January 8, 1991: Def Leppard’s Steve Clark Dies

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Steve Clark

He was on a six month informal leave of absence from his band. Def Leppard were the best-selling rock group of the 1990s. But their guitarist Steve Clark was haunted by a sadness and lack of confidence that all the success in the world couldn’t help him overcome, and the result was an addictive compulsion to drink to major excess and consume most any drug he could get his hands on. The issue came to a head when the classic rock band were making their fifth album, Adrenalize, and multiple stays in rehab had failed to help Clark.

Clark had joined the Sheffield, U.K.-based band in 1978, impressing them with his ability to play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” in full. Ironically, Clark had already seen his fellow guitar player Pete Willis fired from the band for alcoholism. But the group assured Clark that his place in the band was safe, and that they simply wanted him to address and overcome his substance abuse issues.

The night before, Clark and a friend went out to a local pub. The guitarist promised his fiance, Janie Dean, that he would not get drunk. They returned by midnight to Clark’s London home to watch a video.

The next day, January 8, 1991, Clark remained on the couch where Dean would often let him sleep off his previous night’s excesses. When she finally went to wake him, Clark was cold to the touch and there was a trail of blood on his lips.

The coroner ruled that the cause of his death was a respiratory failure due to a compression of the brain stem caused by a mixture of alcohol, painkillers and an anti-depressant. Clark’s autopsy found codeine, Valium and morphine in his system. His alcohol content was three times the British legal driving limit.

He was 30 years old.

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