Archive for September, 2004

He Didn’t Die Of A Drug Overdose

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

I read entertainment news fairly compulsively, even reading about television shows I will never watch and movie stars I know I detest. In this case, I was reading a recent news report about a musician I never deliberately listened to in my life – Rick James, whose recent death is old news by now. When James first died, drugs were implicated in his death, due to his history as a crack cocaine addict. But the official autopsy results were delayed while a coroner’s pathologist did toxicology and other tests. These results were made public on September 16th. The official cause of death was determined to be heart failure due to an enlarged heart, with numerous drugs listed as contributing factors.

Numerous, in this case, being nine drugs. Here’s the laundry list from the coroner’s statement:

“Toxicology revealed the presence of the following drugs: Alprazolam (Xanax), Diazepam (Valium), Bupropion (Wellbutrin), Citalopram (Celexa), Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Digoxin, Chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine, and cocaine. None of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life threatening in and of themselves.” (Digoxin is a heart medication; Chlorpheniramine is an antihistamine, used to treat allergy and cold symptoms.)

What cracks me up about this (aside from the “meta” crack up of being cracked up about anyone’s death in the first place) is the way that David Campbell, the coroner’s spokesman, made it clear that, because none of the drugs or drug combinations were life threatening in and of themselves, “He didn’t die of a drug overdose.”

I guess I must have missed the clinical study where they gave rats all nine of these drugs and then carefully observed their hearts as they did not explode, thus proving that James could not have overdosed on the nine drugs within reach at the time. I can certainly think of a few cases at Burning Man where I got up in the seven drug range within a forty-eight hour period, but a) heart medication was not one of them, and b) heart medication was not one of them! It makes me wonder if rock stars should have to undergo a physical screening determining how fit they are for a future of drug abuse before we the music-consuming public agree to finance their careers – “You must be able to consume x substances at once and survive in order to ride this ride” or something similar.

I think what’s interesting here is the disparity between what the coroner considers a drug overdose and what a dilettante drug columnist considers a drug overdose. The Reuters article states that “the death was declared an accident”, and I suppose that’s technically true – James undoubtedly had reason to believe his heart would not explode, unless there’s a secret suicide note somewhere and a video of him meticulously polishing off every drug in the house. But how is this kind of “accident” not an overdose? Is the coroner’s spokesman honestly saying, “This man’s heart just accidentally exploded” as though his arteries, like, tripped on a curb or something? Is the coroner’s spokesman honestly suggesting that taking theoretically non-lethal amounts of nine different drugs at once is somehow an underdose?

At any rate, this got me wondering about other interesting celebrity overdoses that I might have overlooked. Did you know, for instance, that the author Honoré de Balzac is sometimes said to have died of a caffeine overdose from excessive coffee drinking? Some sources say it was stress or overwork that killed him, but we must put that in the context of writing sixteen hours a day for much of his life while fueled by, as Balzac described, “torrents of this black water.” At that point, you begin to wonder if history is playing the same kind of trick as with James’ coroner’s report. “It was not a caffeine overdose,” a spokesman for Balzac’s coroner might have claimed. “It was exhaustion from having had to raise the mug to his lips so many times. His muscles couldn’t keep up!”

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of drug-related celebrity deaths are as mundane as the vast majority of completely unknown drug-related deaths. It’s all just “left the needle in my arm this” or “shot myself on Quaaludes” that. Oh sure, recently a man drove home drunk and wound up decapitating his drunken best friend, who’d had the misfortune of leaning out the passenger window in the presence of an oncoming telephone pole support wire. But in years to come, no one will remember this story, because the driver was not, for instance, Burt Reynolds, driving home with his unfortunate buddy Dom DeLuise. Had this horrible event occurred in Cannonball Run, say, you would have seen Burt screaming down the highway in some fancy Corvette, shouting, “Hey, Captain Chaos, hand me another Schlitz!” and then there’d be this loud FWACK! sound and Burt would be all, like, “C’mon, Captain, don’t tell me all we have left is Schlitz LITE!” and then, like, four states later, he’d get passed by Dean Martin holding Dom’s head out the window going, “Hey J.J., looks like he’s Captain CUT MY FRICKIN’ HEAD OFF now!” and there’d be all these blondes in the back seat giggling and stuff. That would be something people would remember.

It does seem fairly clear to me that, regardless of what the coroner’s spokesman had to say on the subject, the story of Rick James will likely be remembered as a drug overdose. If there’s some subtle medical distinction that the coroner’s spokesman was trying to make when he declared James’ death an “accident”, it’s a distinction that never had a chance of making it through the filter of the media, that vast factory of over-simplification and lurid hype. If James were alive today – well, if he were, he would likely be shouting “Help, I’ve been buried alive!”, but if he were alive and not buried and were able to provide counterpoint to the coroner’s spokesman, I bet even he would say, “No, that was definitely an overdose. I really shouldn’t have taken that last Celexa.”

But truly, the world will never know.