According to the U.S. Department of Labor, timber cutters, miners, construction workers and truck drivers face the highest risk of injury on the job. Perhaps the Labor Department would add “musical performer” to that list if it bothered to assign someone to study the goings-on at say, Ozzfest or the Anger Management Tour – or even Britney Spears’ Dream Within a Dream Tour – to take note of the amount of blood spilled and number of fingers/arms/knees/backs injured onstage.
While many imagine that a music superstar’s day on the job involves such trappings as free-flowing Cristal, gold grills, hovering hotties and tasty hors-d’oeuvres, in truth, rock and rap stars engage in some pretty dangerous, physically demanding work. OK, rhyme slingers and guitarists probably don’t face the same level of danger as loggers, but everyone from Nelly to Britney to members of Aerosmith and the Calling have gotten hurt – some seriously – while performing.
Spears needed surgery on her knee in 1999 after injuring it while rehearsing dance steps, and she required four stitches after a camera fell on her head during the “Oops!… I Did It Again” video shoot. Usher dislocated his shoulder last year while rehearsing for his tour behind 8701. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry hurt his knee after jumping off a speaker. New Found Glory drummer Cyrus Bolooki broke his arm at a New York show in October. And the list goes on and on.
Nelly is one of the luckier ones – he’s managed to sustain nothing more serious than a chipped tooth so far.
“I had the mic too close and I was rocking,” the rapper said. “And I think I knocked into Kyjuan or Murph [of the St. Lunatics]. It wasn’t no big bump or nothing, but I hit an elbow and it was like, ‘Boom!’ But it was just a small chip.”
On the other end of the spectrum is the Calling’s Aaron Kamin, who was almost electrocuted onstage in Bangkok in April.
“During soundcheck we were using a lot of American gear and we needed a transformer and pretty much had some really sketchy gear,” Calling singer Alex Band said. “He had his electric guitar and his mandolin, and they’re going through different things but he grabbed both of them at the same time and became like the connecting bridge and really got electrocuted. The strings of both guitars were melted into his hands.”
Those are the unexpected, sudden injuries. Then there are the kinds of injuries sustained from the wear and tear of regular performing. Metallica frontman James Hetfield (who once was badly injured by onstage pyrotechnics) recently had neck surgery to repair damage accrued from years of headbanging onstage. Tweet has had trouble with her vocal cords from using incorrect singing technique.
“I never had a vocal coach, so when I sing, I push my vocal cords up instead of down, opening them up,” she said. “So it’s wearing and tearing on them. There are two lumps on the bottom of my cords and then they won’t close up completely, so that’s why I’m hoarse all the time and I just need to be quiet sometimes.”
Papa Roach drummer Dave Buckner also has a condition that resulted from improper technique. “Back in the early days when we were only playing out once or twice a week, I would play every song the hardest I could, and I’d have bloody knuckles by the end of the show with absolutely no regard for technique,” he said. “And I continued to play like that when we started touring, and sometimes we were playing seven days a week and I would still continue to play that way. And I think my hands and arms wore out.
“My wrist swells up and it starts pinching off the nerve in my hand and both my hands will go numb,” he continued. “I still don’t know what it is. I’ve had people tell me it’s carpal tunnel [syndrome]. I’ve had people tell me it’s tendinitis. I’ve had people tell me it’s neither.”
So what’s an artist to do? Stand stock still onstage and wear a hard hat? Drum like a wuss so as not to tax the wrists?
In addition to correcting faulty technique, the key to injury prevention depends on staying strong and keeping your body aligned, according to Walker Ozar, a Beverly Hills chiropractor specializing in sports medicine and rehabilitation.
“The biggest danger is weakness – performing and practicing day in and day out and not being in shape,” said Ozar, who counts Kevin Richardson of Backstreet Boys and Dido among his patients. “Having proper strength in the back, neck and abdominal muscles and all the muscles surrounding the spine is probably the most important thing. That’s what’s going to prevent injuries.
“There’s nothing to guarantee you from not having injuries,” he added, “but you can do a lot of things to minimize [the risk].”
Yoga, for instance, as well as Pilates and weight training, all of which Ozar advocates. And the seemingly simple step of keeping your shoulders back, as opposed to hunched forward – whether you’re talking on the phone to your manager or executing bump-and-grind dance moves – can do wonders.
So does eating something besides fried chicken swimming in day-old oil every day, which can be a challenge when your tour bus is in the middle of Indiana farm country and the pickins are slim when it comes to places to stop for food. While in an ideal tour-rider world an artist can specify exactly what kind of food they want while on the road (Ozar recommends a low-fat diet with lots of protein and carbohydrates to provide energy for performing), when in a bind, an artist should eat the deep-fried vittles if that’s all there is and then down some supplements – including a product called Liver Support, especially helpful to the rare rock star who enjoys a cocktail now and again.
“Touring is rough,” said singer/guitarist Jerry Cantrell, currently on the road opening up for Creed. “You play concrete stages and hard surfaces that don’t give, and live performances can be a pretty brutal thing. In a way you’ve got to consider yourself an athlete, because your body is your instrument. Do activities, run, exercise to keep yourself together. But I do screw myself up all the time. My hands are always cut.”
Yet most artists would say that even with the exhausting pace of life on the road and the constant risk of injury, it’s still worth it.
“The payoff?” Cantrell asked rhetorically about his line of work. “The show is the payoff. Always.”