction can start unwittingly.

"You can get into this sheltered world where doctors will do anything for you," said Cummings. At 64, he's a highly successful survivor of rock 'n' roll's heyday, and still singing.

"Nobody can ever say, 'Hey Cummings, you didn't party!' " he added, admitting, "I do look after myself much better now."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at