There is something unspeakable about the 27 Club – that morbid, fan-blog-fetishized association that includes a statistically significant number of talented musicians who all died at the same tender age. The best-known members (a.k.a. the Big Six) include some of the greatest pop-rock musicians of our time: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and, most recently, Amy Winehouse. All were prodigious boozers and drug users, all achieved precocious celebrity and all were hailed as musical geniuses in their time, but not one made it to their 28th birthday despite the combined riches of Midas and crowds of “concerned” hangers-on. That their respective tragic ends have been grouped together in a single dubious social trend seems somehow both melodramatic and trivial at the same time. Thinking about it makes me want to plug my ears and hum a little tune out of respect for the poor, dead artists. How unfair to expire early and in pain and end up a half-baked statistic.
And yet, is the 27 Club really a load of hokum? Reading the most recent (and only truly credible) book on the subject, Amy, 27, by Howard Sounes, I’ve been forced to re-examine my skepticism. In a book that is part biography, part rock ’n’ roll history and part sociological analysis, Sounes casts a serious critical eye on the notion of the 27 Club. Is it really a thing? And if so, what can we possibly learn from it?
To his credit, Sounes begins by ripping apart his chosen subject – a bold move for someone about to devote several hundred pages to the same. “The 27 Club is, essentially, a media construct based on a coincidence. It is also a flippant, even vulgar term,” he writes. “Nevertheless the phrase is widely used and understood, and these deaths are intriguing.”
What Sounes seeks to determine is this: Are there common factors, apart from creepy coincidence, that help explain the early deaths of these six major rock stars? Given that the book exists, you can guess the answer is a resounding yes.
But first he does something few music writers have ever bothered to do: he crunches the numbers in a broad way. To test the theory of the 27 Club, he compiled a list of 3,463 people who died between 1908 and 2012 after having achieved fame in jazz and popular music. The first year marks the death of Louis Chauvin, a ragtime pianist and the first 27 death in popular music history, and the last is the year he began writing the book. What Sounes discovers and visually charts out is that something very strange is indeed happening to notable young musicians at the age of 27. From the age of 40 the deaths rise understandably with age, with small spikes at 21, 50 and 80 (as the author points out, “Nobody writes about the 80 Club”). But the spike at 27 is remarkable – an astonishing 50 deaths in total, compared with about 30 for the surrounding ages. So what’s so deadly about 27?
The answer, of course, lies in what the members of the 27 Club had in common – and in the case of the famous six, it’s more than you might think. Jones, Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain and Winehouse were all highly intelligent artists who broke from their families and pursued lives outside middle-class norms. They were, for lack of a better term, rebellious bohemians. They also all struggled with substance abuse, and intoxication played a part in their deaths. Only Cobain took his own life in a violent and obviously intentional way – a fact that is said to have prompted his bereaved mother to tell a reporter, “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to.”
But while drowning on sleeping pills (like Jones) or drinking and drugging oneself into oblivion (like Hendrix, Joplin and Winehouse) might not technically be considered suicide, they certainly show a bold willingness to flirt with death in pursuit of the pleasure principle. As Sounes concludes of the Big Six, they “were psychologically flawed and, in many cases, had personality disorders, bordering on mental illness.” They died of their own self-destructive impulses. In this sense, Sounes concludes that all of the Big Six committed a kind of “passive suicide,” as defined by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who believed that suicide is not a fixed concept. They were, as Durkheim wrote, “the author of their own end[s].”
All of the Big Six artists were engaged in an epic internal battle between their psychological demons and their life-affirming talent. Twenty-seven seems to be the age at which the pain, the addiction and the mental illness simply had a better chance of getting the upper hand. The Big Six were too young to slow down and too old to change their self-destructive ways. They were young enough to take crazy risks, but old enough to be tired of considering the consequences. As Sounes writes, they had become “weary of life – not all the time, perhaps: even the condemned man will joke with his jailer. But behind the brave talk they’d had enough.”
And so they went and joined that stupid club. Let’s hope our culture’s loss at least affords them some rest.