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.