“She should get her act together. Apart from that, I have got nothing to say to the bitch….When we were experimenting with drugs, little was known about the effects. In our time there were no rehab centers like today. Anyway, I did not know about them.”
-Keith Richards’ advice for Amy Winehouse, February 8, 2008, The Berlin International Film Festival“
“Winehouse’s death is as yet unexplained but she has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Last month, the audience booed her in Serbia after she was too drunk to continue her concert. A video of the incident made the rounds on YouTube.”
–Forbes.com, July 23, 2011, Amy Winehouse Joins Unfortunate “27 Club”
“Immediately after news broke of Amy Winehouse’s death, “27 Club” became a trending topic on Twitter: the singer had passed away at that same legendary age as many of rock’s other tragic figures. In memory of Amy and “all her friends that died at 27,” M.I.A. shared a demo of “27,” a song recorded before her Vicki Leekx mix from end of December, but never released. Audio and lyrics [here]”
–stereogum, July 24, 2011, M.I.A. -“27”
Between July 3, 1969 and July 3, 1971 something strange happened in rock n’ roll: four of its most iconic personalities -Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison- all died at age 27. The similarities of their public images, the coincidence of their same age at death and the quirk of them dying within exactly two years prompted one of the most enduring urban legends in rock n’ roll folklore, “the 27 club”. According to myth, there’s a curse set on musicians that kills them when they are 27, making them members of a “club” that ranges from the legendary (the above four) to the obscure (Murray Shiffrin of cult ‘60s psych band Morgen)…
…and now – as was speculated to happen for years – Amy Winehouse…
In 2008 Winehouse’s former personal assistant Alex Haines told Britain’s News of the World, “It was my job to look after her. But it was impossible. I thought she wouldn’t survive the year with all the drugs and self-harming. Cutting herself was her favorite pastime… She’d keep taking drugs until she passed out. I reckon she spent $5,000 a week on them... She reckoned she would join the 27 Club of rock stars who died at that age. She told me, ‘I have a feeling I’m gonna die young’.”
By 1969-1971 rock n’ roll had finally outgrown its reputation as a mere fad in the minds of even its biggest detractors. As it rapidly mutated and expanding as a pop-cultural phenomena, it strummed into venues it had never demanded before, garnered broader and more serious media coverage, factored into youth culture in unprecedented ways and piquing industry interest accordingly.
All of this made it the perfect time for prominent deaths to be elevated to the level of epic fables as rock n’ roll folklore spread through proverbial concert parking lots, school cafeterias, magazine articles and record stores. One myth from this period was the “Paul Is Dead” hoax that stirred conspirators to listen to Beatles’ LPs backwards and search every inch of the sleeves for “clues” (i.e. Paul pictured not like the others – be it his back turned, his shoes off, etc; mumbles before “Blackbird” heard backwards as “Paul is dead now, miss him miss him miss him” or “Revolution 9” interpreted as an abstract recreation of Paul’s “death scene” with the cryptically repeated “number nine, number nine” reversed to “turn me on dead man”)…
Also circa ’69-’71 Led Zeppelin rapidly spread their rabid fan base with a myth-inciting magnetism, particularly through their celebrated first four albums. These LPs had roman numerals or unexplained symbols for titles, more alleged backwards messages, cryptic artwork and lyrical imagery that took on a life of its own in the band’s refusal to do interviews (especially in the early ‘70s, after the press bombed III). The only thing unmistakable about Zep in this period was the recurring need for Plant to howl for his “baby” (aka “babe,” “mama,” “woman” and maybe a mud shark pleasured groupie).
Further feeding into all this mystery was the notorious role English magician/ occultist Aleister Crowley took on in rock folklore through associations, misassociations, miscellaneous misconceptions, and the allure of all this meeting with rock stars at their crossroads. Rockers fascination with Crowley – previously one of many famous faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper – runs from Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to this day: MGMT’s Andrew Vanwyngarden discussed reading Aleister’s “Diary of a Drug Fiend” last year in Q Magazine. Likewise, from 1969-1971 Satanism (and devilish acts, like the myth Alice Cooper bit off the head of a chicken and drank its blood) began to be associated (rightly or wrongly) with hard rock groups.
Confused into this mess of pop-culture instnat-mythology were messier realities – like the actions of a failed Monkee (according to another myth) and Beach Boy collaborator (not a myth!) who heard other messages in “Revolution 9”. His name: Charles Manson.
These theories are distinctively “old-world” by today’s information-overloaded, mystique-less cultural standards…. even oddly funny. Still, it’s no coincidence they all came about just as rock n’ roll was old enough to foster such myths and young enough for an industry to feed off them. Rock n’ roll had always been about death (and life) and the dark side (even if only to show us the light) so it was only apt that similar themed myths arose to evoke context and curiosities for fans to obsess over.
It’s not that there wasn’t folklore like this before 1969, there was – Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the ability to play guitar like none other for example. Nor is it that it ended in 1971, it didn’t: witness the continuing saga of Keith Richard – from his total blood transfusion to recently snorting his dad’s ashes; the enigma of John Gillis, aka “Jack White”, and his “sister”; why Gene Simmons tongue is so long; the infamous Rod Stewart stomach pump rumour and the “I am not afraid of dying, any time will do” spoken line in Dark Side of the Moon’s “Great Gig in the Sky” synching exactly to the entrance of the tornado in Wizard of Oz…
But the timing of these myths – the way the music industry evolved with media and the music itself – ensured they’d persist forty years on…
“The 27 club” is a grand example of plausible, rational explanations being ignored in favor of half-baked theories connecting coincidences and misapprehensions. Yet, of all the myths that came about circa 1969-1971, none persists quite like the “club”. It’s versatile enough to include many causes of death, not just self-induced substance abuse rock cliché – from Helmut Kollen’s carbon monoxide poisoning to Mia Zapata’s tragic rape and murder. And it’s the greatest rock n’ roll myth because none other involves so many musicians crossing so many styles, is continually updated and even feeds into the other rock myths: “Mama” Cass choked on a ham sandwich in bed and died – while carrying John Lennon’s baby – in the same flat Jimi had choked to death on his vomit; or was it that Hendrix was killed by his manager, Michael Jeffrey, in the same flat Keith Moon later died in… just like Kurt Cobain was murdered – and your donations can prove it… Or is it that Kurt is still alive? Or maybe it’s Jim Morrison who lives…
The “27 Club” even feeds into the “Paul is Dead” myth: McCartney was 27 when the “news” broke that he was “dead,” thus the notorious “28IF” Volkswagen license plate “evidence” on the cover of Abbey Road (except he would have been 24 at his alleged “O.P.D.” – U.K. police lingo for “officially pronounced dead” as misread from Paul’s Sgt. Pepper outfit’s arm). The “27 club” may have started with those four deaths in two exact years as the “flower generation” wilted into something more burnt out (even devilish), but it certainly didn’t fade away.
In the 1969-1971 period – bookending Jimi and Janis’ deaths, but after Jones and before Morrison – there was also two other aged-27 musician deaths: in 1970 Canned Heat leader Alan Wilson (who definitively set the vibe of the Woodstock film with “Going Up the Country,” in turn soundtracking the images mimicked by every summer of ’69 recreation of the past forty years) and Arlester “Dyke” Christian of Dyke & the Blazers (whose “Funky Broadway,” as well as Wilson Pickett’s version of the same song, were the first non-James Brown records to popularize funk).
The Grateful Dead’s Ronald “Pigpen” McKernan fatal gastrointestinal hemorrhage in 1973 was the first major rock n’ roll 27 incident after 1971, and Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide was the most famous, but these are merely two in a disproportionately long list of musicians whom have died at that age since that year.
Major rock subgenres from the past four decades with a “member” in the 27 club” include:
- garage/ punk (bassist Dave Alexander once of The Stooges and fired for alcohol issues five years before his 1975 death -by which time they weren’t even an active band- but remembered by Iggy Pop at the start of 1977’s “Dum Dum Boys”- “How about Dave? OD’d on alcohol”)
- pop-rock (Badfinger leader Pete Ham hung himself in 1975)
- hard rock (Uriah Heep’s Gary Thain, also ‘75)
- “krautrock” (Triumvirat’s Helmut Kollen in’77)
- power pop (in 1978 Big Star’s original co-leader Chris Bell rode into a telephone pole)
- underground/ indie rock (an auto accident also took D. Boon, singer/ guitarist/ writer of The Minutemen – Trivia: bassist Mike Watt replaced Alexander when the Stooges reformed in 2003, a full-circle moment of surviving members from bands with “27 club members”)
- post-punk neo-psychedelia (Echo & the Bynnymen’s drummer Pete de Freitas’ 1989 motorcycle crash)
- riot grrrl (The Gits’ Mia Zapata)
- Britpop (The Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards has been missing since 1995…who knows?)
- contemporary prog (The Mars Volta sound(scape)man Jeremy Michael Ward in 2003).
“Club” believers retroactively initiated Robert Johnson (died at 27 in Greenwood, Mississippi under mysterious circumstances – some say the devil had come back for him but he was probably poisoned by the husband of a mama whom Robert had tried to get to squeeze his lemon ’til the juice ran down his leg). The biggest believers will go back even further, to the 1908 death of St. Louis ragtime pianist Louis Chauvin (most remembered today for “Heleotrope Bouquet,” the piece he co-wrote with Scott Joplin). There were other musicians who died at 27 before 1969 as well, but none of them well-known enough to instigate folklore theory: the 1945 death of New York swing pianist Nat Jaffe (a sideman to Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagraden and others), the 1960 death of rhythm and blues crooner Jesse Belvin (best remembered for his hit version of the standard “Goodnight My Love” and for writing doo-wop gem “Earth Angel”), the 1964 death of Rudy Lewis (lead singer of The Drifters circa “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “Please Stay,” “Up On The Roof” and “On Broadway” who supposedly died the night before “Under the Boardwalk” was recorded, with Johnny Moore replacing him) and the 1968 death of Spanky and Our Gang’s singer Malcolm Hale (of “Sunday Will Never Be The Same” and “Lazy Day” fame, two Mamas and Papas-esque “love generation” romantic oldies).
Dying at 27 advances the notoriety of musicians. Of course death at any age makes a “legend” out of the famous, but the myth of the “club” exaggerates the phenomena and guarantees you are namechecked every time another musician dies at that age or the topic is discussed.
Would Nirvana be on the cover story of the current issue of Spin if Kurt was still alive? 2011 is not just the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, but of an entire industry shift that occurred mid/late-1991. Nirvana were only part of that sea change, so why are they singled out? As examiner/austin pointed out (within an hour of Winehouse’s death breaking on the web), “At the time before Kurt Cobain’s death, Peal Jam’s Vs was outselling In Utero and recording was tumultuous for Hendix’s follow up to Electric Ladyland, but these facts don’t come into mention in assessing the legacy of these two. Furthermore, we can only wonder if we would have the same perceptions of people like Cobain and Hendrix and Morrison, if we had the access to celebrities’ personal lives we have now. What would TMZ make of Cobain’s heroin use, or Morrison’s acid binges? Is it fair, I don’t know. What we should keep in mind is that while Winehouse may be specifically remembered for her reckless behavior and drug addiction, one can’t forget that she was a talented singer with at least one of the better albums of the last decade.”
What truly makes the “27 club” a part of pop-culture isn’t just the coincidence of these deaths at this age, but the continued fascination with that coincidence in multiple mediums. It has been the focus of books both fiction (Paul McComas’s novel Unplugged) and non-fiction(Segalstad/ Hunter’s The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll and Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses by R. Gary Patterson, also the author of Beatle conspiracy tome The Walrus Was Paul), films (the fictional The 27 Club,” as well as various non-fiction pictures about the lives and deaths of many of the above musicians) and even live theater (27 Heaven, an off-Broadway play). But mostly it’s part of pop-culture because it’s rock’s supreme urban legend, crossing generations of musicians and fans, being discussed with equal fascination in dorms, online and on lines to concerts. What is it about these musicians – the conversation goes – that all would/could have lived until at least 28 “IF” the dreaded curse of the “27 club” hadn’t taken their lives for some mysterious reason?