Live fast, drum faster.
Not long ago on social media I posted something on the Who’s Keith Moon, a rock drummer who aged too quickly and died too young at age 32. Moon’s sad demise and legendary drug and alcohol consumption serves the music world’s myth of romantic self-destruction.
Taylor Hawkins, the hard-hitting and smile-flashing drummer with the American rock band Foo Fighters, died on Friday in a hotel room in Bogota, Colombia. The Dave Grohl-led group was on a tour of South America. Hawkins was 50.
According to a statement from the Colombia Attorney General’s Office, preliminary toxicological tests showed a variety of psychoactive substances and medicines in Hawkins’ system. No official cause of death has been determined. The Colombian magazine Semana, citing unnamed authorities, reported that Hawkins, who complained of chest pains shortly before he died, was found to have a dramatically enlarged heart.
He had a history of drug use. A heroin overdose in 2001 left him in a coma.
Hawkins drummed for Canadian artists Sass Jordan and Alanis Morissette before his long stint with Foo Fighters. He was an athletic drummer with an extreme motor, revving high on stage and off. A rock star who embraced the hedonistic lifestyle offered to him on a platter, he was also known for gestures of sincere, simple humanness.
His own celebrity status notwithstanding, Hawkins was a joyous fanboy who showed deferential respect to musical heroes such as Rush drummer Neil Peart, who died of glioblastoma two years ago at age 67. At a Foo Fighters concert in Toronto in 2008, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist Geddy Lee of Rush joined Hawkins for a rendition of the Canadian prog-rock trio’s instrumental rock piece YYZ. Five years later, Grohl and Hawkins ushered Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with an induction speech that was as earnest as it was hilarious.
Suffice to say, we needn’t wait for the official autopsy report to tell us what is already clear: Hawkins had a big heart.
Like Secretariat, the champion racehorse whose heart was more than twice the average size, Hawkins was a physical marvel. Lean with gleaming white teeth, blond hair and a movie star’s jawline, he looked like God on a surfboard. As a drummer, he was built for the task at hand.
From 2005: An interview with Taylor Hawkins
After the announcement of Hawkins’ death, I had a long conversation with Hawksley Workman. Passive fans know Workman as a Juno-winning singer-songwriter, but he’s a talented sometimes-drummer who caught onto Hawkins early.
“I remember seeing Taylor with Sass and Alanis and thinking, ‘That’s the metabolism! Right there!’” Workman told me. “He had the classic concave belly and sinewy arms and veins in the neck, which are all the dead giveaways that you’re dealing with a hot pumping metabolism.”
One of the jokes in the 1984 rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap has to do with a drummer dying on stage because of human combustion – “a flash of green light, and that was it.” Drummers don’t die like that though. It takes time.
“The secret life of the touring drummer is that they burn three times the calories per day that everybody else does, but they also keep up in the party and sleeplessness departments,” Workman says. “The expiry dates are different from the rest of the band.”
And the expiry dates of rock stars are different from the rest of ours. Taking curves faster than we would ever dare, they are music’s Formula 1 drivers, living at an unhealthy velocity. Hard living is encouraged and prized in the music business. Young bands are paid in drink tickets; intoxicants for established acts are not hard to come by.
About Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, Pete Townshend of the Who once said that he existed on a “higher planet of decadence than anyone I would ever meet.” Shortly after Jones’s drowning at age 27 in 1969, Townshend wrote a short poem for him, published in the London Times. The gist of it was that a young Townshend had wanted to be like Jones, but that the guitarist’s untimely death changed his mind: “I decided,” Townshend wrote, “that I don’t want to die.”
But there’s also a line in the poem about dying being a “normal day” for Jones and for rock ‘n’ roll. Historically, there’s a sexiness to the tragic demise of rock stars. Hawkins himself told Kerrang! magazine in 2019 that he had bought into the “live hard and fast, die young” myth.
I have a sense that the fascination with the great sexy flame-outs doesn’t hold sway as it once did. Rock ‘n’ roll as a genre doesn’t hold sway as it once did either. Maybe those two trends are not unrelated.
Rock stars live dangerously so that we don’t have to. And die young too.
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