Death defeats us all. For rock stars, the cold hand of oblivion seems to lurk always nearby, frequently and most noticeably taking the young (as in the members of the 27 Club) and the reckless (consider how many rockers have succumbed to planes, veins, and automobiles).
Other marauding musicians have not only battled back against the grave, they rage on in the face of grimly serious and even immediately life-threatening health issues.
So while, in the end, every one of us crosses over to the other side, the following seven rockers who kicked the asses of various illnesses send out a message that couldn’t be more loud and clear: don’t fear the Reaper!
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden
Shouting Down: Head and Neck Cancer
Iron Maiden’s literally jet-setting, up-and-at-’em adventuring frontman got some sobering news during a standard doctor’s visit back toward the end of 2014: he had two cancerous tumors in his head and neck that required immediate radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
Ever the Trooper (pun, of course, intended), Bruce announced: “I’m a firm believer in trying to maintain a positive attitude, and the encouragement from the global Maiden family meant a great deal to me. Right now, I’m feeling extremely motivated and can’t wait to get back to business as usual, as soon as I can!”
The great news is that Dickinson is presently in recovery. The inevitable news is that, while he builds his strength and his voice back up, Iron Maiden will be sidelined until 2016.
On that note, Bruce remains confident yet sensible. “The whole thing is still healing up,” he said in July 2015. “The inside of my head has been cooked pretty effectively, you know? I can sing. I can talk. I haven’t gone out and done the equivalent of trying to run 100 meters in the same way that I used to sing before, because, let it all calm down. I only finished coming out of treatment two months ago, for God’s sake. And the doctor said, ‘It’ll take a year for you to be better.’ Well, we’ve beaten that by about six months so far, you know? But I’m not going to try to push things to prove a point.”
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath
Riffing the Sh-t Out of: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
The Black Sabbath family endured a monumental blow in 2009 when Ronnie James Dio, the band’s mighty second frontman discovered he had stomach cancer. The prognosis necessitated a shutdown of Heaven and Hell, a thriving reunion of the Dio-era Sabbath lineup. Tragically, Ronnie departed this realm on May 16, 2010.
Awakened by the wisdom that comes when loss spawns forgiveness, Black Sabbath’s original four members joined forces again in 2011 for a new project (drummer Bill Ward would not be included all the way, but that’s another story).
Sabbath’s 13 album and tour met with resounding success and all seemed victorious until January 2012 when guitarist Tony Iommi was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Incredibly, Tony soldiered on with the group’s shows, taking a break every six weeks for treatment.
In 2014, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne announced that Sabbath was planning to record and hit the road again two years later. Alas, in April 2015, the group canceled an OzzFest Japan performance due to Tony’s condition.
Iommi’s illness renders his future performing a tricky prospect. In January 2015, the guitar great said of the cancer, “Doctors don’t expect it to go away… I could be here ten years or just one year. I don’t know.”
Stilly, Tony laughs when recalling how he broke the news to his bandmates: “Ozzy came in and said, ‘Oh yeah, didn’t so and so die from that?’ Which is exactly not what you want to hear. I thought, ‘Thanks a lot, Mr. Bloody Cheerful.’ But that’s Ozzy all over, he always puts his foot in it!”
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard and Dio
Wailing in the Face of: Hodgkin Lymphoma
Vivian Campbell has been a blazing guitar legend from his early days in New Wave of British heavy metal outfit Sweet Savage through his iconic work on Dio’s monstrous succession of classic albums in the ’80s. In recent years he has logged time as a member of Def Leppard.
In 2013, Campbell revealed that he was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Hodgkin’s has an over 80% cure rate,” the 50-year-old said in a Facebook post, “so by my reckoning, if you’re going to have a cancer, Hodgie’s is the one to have!”
Campbell also said that writing, playing, and touring figured as essential elements of his recovery. The cancer has retreated and resurged a few times and, early in 2015, it looked as though Viv would have to sit out the 2015 Def Leppard tour.
Instead, Campbell rallied, missed just two shows, and has been out blowing away audiences all summer long.
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe
Stomping the Face of: Ankylosing Spondylitis
Since age 17, Mötley Crüe guitar demon Mick Mars has contended with Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), a heinous form arthritis that fuses the bones together, slowly and painfully.
Amazing, Mars has defied this miserable disease with every demonic riff, lightning solo, and nuclear-strength performance.
That persistence, perseverance, and sheer force of will through wild talent sort of makes Mick the metal equivalent of another icon who shares his nickname: New York Yankees luminary Mickey Mantle, who played through agony from chronic knee problems to rank as one of baseball’s true larger-than-life greats.
In the realm of metal guitarists, Mick Mars is very much a home run king.
Bret Michaels of Poison
Belting Out Against: Type-1 Diabetes, Heart Disease
Poison frontman Bret Michaels has been open and up-front about his lifelong struggle with diabetes since the hair metal squadron’s mid-’80s breakthrough.
Bret’s also been a spokesman for people with the condition and an activist who raises funds, awareness, and spirits in the fight against the illness.
In 2010, Bret’s health took an unexpected downturn as he suffered a stroke that alerted doctors to a hole in his heart. Michaels underwent treatment while the world watched him on previously taped episodes of the reality game show Celebrity Apprentice.
Then, reportedly against doctor’s orders, he returned for the program’s finale and won first prize.
Bret’s remained unstoppable since then, both with Poison and as a solo artist. The Diet Snapple flavor he created for Celebrity Apprentice, Bret Michaels’ Trop-A-Rocka Tropical Tea, continues to raise funds to combat diabetes. It also continues to be delicious.
Leslie West of Mountain
Shredding to Smithereens: Diabetes
One of rock’s few guitar gods who actually looked as huge as his music sounded, Mountain mastermind Leslie West always had fun with his plus-sized physical dimensions, even famously titling his classic 1975 solo album, The Great Fatsby.
The downside of Leslie’s weight is that he has struggled against diabetes for most of his career. In 2011, complications from the disease forced doctors to amputate West’s lower right leg.
Two days later, Leslie called in to the radio show of his decades-long friend, Howard Stern, to give an update. Howard, who worshipped Mountain when he was a kid, joked with his hero, saying “Listen, I saw your legs, they weren’t that great!” He then asked if Leslie would give him the removed limb so they could make big bucks with it on eBay. Laughing from his hospital bed, West said no because he figured the appendage just got tossed “somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Stern ended the affectionate exchange on a heartfelt note, telling West, “I love you so much, and I’m glad that you’re in good spirits, because this is tough news to take.”
In January 2012, Leslie West took the stage at B.B. King’s in New York and, from a wheelchair, tore into a comeback show that instantly became the stuff of legend.
Chuck Panozzo of Styx
Rocking into Submission: HIV/AIDS
Bassist Chuck Panozzo co-founded Styx with his fraternal twin, drummer John Panozzo, and vocalist Dennis DeYoung all the way back in 1961. Chuck played on every classic Styx album from their 1972 self-titled debut to 1983’s multiplatinum but band shattering, Kilroy Was Here, and beyond.
Come the ’90s, drummer John’s decades of brutal drinking and substance abuse led to cirrhosis of the liver, eventually killing him at 47 via gastrointestinal hemorrhaging. Not long afterward, Chuck Panozzo, shattered by the loss of his brother, retired from Styx.
In 2000, Chuck came out of the closet as gay. He also revealed that he’d been living with HIV for nearly a decade. Noting, with sly irony, “This disease is not for sissies!,” Chuck returned to the stage in Las Vegas and toured for the remainder of the year.
Since then, he’s played one-off gigs with his Styx mates and remained a tireless activist and inspiration for the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV and AIDS.
On his personal website, Chuck plainly spells out his mission: “My wish is to inspire others, gay or straight, to live a proud just life. If I can inspire just one person to follow their bliss, I guarantee it will fill their soul and set their spirit free.”
Chuck has always done that with his music; taking on this health challenge has powered him to focus that uplift into other channels as well.
Billy Zoom of X
Punking the Power Out of: Bladder Cancer
Rockabilly guitar beast Billy Zoom launched L.A. punk squad X up from the late-’70s hardcore maelstrom and into the all-time champion roster of roots-rock greats by way of his rip-roaring leads, scorching solos, and lovably audacious personality.
Billy zoomed past a prostate cancer scare in 2010, only to be told the disease had infected his bladder five years later. Upon hearing the news, X fans rallied around their guitar hero, raising money for his treatment and cheering him through every step of the process.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Zoom told Rolling Stone. “I can’t say enough about things people are doing and their concern. “Medical costs can be high, but being unable to work for a long time is really scary. This time I’d be in really dire straights if people hadn’t stepped up.”
Zoom’s admirers might say they’re just returning Billy a favor.