Pete Townshend didn’t die before he got old as he’d hoped. Here’s why
by Oliver James
The Who’s Pete Townsend famously sang “Hope I die before I get old”. He didn’t, but fellow band member Keith Moon did.
“What a drag it is getting old,” drawled Mick Jagger, but it was Brian Jones who died young. David Bowie brilliantly explored what it would be like to be a rock’n’roll suicide. He lives on.
What marks out the pop stars who die prematurely from the ones who do not?
A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) provides some answers. It proves for the first time that it is not the fame that makes one prone to emotional problems, it is mostly childhood maltreatment and adversity.
The crucial finding was that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) – experiences like parental divorce or maltreatments like emotional neglect or abuse were the main cause of premature death – and a key factor is that they increase substance abuse. Twice as many of the stars who died from substance abuse had at least one ACE compared with those who died of other causes.
This is exactly what studies of the general population would predict. Having four or more adverse experiences makes you seven times more liable to abuse alcohol and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide.
The BMJ study accords with a wider and still little-known fact: the Human Genome Project finds that differences in DNA explain very little of why people suffer the vast majority of illnesses, both mental and physical – 5-10% at most. Childhood adversity is emerging as the main cause of mental illness.
The BMJ study also provides potent reasons to discourage young people from believing that fame in itself is a desirable goal. We already know that people who place too high a value on money and fame are more at risk of mental illness. The BMJ study provides further scientific reasons for government to consider our new obsession with fame as a public health issue. Its authors conclude that “pursuing a career as a rock or pop musician may itself be a risky strategy and one attractive to those escaping from abusive, dysfunctional or deprived childhoods”.
We have created a society in which far too many people suffer such childhoods. Growing numbers of children aspire to pop stardom; those who do so are more likely to have had high numbers of adverse experiences. The case for meeting of the needs of children gets ever more persuasive.
Oliver James is the author of Love Bombing – reset your child’s emotional thermostat