One of the key jokes in Spinal Tap is the long line of drummers who met unfortunate ends, including three who died onstage. That death march of the timekeepers can make for great comedy, in part because it’s so close to the truth. When a member of a rock ‘n’ roll band dies onstage, odds are it will be the drummer. In this exclusive excerpt (with bonus material) from their book The Show Won’t Go On, Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns detail the Top Ten most shocking, bizarre, and historic deaths of R&R drummers onstage!
by Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns
Today is the official publication date for The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage. For months, the book’s authors, Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns, have contributed outtakes, off-shoots and original stories related to the massive and morbid research they’ve been undertaking (no pun intended) for the past three years.
The history of the fictional metal band Spinal Tap includes a long line of drummers who met unfortunate ends. The roster includes John “Stumpy” Pepys, who “died in a bizarre gardening accident” in 1966; Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs, who in 1967 choked on vomit — “actually, someone else’s vomit”; and Joe “Mama” Besser, who disappeared along with the band’s equipment during their Japanese tour in 1982.
Three Tap drummers died onstage. Peter “James” Bond combusted spontaneously in 1977, during a blues-jazz festival on the Isle of Lucy; Mick Shrimpton exploded onstage in 1982; and Sammy “Stumpy” Bateman was killed performing in 2001, while attempting to jump a tricycle over a tank full of sharks in a freak show.
That death march of the timekeepers can make for great comedy, in part because it’s so close to the truth. When a member of a rock ‘n’ roll band dies onstage, odds are it will be the drummer. What follows are ten of the most memorable reasons to bang the drums… slowly.
#10 SIB HASHIAN
It might not seem so unusual for a sixty-seven year old grandfather to die on a Caribbean cruise. But the former drummer for the band Boston was not on vacation when he was on board MSC Cruises’ cruise ship Divina on March 22, 2017. Sib Hashian was a star of a Legends of Rock Cruise. Other stars included Mark Lindsay from Paul Revere and the Raiders, the sax player from Eddie & The Cruisers, Ron Dante (voice of the Archies) and the Grass Roots — or at least a group that called itself the Grass Roots, since none in the quartet was an original member or had performed on any of their hit records. Hashian was performing “the hits of Boston” with former Boston guitarist Barry Goudreau when he collapsed over his drums from a heart attack. Hashian’s daughter Lauren, a singer-songwriter, has had a long relationship and two children with (and in August 2019, married) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In an Instagram post, Johnson called Sib Hashian “my second dad.”
Anthony Kwaku Baah was a masterful drummer and percussionist from Ghana. He became a member of the rock ‘n’ roll elite in 1971, after he met the English band Traffic while on tour in Sweden. The pale British boys invited him to join the band for Traffic’s progressive jazzy period, which reached its peak with the album The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. Rebop performed with Eric Clapton at his comeback concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre in January 1973, and on the resulting album had equal billing alongside Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi, and rock stars Pete Townshend, Rick Grech and Ron Wood. He stuck with Winwood when he went solo, and worked with Nick Drake and the German avant-garde outfit Can. In 1983, Rebop toured Sweden with reggae star Jimmy Cliff. He was onstage in Stockholm on January 12, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Rainbow concert, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. He was thirty-eight.
#8 CRASH MORGAN
Walter “Crash” Morgan was the drummer for Messenjah, the most popular reggae band in Canadian history. In 1988, Morgan and Messenjah appeared in the Tom Cruise movie, Cocktail, performing The Drifters’ hit, “This Magic Moment,” in what was supposed to be a nightclub in Jamaica but was actually a club in Toronto, the city in which most of Cocktail was filmed.
In 1995, Crash Morgan joined Toronto’s popular blues-rock-reggae band Big Sugar for a much-anticipated tour of the United States. On October 6, 1995, Big Sugar was six dates into the tour, opening for “punk blues” musician Chris Duarte at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa. The band was in the middle of a song when Crash stood up at his drums. Then he collapsed and died onstage of a heart attack from a cardiac aneurysm. He was thirty-six.
#7 DEVON CLIFFORD
The five-piece dance-punk band You Say Party! We Say Die! wrapped up a tour of the United States and Canada on April 16, 2010 with a hometown show at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia. They were about forty minutes into a very energetic set when the drummer suddenly stopped playing and fell to the floor. Singer Becky Nikovic shouted from the stage for somebody to call 911. Devon Clifford was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a massive brain hemorrhage. He underwent brain surgery, fell into a coma, and died on April 18. He was thirty. As a result of the tragedy, You Say Party! We Say Die! shortened its name to You Say Party! and switched to a drum machine.
#6 BRAD PARKER
The American disco band Generation Esmeralda was a tribute to the French-American disco group, Santa Esmeralda, which had its heyday in the 1970s and got a shot at revival in 2003 when its version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” wound up on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s film, Kill Bill, Vol. 1. On September 22, 2012, the band was performing in Uba, Brazil, when the drummer suddenly dropped face-first onto his snare. Seventeen seconds later, he keeled over, taking his floor tom with him as he rolled off the back of the drum riser. Brad Parker had suffered a heart attack. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead the next morning. Parker was fifty-nine, an obscure player in a tribute to a forgotten disco creation fronted by a performer who wasn’t even Santa Esmeralda’s original lead singer (Leroy Gómez still toured with his own version of the group). Yet, because video of his final number quickly went viral, Brad Parker’s death became international news and he achieved international fame.
#5 LAUDIR de OLIVEIRA
The percussionist from Brazil was immortalized on Joe Cocker’s hit single” Feelin’ Alright” (the first sounds heard when the needle dropped were Artie Butler’s piano and Laudir’s tumba drums).
From 1975 to 1982, Olveira was a full-fledged member of the band Chicago. He was onstage in Rio de Janeiro on September 17, 2017, drumming in a tribute to saxophonist and clarinetist Paulo Moura, when he dropped from a heart attack. “He had just played a spectacular solo,” said Jovi Joviniano, who was also keeping the beat. “It was super applauded. It was his last applause…. Suddenly we saw that his conga was down. I looked up and he was bent over, his face on the skin of the instrument. He made his way there, in a very beautiful way… doing what he loved, being applauded and alongside his friends. If poetry exists in death, Laudir died in poetry.” He was seventy-seven.
#4 TIM CURRIE
The leader of the tribute band Tim Currie’s Motown Review was onstage on the Norwalk, Connecticut Green on Saturday night, August 24, 2019, when he suffered a heart attack behind his drum set and died at sixty-six. Currie, better known in Norwalk for his family tire store, makes the Top 10 because of a bizarre coincidence. Shortly before he took the stage, there was an announcement that the next day’s show at nearby Calf Pasture Beach was cancelled, because a member of the band set to perform had died onstage in Bellmore, Long Island the night before. Mason Swearingen was leader of Beginnings, a Chicago tribute band. He’d suffered a fatal heart attack in Newbridge Road Park on August 23, while singing the song “Make Me Smile” and the lyrics “life is just a game, so they say…” Swearingen, who was fifty-one, also had a stage production called Beginnings Meets Motown.
#3 SYLVESTER “PAPA DEE” ALLEN
He was the “big man” who who played conga, bongos, and other percussion for War, the multi-ethnic funk outfit from Long Beach, California. War first made the charts in 1970 as Eric Burdon’s backing group on “Spill the Wine.” They broke out as stars of the decade with songs like “The World Is A Ghetto,” “Low Rider,” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” A version of War was still playing into the 1980s. Papa Dee was onstage with the group at the Talk of The Town nightclub in Vallejo, California on August 30, 1988, when suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died at fifty-seven. Lee Oskar, War’s Danish harmonicat, said, “Papa Dee Allen does have one of my harmonicas. I dropped the last harp I used with him on stage into his grave.”
#2 COUNTRY DICK MONTANA
The singer, drummer and guitarist for the Beat Farmers, a very influential cowpunk band from San Diego, California that formed in 1983, was a long, tall, hell-raising, hard-living character under a gambler’s cowboy hat and behind a VanDyke beard, described as “half Waylon, half Johnny Rotten.” On November 8, 1995, after logging thousands of miles in a van on another tour of clubs and venues in the United States, Country Dick and the Beat Farmers landed at the Longhorn Saloon and Grill at the base of Whistler Mountain in Whistler, British Columbia. They were into the third song of their rowdy set when Country Dick collapsed over his drums and died of a heart attack at forty. Some fans assumed he fell to his legendary lifestyle. In reality, Country Dick was just mortal Dan McLain, who over the past few years had been in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals for cancer treatments. But it wasn’t cancer that killed him. According to a report in the Lake Tahoe Review, the heart attack resulted from a blood clot in his leg, which may have been the result of the six-foot-four-inch tall musician travelling “thousands of miles sitting bent-kneed in a van.” The ageless Country Dick Montana was only forty. With his passing, the Beat Farmers called it a day.
#1 NICK MENZA
What better place for a wild, extreme, heavy metal drummer to beat his last skin than in a cozy jazz club? How Spinal Tap is that? The club was the Baked Potato, a cool little spot in Studio City, California, just down the street from Universal Studios. The jazz promised to be a little less cool and a lot more explosive on May 21, 2016, when a trio of heavy metal legends took over the Baked Potato’s small stage.
OHM was a progressive jazz rock fusion group led by guitarist Chris Poland, who twenty years earlier was headbanging with thrash metal band Megadeth. Bassist Robertino Pagliari had held the bottom for metalists Divine Rite. Between them, wielding sticks behind an extravagant orange drum kit that took up most of the stage, was the heaviest metal legend of the group. Nick Menza had joined Megadeth in 1989, two years after Poland’s departure. He pounded the beats on Megadeth’s most successful albums, including Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction, and was with the band for eight years, until he was sidelined by a benign tumor on his knee and ultimately given the boot.
Promotion of his subsequent solo album, Life After Deth, hit a speed bump in 2003 when guitarist Ty Longley set out on tour with the reformed Great White — and was killed in the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island. A year later, Menza’s bassist Jason Levin died of heart failure.
Menza had his own close calls. In 2007, he almost lost an arm in a gruesome run-in with a rusty power saw. He recovered and auctioned off the bloody saw blade and X-ray to a lucky fan. When he joined OHM in 2015, he was the sixth sticksman to occupy the throne, replacing David Eagle, who died that August after a heart attack and open heart surgery. (Menza was the seventh drummer if you count Gar Samuelson, who was to be the third piece in the original lineup when he died of liver failure at forty-one.) With enough death and mayhem in his past to fill a book, Menza decided to do just that: he was planning to fly to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after the Baked Potato gig to finish a comic book version of his autobiography, Menza-Life (ultimately released as Megalife).
While some fans thought it strange that the power drummer wound up playing in a tasteful jazz club, the music of OHM was not a far cry from the jazz that Menza’s German-born father Don Menza played in his years blowing tenor sax in the Tonight Show band. Though the Baked Potato had been a jamming room for many Tonight Show musicians before the show was moved back to New York City in 2014, it also made room for outfits like OHM that played a fiery, precise, Jeff Beckian jazz rock, full of blazing solos and tricky time signatures.
On the night of May 21, Chris Poland recalled, Nick Menza played with an intensity “like I’d never heard before. It’s not the volume intensity; it’s just how intense he was playing it,” he said on the podcast As the Story Grows. “He had a fire under his butt. It was the best I’ve ever heard him play drums… We get to the end of the third song, which I think was ‘Peanut Buddha,’ and… I’m drying myself off, and he goes, ‘Dude, are you OK?’ I go, ‘No, I’m good.’
“He tightened his high hat, and he sat his hands down on his lap, and then he just leaned over into the monitor. I thought he was fucking with me. He’s still there, and I said, ‘Hey, man, let’s go.’ I thought, ‘Of course he’s messing with me.’ I said, ‘Nick, come on, man.’ I look over, and his eyes are open. That’s when I knew that something had happened. I couldn’t believe it.”
The problem looked at first to be a seizure. Two patrons rushed to the stage and began CPR until EMS arrived. The paramedics worked on the drummer for more than twenty-five minutes. They gave him shots of adrenaline, three shocks, and nonstop chest compressions.
None did any good. Nick Menza was gone at the Baked Potato and pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. He was fifty-one. The Los Angeles County Coroner would rule that Menza died of natural causes: a heart attack as a result of hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. In the days to follow, his manager Robert Bolger said that friends and family took some comfort knowing that on several occasions Nick Menza said that when he died he wanted to do so onstage.
In August 2016, Dave Poland announced that OHM had partnered with Soultone Cymbals in a worldwide search to find their next drummer. Three years later, Carlos Cruz appears to be alive and well in the drummer’s seat. One hope he will remain there, keeping time, remaining healthy, and preventing OHM from closing in on Spinal Tap.
(The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage is published by Chicago Review Press and is now available in bookstores and can be ordered at ShowWontGoOn.com and DiedOnstage.com.)