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

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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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