Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The 27 Club

By this time, you’ve most likely heard about the tragic death of British soul singer Amy Winehouse, who was found dead in her home in London this past Saturday, July 23, 2011. As of this writing, no official cause of death has been determined. However, Winehouse’s battle with drug addiction is well known. One of her hit songs was titled “Rehab”, and its lyrics were about refusing to enter it. For the record, Winehouse actually did go into rehab (some sources say she went as many as four times), but she could not overcome her demons. She was 27 years old. (Update: In October 2011, Winehouse's death was determined to have been alcohol-related).

Apparently, many a musician has met an early end at that peculiar age. Winehouse’s death has drawn new media attention to the so-called “27 Club”, a mythical pantheon of musicians who have died at the age of 27. Along with Winehouse, the most famous members of the 27 Club are Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. The myth of the 27 Club was created in 1970 and 1971, when Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison all died within the same 12-month period. That series of events permanently gave rock and roll an even more dangerous image than it had before. When Kurt Cobain’s mother was informed of her famous son’s suicide in 1994, she remarked that he “joined that stupid club”.

Depending on which believer in the 27 Club you are listening to, the club’s original founding member was either ragtime pianist Lewis Chauvin (who died from syphilis in 1908) or blues legend Robert Johnson (who was apparently poisoned in 1938). Other names on the long list of musicians who died at 27 include: original Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones; original Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan; Badfinger leader Pete Ham; Stooges bassist Dave Alexander; Big Star co-founder Chris Bell; Minutemen singer/guitarist D. Boon; Echo and the Bunnymen drummer Pete de Freitas; Gits vocalist Mia Zapata; and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff. Also worth mentioning is Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards, who vanished in 1995 at age 27, and is officially presumed dead.

Is it all just a macabre coincidence? Maybe. The superstitious might attribute it to a curse. Some others will speculate that (to paraphrase Kurt Cobain's mother) some musicians willfully meet their end at age 27 for the sake of being immortalized in the “Club”. Personally, I do wonder if musicians who live self-destructive lifestyles may possibly have tendencies to burn out when they reach age 27. To be fair, not all of the musicians mentioned above died from drug-related deaths. But the most famous among them generally did. When someone uses drugs for a number of years, they are likely to sink into a state of addiction from which they cannot recover. They may eventually be faced with making the hard choice between continuing down the road they are on (which, they may come to realize, will only become more painful and destructive) or getting clean (which can be frightening for someone who has become dependent on drugs). It is possible that when drug-dependent musicians reach age 27, they tend to reach that moment of reckoning, and lose their will to live. Also, their bodies may reach the point where they need to use heavy doses of potent drugs in order to achieve their desired highs. Their self-destructive lifestyles may finally break their bodies or their spirits (or both) at a time that happens to come before their 28th birthday.

It’s sad to see so many talented people die at early ages. Unfortunately, the trend will probably continue. We can preach “say no to drugs” messages until we are blue in the face, but some people will still not heed the warning, regardless of the number of lives we see ruined or lost. It seemingly always has been and probably always will be common for musicians to be drawn to wild and drug-addled party lifestyles. We can only hope that the deaths of Winehouse and several others in the 27 Club will open more eyes.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 8

Last week I received the eighth pair of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months. According to the postmark, my package was sent on July 11th. I received it on the 13th.

This eighth set of items focuses entirely on the recently disbanded White Stripes, giving us glimpses of the very beginning and the very end of their performing career. It consists of a 2-LP live album (pressed in 180g vinyl) documenting the final White Stripes concert from 2007, as well as a 7” single containing two very early Stripes recordings from 1997, and a DVD documenting a concert that the duo gave in a small Minnesota bar in the year 2000.

The duo of Jack and Meg White performed their final concert at Snowden Grove Amphitheater in Southaven, Mississippi on July 31, 2007. The remainder of their tour, which was not meant to be their last, was cancelled due to Meg’s bout with acute anxiety. The double-LP Live In Mississippi enables us to hear that final show. It’s an intense and often ferocious set, with the Stripes giving it their all as if they knew it was the end. (During their closing performance of the traditional “Boll Weevil” blues song, Jack indeed does seem to make some kind of comment about their “last show”. Maybe I’m just hearing things). Jack dazzles with his guitar acrobatics, particularly on “Icky Thump” and “Ball and Biscuit”. Meg’s simple drumming pins the songs down nicely; “Blue Orchid” is a standout example of how well her drumming can complement Jack’s guitar playing. The best track of all is their cover of Son House’s “Death Letter”, which serves up a series of fascinating blues licks that culminate in a dizzying finish. However, there is one telltale sign of Meg’s troubles: her slightly awkward lead vocal on “In The Cold, Cold Night” suggests a possible feeling of insecurity. A riveting listen from start to finish, Live In Mississippi gives fans the golden opportunity to say a proper goodbye to the White Stripes. (Note: The album’s track listing is numbered backwards from 22 to 1 on the packaging instead of 1 to 22, like it’s the final countdown to the end of the final show. Now there is something that couldn’t be done on a CD package without causing some confusion).

The DVD Under Moorhead Lights All Fargo Night documents a relatively early live performance by the Whites at Ralph’s Corner Bar in Moorhead, MN, on June 13th of 2000, which Jack told the audience was the release date of the second Stripes album De Stijl. (The album was actually released a week later, on the 20th of that month – but, whatever). Jack’s voice was hoarse that day, which does prove to be a problem when he tries to sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. But that is the only song that is ruined by that problem. Otherwise, Jack is able to work around that obstacle quite well, even on the more pop-influenced numbers like “Apple Blossom” and “You’re Pretty Good Looking”. Instrumentally, the duo’s economical guitar-and-drums combo packs its usual punch throughout. “Little Bird” and Son House’s “Death Letter” have particularly gripping and authentic blues grooves; the latter song clearly has a way of bringing out the best in Jack White. This DVD effectively captures the feeling of seeing the White Stripes play in a small intimate bar. Pour me another beer! (About 36 minutes into the disc, right at the beginning of “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise”, the DVD suddenly jumps to the main menu – a very annoying main menu, I might add – so you’ll need to use the Scene Selection option to play the three remaining songs).

The 7” single goes even farther back into the Stripes’ early days, containing two studio sides recorded back in 1997. That’s right: these two songs predate the duo’s 1998 debut single “Let’s Shake Hands”. The A-side is a cover of Love’s “Signed DC”; the B-side is a cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. The A-side’s faithful version of the moody Arthur Lee ballad about drug addiction comes remarkably close to matching the original version’s feeling of detached hopelessness. The cover of Redding’s classic soul ballad on the B-side doesn’t come close to the soulfulness of the original, but it probably wasn’t meant to, as it’s converted into a minimalist garage rock song. These two recordings suggest that the Whites knew from the beginning what type of aesthetic they wanted for their band.

Another note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the forgotten practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is evident on these items. Side A of the single has “Don Conka or death certificate?” carved in the dead wax; the B-side has “We didn’t know this existed” carved. The double-LP has the following messages etched in the runout grooves: “suburban Memphis”, “birth place of suburban rock + roll”, “Meg told me before the show”, and “the prestige on the way home”.

White Stripes “Live In Mississippi” (Third Man TMR-100) 2011

Track Listing (numbered in reverse as on the packaging):


22. Stop Breaking Down
21. Let’s Build a Home
20. When I Hear My Name
19. Icky Thump
18. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground/As Ugly As I Seem
17. The Same Boy You’ve Always Known
16. Wasting My Time


15. Phonograph Blues
14. Cannon/John the Revelator
13. Death Letter
12. Astro
11. Apple Blossom
10. You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)
9. In The Cold, Cold Night


8. I Want To Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart
7. Hotel Yorba
6. A Martyr For My Love For You
5. Ball and Biscuit


4. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues
3. Blue Orchid
2. I’m Slowly Turning Into You
1. Boll Weevil

White Stripes “Under Moorhead Lights All Fargo Night” (Third Man DVD TMR-096) 2011

Track Listing:

1. Let’s Shake Hands
2. Screwdriver
3. Wasting My Time
4. Jolene
5. Death Letter
6. Little Bird
7. Apple Blossom
8. You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)
9. Your Southern Can Is Mine
10. Sugar Never Tasted So Good
11. Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise
12. I’m Bored
13. Cannon/John the Revelator

The White Stripes “Signed DC” (b/w “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”) (Third Man single TMR097) 2011

Track Listing:

a. Signed DC
b. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long