Washington Think Tank: When Should A Sick Musician Stop Playing Shows?

Facing mortality on the main stage.

Death is the ultimate sensitive subject. Is is something we all will experience, both with our loved ones and with ourselves. No matter the gender, race, religion, creed, social status or beliefs, the inevitably of death eventually finds us all. We all deal with this undeniable fact in different ways, but there is always an underlying fear. For some, it’s the fear of physical pain at the point of death. For others, it’s the fear of the unknown of what comes next. For people like myself, it’s the fear (and sadness) of missing out on things when you’re gone. Facing your own mortality is incredibly difficult and, in some ways, facing the mortality of your heroes can be just as hard. For that, I pose the question to you: When should a sick musician stop playing shows?

I have been thinking of posing this question ever since Lemmy from Motorhead’s health problems became apparent. For weeks, we kept hearing about Lemmy struggling through sets, often times having to end the show very early because it was just too difficult to carry on. It was gut-wrenching to see a beloved musical icon suffer on a literal public stage in front of thousands of fans live and millions on via the internet. Did that prevent people from still going to the shows? No, of course not. In a perverse way, it encouraged people to go because it became entirely possible that each Motorhead show could have been their last.

There is a twisted romantic notion of a musician dying on stage. The idea of someone giving their all one last final time in front of a screaming sold-out show, the final notes serving as the final heart beats of legend going out on top. We know that’s not the case as real life can be far more devastating and shocking. Former Megadeth drummer Nick Menza‘s sudden death on stage while drumming for the band Ohm proves that there are no so-called fireworks, no final glorious swan song. If it happened at a huge summer festival or to someone of Lemmy’s stature, the video would be played ad naseum on every two-bit cable news station and half-baked “Top 10 Concert Tragedies” Youtube video for years to come.

Do we as fans have the responsibility to encourage sick musicians to take a break? Fans will almost always be a selfish lot. We always want the band to come to our town, to play the songs we like, and to spend time with us. The proliferation of social media websites have brought the fans even closer to their favorite bands and musicians. With a few clicks you can hear clips of songs still being written, see what your favorite guitarist is eating for lunch, or even ask the band a direct question you may never get the chance to ask in person.

Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi were both diagnosed with cancer and have since both gone into remission. Both just played a slew of dates this summer with Iron Maiden set to do a 27-date tour of Europe in the Fall. Either one of them could have stopped playing live for an extended period to deal with their illnesses. Unfortunately, many musicians cannot simply stop playing live in order to get well. Financial struggles and a lack of quality health insurance are all too real for working musicians and it only gets harder with age.

Does the sick musician have a responsibility to get better or to get on stage and entertain while they still can? Do we as fans have a responsibility to say “Take a break, get better, and we’ll see you when you’re ready”? Is it time for fellow musicians and fans to start a fund that will help sick musicians in need? I don’t know if there is a good answer to any of these questions, but as time goes on and the legends of our genre move on into their Golden Years, it may fall on us to come up with the workable solutions.

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Published on: September 14, 2016

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  • Lacertilian
  • Lacertilian

    On a more serious note though, I think this is a really interesting topic.

    Ultimately, as fans I think we’re often (at the very least partially) blinded by our prior feelings for the band in question. If it is a band I don’t like, I often find myself criticising them for continuing on after some sort of health scare, tour incident, or simply based on their age (“They’re just cashing in” etc.).

    Whereas if I love the band, I’m greedy and almost always would prefer them to keep making music or touring. (“They’re doing what they love, who am I to tell them how to live?“).

  • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

    Lemmy’s descent was long overdue. I’m still amazed he made it as far as he did. Bruce and Tony had cancer, got it taken care of and are doing great for their respective ages.

  • Scrimm

    Maiden did take last year off playing live so Bruce could rest up. Smart choice.

    • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

      And of course they could afford to.

      • Scrimm

        Almost added “for those that are able”

  • Howard Dean
  • It’s all about will power. I don’t think any fan will convince a musician to stop playing music ever. I’ve been sick for close to 4 months now and playing music is one of the few things that keeps me some what optimistic and sane. I may not be as strong as I was before I was sick, but it still gets me through a shitty part of my life. I don’t think I could tour in my condition though. That’s a whole different story. There is a point when a musician needs to call it quits though. Neil Peart recently did this. It’s sad, but goddamn what a run. I don’t want to see a musician struggle his/her way through a set honestly. But like I said. Will power is a bitch.

  • Jack Rabbit

    While off course people should not risk their health in order to play live, it is seen as an escape by many. If they weren’t playing live, they may be just sitting at home contemplating if their disease may get worse and how much time they have. They say your mental strength is essential in beating any major illness, and if playing live provides stability for some, they should keep doing it.

    • Eliza

      If playing shows worsens their condition, they shouldn’t. I’m sure they could find other ways of coping with the illness.

    • Señor Jefe El Rosa

      I believe it really is the musician’s decision. Like Tyree said, the music is a release for him, if playing actually helps an artist out and cope with their situation then by all means they should as long as the have the will power to know when and when not to do so. It also is rather dependent on their situation. As Link mentioned, Becerra is in a wheelchair but he’s having a blast. But other more severe cases need to be heeded.

  • “Unfortunately, many musicians cannot simply stop playing live in order
    to get well. Financial struggles and a lack of quality health insurance
    are all too real for working musicians and it only gets harder with age”. This is a very on-point argument, Zombie, and you are very right to say it.

    I can imagine that health insurance in general must cost a fortune in First World countries, too, and since touring musicians face so many dangers on the live show and off-stage, they should have a backup to those issues. I remember that one metal musician of Venezuela tried to make a syndicate for musicians on the country based on this same claim.

    Sadly, most of the bands we love over here does not gain enough money to protect themselves with health programs, and I honestly can’t think of a better system right now. Meanwhile, I can only encourage you all to support their likeable artists funding their products like it should be.

    On the main topic of the Zombie’s article: I think the musicians are the only one to know when to stop doing the live settings. Jeff Becerra, for example, is still doing Possessed in wheel chair and he must been having a blast on stage, besides being a worthwhile thing to notice for curious people and metalheads. Everyone knows their limits and how they will cross it or get back on it.

    Good questions, 365.

    • Dude, Becerra. I really need to see Possessed live both for the bucket list and to see a dude in a wheelchair belt some nasty tunes.

  • Janitor Jim Duggan

    Dick Dale is the exception. He has to keep touring to afford his medical bills or he will die.

    • But he also need to rest so the medicine makes it effect. That’s so weird.

    • Sir Tapir The Based

      79 and still doing shows. He’ll be fine.

      • Janitor Jim Duggan

        I’m sure he’ll be here for a few more years.

    • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

      We all have to die. Satan wills it.

    • Ayreonaut

      My man

  • Señor Jefe El Rosa

    When it comes to health, I feel that musicians owe fans absolutely nothing. I have no problem with a band taking a break or calling it quits for health problems. Does it suck? Yeah, it does. Is their life more important than my entertainment? Yes, very much so. I would much rather have a musician alive, well and not making music, than watching them degrade in front of my eyes.

    • I subscribe to this side.

    • Eliza

      I find it hard to believe that there people ot there who would get angry that an artist decided to cancel shows in favour of getting treatment, but nothing is impossible.

      • Señor Jefe El Rosa

        People are dumb.

        • Eliza

          That’s sadly true.

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain
          • This song slowed down is heavy as fuck.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXP4FMtUZ4g

          • Señor Jefe El Rosa

            I listened to all of Kill em All and Ride the Lightning like this. It was awesome

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            Yeah, I’ve heard this before. Youtube is full of scary shit.

          • Youtube can be like the deep web sometimes.

          • Señor Jefe El Rosa
          • Still terrible!

          • Señor Jefe El Rosa

            GL PLZ! YOU KNOW REIGN IN BLOOD IS A CLASSIC!!!

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            A terrible classic.

          • Ted Nü-Djent ™

            That’s a paddlin’

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            Paddle me! Oh paddle me, master!

          • MEH.

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            I prefer Hell Awaits to Reign, but yes classic.

          • more beer

            As do I.

          • Señor Jefe El Rosa

            Not saying its their best, but it is undeniably a classic

          • Always.

          • Óðinn

            Both excellent albums, yes.

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            You don’t like Slayer?

          • Eh, they are not for me. Kinda generic sounding, busy. I am sure if I was there when released I would think differently. I am just out to be rustling. lol

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            Well, you could say that about any band that was around or peaked before your existence. It’s easy to right shit off, that you didn’t experience when fresh.

          • Óðinn

            Yup. Reign in Blood was a game-changer when it was released.

          • Not being a massive poser would probably give you a different outlook on their music. Just sayin’.

          • I struggle to identify with one specific group of things both in music and in regular life. I am a rural guy who works as a professional in the city with the highfalutin suburbanites, who loves metals. The meshing of work, home, and family relations is pretty diverse. My taste for music is nonetheless as confusing/difficult.

          • Don’t give me serious responses, that makes it harder to mess around.

          • k, bb. 🙂

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            Also, don’t you like Dokken, who I assume predate your existence?

          • Eh, yeah know, I enjoy them. I am not about to fly to Japan to see them, but yeah, I enjoy hot licks/riffs. lol

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            Well, I wouldn’t assume you would, but you seemed to like them an awful lot more, than “eh”.

          • Well I really dig Tooth and Nail and Under Lock and Key, select other tunes were decent from Back for the Attack, otherwise “meh”.

          • Didn’t you like Cattle Decap and Gojira at one point? I’m just trying to figure out what you like.

          • I am a fan of both Decap and Gojira, yes.

          • Ted Nü-Djent ™

            Say what you will about Slayers discography but everything they released up to and including Seasons In The Abyss is a stone cold classic. I recommend you revisit those

          • Óðinn

            Agreed.

          • Ted Nü-Djent ™

            Not to mention Haunting The Chapel and Live Undead EP’s

          • ME GORAK™ GORAK SMASH™

            STILL TERRIBLY GOOD!!!!!!!!!!! STILL REIGNING!!!!!!!

          • Óðinn

            I have to agree with you GORAK.

          • Óðinn

            Fantastic! Very OSDM.

          • Señor Jefe El Rosa

            I’m glad someone appreciates it?

          • Óðinn
          • Señor Jefe El Rosa

            You did my dirty work, you scapegoat

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            Derp.

        • Lol.

  • more beer

    Personally I think it is better to keep your memories of when a musician was in their prime. Rather than go see them when they are sick and a only a shell of their former self. I passed on going and seeing Motorhead at Riot Fest last year. I couldn’t really bear to see Lemmy in that shape. They had to cancel anyway. I instead chose to see DRI that night and got a 3 hour set, where they played pretty much everything.

    • Tampaxon, Flusher Of Gods

      I wouldn’t have gone either. For the facts you just stated, and plus you know, judging from how bad off Lemmy looked, that there would be non-fans trolling about in there waiting to get a photo of him dead onstage to sell off to TMZ or some other trash rag.

  • Eliza

    When a musician starts having problems performing on stage and has to cancel shows, as was the case with Lemmy, I think, no matter to whom this is happening, it best to take care and receive medication. The possibility of finding a cure for the disease equals a chance to further pursue what it is that you want.

  • When should a sick musician stop playing shows?

    I think it goes without saying that a person will do what a person wants to do. With regards to musicians, the person surely will know that their performance has the potential to suffer if they are ill, but I guess that is a personalized risk one must assess. Seems as though older musicians are more likely to have die-hard fans that will likely not be dissuaded by lacking performances due to illness. Given the age we live in, fans will likely know if an artist is performing poorly (i.e Marilyn Manson, dude needs help, not completely relevant, sorry), so it will not likely come as a surprise if the show is lack luster.

    *puts tin foil zzzzzzzzz branded hat on*

    B

  • Ideally, anyone playing music should take advantage of all the other contacts they make with labels, promoters, media, art etc. and get a slice of that as well. This way your sole source of income is not entirely dependent on performing live and you have something to fall back on. Gotta have a plan B.

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    Gotta take care of your health, else your health will take care of you. All there is to it.

  • Count_Breznak

    What better way to go for a musician than on stage, while performing ?

  • Óðinn

    Lemmy played until he died. I’m pretty sure he was okay with that.

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-TwSHAhwVIGg/T97mQZh1YgI/AAAAAAAAAY0/6y7EeEhsVVM/s640/Lemmy.jpg

  • Waynecro

    If I were a sick old musician, I doubt I’d be able to summon up any fucks to give about what the fans think about how I should handle my illness. I’d probably be most concerned about the financial ramifications of taking time off.

  • InfinityOfThoughts

    I play bass in a local Boston death metal band and I’ve been on stage with a cold. That’s fine. But if you’re SICK, got the fucking flu or worse or injured, dude, don’t perform. There will be more shows and you’re health is more important.

  • Ayreonaut

    Dude Gregg Allman still plays. And that man has done more drugs in his lifetime than entire countries have access to

  • Óðinn
  • Tampaxon, Flusher Of Gods

    Dick Dale’s still doing shows after 15 years of being sick (rectal cancer, on top of having parts of his stomach and intestines removed, diabetes and back damage), if you don’t mind him having to change his colostomy bag during parts of the set here and there. His main thing is that he has no other way to pay his medical bills, plus the fact that he simply loves to play. He’s literally playing to stay alive.

  • OldMetalHead

    I didn’t see this mentioned, but the list of musicians that play well past when they sound good is long irrespective of the ones who are playing sick. I think if you’re watching a band who’s past their prime you need to take that into account.

    For example, went with my son to a Motley Crue show years ago, Vince Neil sounded like shit (I saw Motley in 1983, and they slayed). Went to see Black Sabbath last year, they were great…So, I say leave it up to the individual musician whether they play sick, but as a fan do your homework.

  • Óðinn

    I think musicians should stop playing if they suck.

    http://www.brooklynvegan.com/img/bv/stryper-then.jpg