On February 3, 1959, the lives of rock stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and “The Big Bopper” (born Jiles Richardson) were tragically cut short when a chartered airplane carrying them from Iowa to a concert in Minnesota crashed, killing everyone aboard.
Memorialized as “the day the music died” by songwriter Don McLean in the song “American Pie,” that fatal plane crash is equally notorious for marking one of the earliest instances of rock stars narrowly cheating death when musician Tommy Allsup just missed being aboard the doomed flight after losing his seat to Valens in a coin toss (Allsup would later name his short-lived Fort Worth, Texas club “Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon” in memory of that life-saving moment).
Country singer Waylon Jennings also came close to being aboard the plane, but conceded his seat to the Big Bopper, who was ill from traveling on an unheated tour bus. In a sad twist of irony, Waylons jokingly told Holly that he hoped their plane crashed just moments before take-off.
In honor of these original cheaters of death (and its patron saint, Keith Richards), we’ve compiled this list of rock stars that have stared into the steely, unforgiving eyes of the Grim Reaper and lived to tell the tale.
Travis Barker (Blink-182) Just before midnight on September 19, 2008, Barker and DJ AM were on a private Learjet 60 leaving South Carolina for Van Nuys, California, when the pilot attempted to abort take-off at the last minute, causing the plane to crash. Barker and DJ AM were the only survivors, with the two pilots, Barker’s personal assistant Chris Baker and his bodyguard Charles Still all dying in the fiery wreckage. Sadly, DJ AM would die of an overdose less than a year later in a New York apartment at the age of 36.
Nikki Sixx (Mötley Crüe) Just two days before Christmas of 1987, the hard-partying Motley Crue bass player shot enough heroin to kill a man. And it did, with Sixx being declared dead for a full two minutes. After being revived in an ambulance with shots of adrenaline, Sixx, in true rock star fashion, promptly returned to his apartment to shoot even more heroin. After living up to his name by overdosing six times in his life, Sixx is now 20 years clean and sober and inspires others to kick the habit.
Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode) In 1996, synth-pop superstars Depeche Mode were still recovering from exhaustively touring the world behind their 1993 mega-hit album, Songs of Faith and Devotion. Holed up in the Sunset Marquis Hotel in L.A., Gahan (whose drug intake had become increasingly disruptive to the band) overdosed on a “speedball” injection of cocaine mixed with heroin. Like Nikki Sixx, Gahan was declared dead for over two minutes before paramedics revived him in time to be arrested for drug possession. After a successful stint in rehab, Gahan was honored for 10-plus years of sobriety at a Los Angeles MusiCares Musicians’ Assistance Program benefit event in 2011, presented to him by fellow recovering addict Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
Scott Stapp (Creed) In one of the more bizarre instances of cheating death, the lead singer of late ‘90s rock heroes Creed checked into the penthouse of Miami’s Delano Hotel to indulge in a drug and alcohol binge. Somewhere in his intoxicated state, he imagined cops raiding the room, causing Stapp to throw himself over the balcony. He fell 40 feet onto a patio below, breaking bones and fracturing his skull. Randomly, Atlanta hip-hop star T.I. checked into the room below, discovering the injured Stapp after hearing him moaning outside. The rapper called an ambulance, and the singer was saved.
Ozzy Osbourne Notorious for his voracious appetite for drugs and alcohol, the legendary lead singer of heavy metal icons Black Sabbath survived them all, only to nearly meet his maker riding an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) on his English estate in December of 2003. Hitting a pothole, Ozzy was sent flying from the bike, which flipped and landed on him. A fast-thinking bodyguard rushed to his side, reviving the unresponsive singer who stopped breathing twice and turned blue. The crash also left Osbourne in a coma with eight fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, his collarbone and a neck vertebra also broken. Still, he recovered to sing “Iron Man” yet again, with a reformed Black Sabbath (minus drummer Bill Ward) currently recording a new album with Rick Rubin.
Eminem After more than one failed attempt at rehab, the Motor City rap legend lost his best friend DeShaun “Proof” Holton, who was shot and killed during a Detroit bar altercation in 2006. A devastated Eminem spiraled into depression and dependency on a variety of prescription pills (including Vicodin and Ambien), telling HLN that “I was a couple of hours away from death, I overdosed and almost died.”
James Hetfield (Metallica) Metallica was playing a huge show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in Canada with Guns N’ Roses back in 1992 when Hetfield accidently strayed into the path of an exploding pyrotechnic device during the song “Fade to Black.” The extreme heat left him with second and third degree burns, with the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich telling VH1’s Behind The Music that Hetfield “looked like the torch that they carry up the stairs to light the Olympic fire.” Rushed to the hospital in excruciating pain, Hetfield (his arm heavily bandaged) was miraculously back onstage singing with the band less than three weeks later in Phoenix, Kirk Hammett’s tech John Marshall handling his guitar parts.
Paul McCartney In the most recent incident of a rock star cheating death, the former Beatle and living legend was in an Air Harrods helicopter with his wife Nancy Shavell earlier this year when the pilot became disoriented while attempting to land on McCartney’s East Essex, UK, estate in bad weather conditions. The copter was reportedly a mere two feet from crashing into trees when the pilot was able to regain control and land safely at a nearby airport. Ironically, McCartney and his wife didn’t realize how close they came to crashing until they were informed later. McCartney has yet to comment on the incident, as it’s still under investigation.
Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters) Back in 2001, a hard-partying Hawkins overdosed on heroin, sending the blond drummer into a two-week coma. His good friend and band-mate Dave Grohl sat by his side the entire time, until Hawkins woke up and greeted his bedside buddy with a groggy “f*** off.” Today, a sober Hawkins is embarrassed by the whole ordeal, which is detailed in the documentary Foo Fighters: Back and Forth. “I wish we wouldn’t put the f**king movie out to be honest,” Hawkins told NME, “I’m not really comfortable with the public sort of openness, I’m really not.”
Al Jourgensen (Ministry) Few rockers have plumbed the depths of depravity and drug addiction like the lead singer of this pioneering industrial act from Chicago. Years of abuse resulted in Jourgensen being declared dead no less than three separate times, with the singer telling The Gaunlet that the third time “really freaked me out and gave me a sense of mortality,” after multiple ulcers led to him collapsing in 2007, losing more than 65 percent of his blood in the process. He credits the emergency room team at Providence Hospital in El Paso, Texas, for saving his life. Now clean of narcotics, he still admits to downing two bottles of wine daily.
–Scott T. Sterling, CBS Local