31 Years Ago: Def Leppard Guitarist Steve Clark Dies
On the morning of Jan. 8, 1991, Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen received a phone call from his manager Cliff Burnstein, bearing news he had been dreading for close to five years. His best friend, co-guitarist Steve Clark, had died while sleeping on a couch. He was 30 years old.
An autopsy revealed the Clark died from an unintentional overdose of alcohol, Valium and Codeine. “He had been drinking and he cracked a rib earlier on,” Collen wrote in his biography Adrenalized. “The doctor told him not to drink while taking his pain medication. He drank anyway. The coroner’s report, I believe, read that it was due to a swelling of the brain.”
Clark joined Def Leppard in 1978, a year after their formation, and was a key songwriter on the band’s biggest albums -- 1983’s Pyromania and 1987’s Hysteria. Like his bandmates, Clark celebrated the band’s success and the perks that came with it, especially free alcohol. During the time Pyromania was blowing up, Clark and Collen became known as “the terror twins,” because of their drunken antics and the pranks they pulled on other musicians. In addition to relishing their drinking adventures, the two guitarists bonded on a deeper level.
“We quickly became best friends,” Collen wrote. “It wasn’t just the guitar playing or extreme boozing. We both found that we were soaking up all that we could and learning more on the road than we had ever learned at school, with a healthy appetite for new and exciting cultural discoveries. We also found that we loved each other’s company. We could get into deep conversations that would last for hours.”
When Collen quit drinking in the late ‘80s he realized Clark was spinning out of control. For years he had been a functioning alcoholic, but he had developed a serious problem and his behavior had become erratic and unpredictable. Every morning he woke up shaking and had to go to a bar and drink until he stopped trembling. At one point, he went on a bender in Paris and wound up in a hospital with alcohol poisoning. Then, in the winter of 1989, several members of the band were in a studio when their co-manager Peter Mensch called to tell them that Clark was found unconscious at a bar in Minneapolis and had been rushed to a nearby hospital, Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center.
The band flew to Minneapolis and a doctor at the hospital urged them to admit Clark to rehab. At the time of the Minneapolis incident, Clark’s blood alcohol level was 0.59, considerably higher than the 0.41 level that John Bonham registered when he died.
Clark checked into a rehab center in Tucson, Arizona. He was given a leave of absence from Def Leppard for six months, and was promised that his slot in the group would be waiting for him when he was healthy. While Clark was in rehab, Def Leppard continued working on new songs. In treatment Clark met another patient, Janie Dean, who was trying to kick heroin. When they both got finished the program the two agreed to hang out and help one another with their addictions. Their intentions may have been good and their relationship was strong. They quickly fell in love and got engaged. But just as quickly, they started enabling each other. Janie began using again and Clark’s drinking escalated.
From that point until the time Clark died, Collen said in his book that it was “almost impossible” to find out where Clark was and try to keep him out of trouble. Considering his unwillingness to get sober and the ease with which he could get drugs and alcohol, perhaps Clark’s death was inevitable, as tragic as it was. Shortly after he died, Clark was buried at Wisewood Cemetery in Loxley, Sheffield, near his family’s estate.
Losing Clark was devastating for Def Leppard. They had already overcome the tragic car accident, in which drummer Rick Allen lost an arm, and now Clark was no longer with them. Grieved and angered, Collen quit the band, but vocalist Joe Elliott convinced him that Clark, who was ashamed about his severe alcoholism, wouldn’t have wanted Def Leppard to break up because of him. So Collen threw himself back into writing and playing, focusing intently on the band so he didn’t have to think about Clark’s death. Meanwhile, Clark's slot was filled in 1992 by former Dio guitarist Vivian Campbell, who remains in the band to this day.
“In a way Steve didn’t have much choice in the matter,” wrote Collen. “He was surrounded by drink most of his life. Steve’s dad was a taxi driver and I think Steve was always trying to prove he was worthy of his rock star status … Steve had to prove his manhood to his dad all the time, that he had the values of a Sheffield steelworker underneath his golden splendor.”
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends, co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.