February 12th, 2008


Rockers and Russians

Question: What do old Russian men under capitalism and elderly Western rock stars have in common?

Answer: They're both probably dead already -- and for quite similar reasons. The average life expectancy for a Russian male is currently 60.2 years, down from 64 years in the last year of socialism. That puts Russia amongst Western Sahara, Mongolia, Bolivia, Guyana and North Korea in the national male life expectancy ranking tables. The average life expectancy for a post-war Western rock star is even more pathetic: 42 years for North American stars and 35 for European ones. In both cases, substance abuse and alcoholism play a major part.

Women of Slyozi is a fascinating video essay on The Guardian's website. Reporter Luke Harding went to the village of Slyozi, just 40 kilometers from the Latvian (and therefore European) border, trying to find men. What he found instead was a village of stoical, fatalistic old women in their 80s, widows of husbands who, if they hadn't perished fighting the Nazis, had survived to drink themselves to death in their 40s, 50s and (those who made it) 60s. In Slyozi, today, not a single male survives.

"Drink is a huge problem around here," Zinaida Ivanovna, 79, told Harding. "It's a terrible problem in this village. It's a nightmare. The men here drink their pensions as soon as they get them. They sell whatever they have to get more booze. They drink anything - moonshine and even window-cleaning fluids."

When Professor Mark Bellis published research he'd done at Liverpool's John Moores University into rock star life expectancy in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last year, he found a similar pattern. "The wild lifestyles of famous musicians, including drug taking and alcohol abuse, were the main reason for their early demise," he said. Rockers, seen as a community, are going to seed in much the same way as post-collective farming Russians.

Oddly enough, in this case money doesn't have much to do with mortality stats. The old women Luke Harding interviews seem quite content with their tiny pensions. Materially, they have all they need (big wooden houses, enough food to survive, fuel to keep warm in winter) and there's nothing much to buy in Slyozi anyway. Rather than trickledown (and let's face it, in oligarchical Russia trickledown is, quite literally, moonshine), what they'd like is company. But the male company -- rotten, lazy and irresponsible as it was -- has all died.

The widows of Slyozi are a bit like "tour widows", the longsuffering girlfriends and wives of touring rock stars, who have to put up with long absences, alcoholism, chronic infidelity and fundamental instability in the lives of their partners. Rock stars are under too much stress when they're touring and famous and too little when they aren't -- they often find it difficult to negotiate the transition between the two states (too busy and not busy enough). That's when they turn to drugs and drink, and fall into depression.

The connection gets more interesting when we think of rock stars as poster boys for capitalism. The Russian men who, under Russia's toxic brand of capitalism, are now lucky to reach 60 were easily reaching 65 in the era of collective farming. (A campaign by Gorbachev in the mid-1980s to reduce alcoholism managed to add a full three calendar years to male life expectancy... temporarily, at least.) In still-communist Cuba, with its socialised medicine and sense of collective purpose, men live to 74. As James Petras says in Capitalism versus socialism: The great debate revisited, "the transition to capitalism in Russia alone led to over 15 million premature deaths (deaths which would not have occurred if life expectancy rates had remained at the levels under socialism)... Fifteen years of "transition to capitalism" is more than adequate time to judge the performance and impact of capitalist politicians, privatizations, free market policies and other restoration measures on the economy, society and general welfare of the population".

In the individual lives of Western rock stars, getting rich endangers your health far more than staying poor. Back in Liverpool, Mark Bellis found that music stars were most likely to die within five years of becoming famous. Later -- for the Europeans, at least -- things got better for those who could survive this initial transition. "About 25 years after shooting to fame, European stars returned to the same levels of life expectancy as the general population while North American stars continued to experience higher death rates."

In America, "ageing rockers remain almost twice as likely to suffer a premature demise, particularly from heart attack or stroke... Professor Bellis suggested that the high death rate among older American musicians could be related to the continent's greater appetite for reunion tours, exposing the artists for more years to an unhealthy "rock'n'roll" lifestyle."

Bellis didn't quite go as far as pointing the finger at capitalism itself, but did mention "the poor medical outlook for impoverished US ex-pop stars who have no health insurance". But maybe it isn't entirely fair to blame capitalism -- national character has something to do with it too. While the Russians drank themselves to death, elderly Poles (male life expectancy: 68.6 years) were doing interesting and constructive things in their rural areas, like building homemade tractors. It's something ageing Western rock stars -- who currently die as young as men in Cote D'Ivoire or Afghanistan -- could try.