If there’s a rock and roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band. – Alan O’Day and Johnny Stevenson
British neo-soul superstar Amy Winehouse joined The 27 Club yesterday. If you haven’t heard of this select group, the term refers to all the musicians who have died at the age of 27. It’s a pretty famous crowd.
- Janis Joplin, dead of a heroin overdose in 1970, was regarded as perhaps the preeminent female rock vocalist of her generation.
- Jimi Hendrix, still regarded as one of the greatest guitarists in history, had died less than a month earlier.
- Brian Jones, the brilliant and multi-talented co-founder of the Rolling Stones, died under suspicious circumstances in 1969.
- Two years to the day after Jones’s death, Doors lead singer Jim Morrison died of “heart failure.”
- Kurt Cobain, who many regard as the voice of his generation, committed suicide in 1994.
- Robert Johnson, probably the most influential guitarist of all time.
- Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, founding member of the Grateful Dead.
- Chris Bell of Big Star, a band whose impact on the Power Pop underground is still felt today.
- Dave Alexander, bassist for The Stooges.
- Pete Ham, leader of Badfinger.
- Gary Thain, bassist for Uriah Heep (a band whose bombast and notoriously revolving cast of musicians served as a model for Spinal Tap).
- D. Boon, lead singer of The Minutemen (a band I saw live the night before he died).
- Pete de Freitas, drummer for Echo & the Bunnymen.
- Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits.
- Kristen Pfaff, bassist for Hole.
- Richey James Edwards, guitarist and lyricist for Manic Street Preachers.
- Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, lead singer for Canned Heat.
Again, the list goes on. Add to these names an equally lengthy list of actors, athletes, poets, politicians, artists and other political figures and at some point the head begins to swim. A lot of genius (and a good bit of the infamous) has departed this realm at the age of 27.
To some extent The 27 Club represents an observational fallacy. There are only so many ages at which a person can die, after all, so of course a lot of famous people have died at any particular age you want to consider. The 28 Club, if there is such a thing, includes The Big Bopper, Jeff Buckley, Shannon Hoon, Heath Ledger, Brandon Lee, two Kennedys and Caligula. The 29 Club? Marc Bolan, Anne Bronte, Josh Hancock, Christopher Marlowe, DJ Screw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ronnie van Zant, Hank Williams and yet another Kennedy. It’s always tragic when talented people die young and our society – perhaps any society – feels an excess of pain when we see wasted potential. We can’t help imagining what might have been accomplished over the course of a full lifetime.
We spend a lot less time thinking about those who do great things by the age of 27 and then live out long, comparatively pedestrian lives, though. That kind of narrative doesn’t make especially good fodder for songwriters or filmmakers, as it turns out.
Still, when it comes to the cultural process of myth-making, 27 seems a especially dire age, full of promise and throbbing with danger. Maybe we’re subliminally drawn to the numerology – three is a divine number and 27 is three times thrice. Or maybe it’s more mundane than that. The span between 25 and 30 represents the crescendo of the first phase of our lives, the nexus of youthful verve and the onset of experience and wisdom. It is the age of greatest accomplishment by our most outstanding athletes, and in artistic pursuits it is a period where we begin to understand how we can harness our creative energies. In intellectual and rational endeavors, our minds are growing in power but very few of us have reached the top of the mountain, so our expanding capabilities are boosted by an intense drive to succeed.
In many ways we are never more on fire with life. And when someone is snatched away in their “prime,” the tragedy feels greater. When someone my age dies, we might lament that he was too young to go, but still, he was 50 – he’d had time to make his mark. When a child dies it’s horrific, but rarely can we lament tangible promise. A girl of eight may have been good on the piano, but she probably hadn’t reached the point where she was regarded as a budding superstar.
Maybe 27 is the number of epic tragedy. Or maybe we’re just feeling a primal need, born of grief and fear, to canonize an observational fallacy that seems to cluster unnaturally and unfairly around a set of artists that we loved.
I can’t really say, although I certainly can empathize. I was a big Amy Winehouse fan and I’ll never forget the moment when I heard that Kurt was gone. I understand why we memorialize The 27 Club, why we draw these icons together and pull a velvet rope around their portraits, portraits that always depict them as they crest.
If there’s a rock and roll heaven, The 27 Club is going to be hell to beat come next year’s Battle of the Bands….