“The road and the studio are the only places I’ve ever felt completely OK,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone last summer, explaining why he was launching one last grueling tour to mark his 40th anniversary with the Heartbreakers. But the roadwork wasn’t easy for him. Petty spent the entire 53-date tour struggling with severe pain from a fracture in his left hip. He got through it with painkillers and used a golf cart to move around backstage. “Tom was ill,” said his friend Stevie Nicks. “And he fought his way through that tour. He should have canceled and gone home and gone to the hospital, but not Tom. He was going to go down that river.”
In October, a week after the final date at the Hollywood Bowl, Petty was dead. The 66-year-old had accidentally overdosed mixing a variety of medications. The one the Petty family blamed: fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, according to the DEA. Despite having a previous history of opioid abuse, he’d been prescribed a fentanyl patch to help with his pain; in addition to that slow-releasing patch, two other, more dangerous, derivatives of the drug were also found in his system. “Those are illicit,” says Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Those you get very likely in the black market.” (Petty’s family declined to comment.)
Petty’s overdose in many ways mirrored Prince’s a year and a half earlier. Prince was also taking the drug while dealing with a hip injury, probably stemming from decades of punishing live performances. Over the past decade, fentanyl was also a leading factor in the fatal overdoses of former Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett, 3 Doors Down guitarist Matt Roberts and Slipknot bassist Paul Gray. In November, rising rapper Lil Peep died at 21 after taking a combination of fentanyl and Xanax. “It is so crazy-strong,” says Petty’s daughter Adria, who is planning a campaign against fentanyl. “We really don’t want this to happen to anyone else. We learned this is the worst feeling you can have: to lose someone you love for no good reason.”
Beyond the music industry, fentanyl has emerged as the most dangerous new drug in a generation. Of the nearly 65,000 fatal opioid overdoses in the U.S. in 2016 (the most recent survey), one-third were fentanyl-related, double the amount from the year before. The drug has surpassed heroin as the leading cause of overdose deaths, and new data shows that fentanyl overdose deaths jumped 30 percent between July 2016 and September 2017.
Fentanyl was invented in 1959 to help cancer patients cope with intense post-surgical pain. These days, it’s prescribed as a lollipop or a patch, which slowly releases the dosage through the skin, typically used for a few days after a major surgery. Though illegal in pill form, black-market fentanyl pills have become common in the past decade. This happened after doctors cut back on prescribing OxyContin in 2007, when the government sued its manufacturer for misleading the public about the drug’s addictive risks. Opioid users had to look elsewhere, and turned to heroin, which dealers started mixing with fentanyl for a faster-acting, more euphoric and addictive high. A fatal fentanyl overdose can happen in barely one minute. “The dose you require is minuscule, like a grain of salt,” says Volkow. “A tiny difference in your content can mean someone dying. You need a very sophisticated lab in order to measure a concentration that would be safe.”
The drug’s potency can pose a chilling new threat for users: In a previous era, “someone would OD and you’d have time to soak them in a bath or keep them moving until they got to the ER,” says Gene Bowen, a former road manager and founder of Road Recovery, a musicians’ substance-abuse assistance organization. “It’s not the case now. In 20 minutes they can be dead.”
Opioids have gripped the music business for decades – codeine and Percodan were among the drugs found in Elvis Presley’s body when he died in 1977. But fentanyl’s rise in music may be rooted in deeper trends. Artists are touring more than ever before. “The stress of the road is very difficult, but that’s where the money is,” says Harold Owens, senior director of MusiCares, the Grammy-connected assistance program. “So they go on these long tours, and physically it’s horrible. They’re not eating right or taking care of themselves.”
Many of those hard-touring acts – at or near what would be retirement age in other professions – are dealing with the long-term effects of life on the road. “We’re all older, and people are starting to have carpal tunnel and injuries from playing,” says Bonnie Raitt, a recovering addict herself,…