The 27 club

Last week, I looked at the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson and his so-called “deal with the devil.” But selling his soul to the fallen angel from hell for greater prowess on the blues guitar is not the only myth attached to Robert Johnson. He also died at the young age of 27, which is now an age associated with a group of unfortunates called “The 27 Club,” also known as the “Forever 27 Club.” One survey in the British newspaper The Independent shows that 1.3% of all musicians died at that age between 1950 and 2010, but 2.3% of the same sample died at the age of 56. A total of 137 musicians died at 27 during this period states this survey. It’s not just the total number of musician deaths at this age, argue some critics, but the deaths of a number of important musicians. Life magazine seemed to agree by putting the unfortunate six listed here on the cover of their 2016 special edition entitled Gone Too Soon.

“So why isn’t there a 56 Club or a 28 Club? Is it because Brian Jones (drowning), Jimi Hendrix (aspirated vomitus from barbiturate overdose), Janis Joplin (heroin overdose), Jim Morrison (drug-induced heart attack), Kurt Cobain (suicide by gunshot) and Amy Winehouse (alcohol poisoning) all died aged 27? All were tortured souls who reached pop stardom and died tragically at their zenith. Perhaps we need to consider a change of name for this group – from the 27 Club to ‘The Tragic Six’ or ‘The Tragic Seven’ if we include Robert Johnson?” asks an article in above-mentioned newspaper.

  1. Brian Jones was the founding member and lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, who drowned in 1969, although it was rumored that he was murdered. “Brian Jones was one of the first people in Britain to play slide guitar and his love of the blues was at the heart of what he and the rest of The Rolling Stones were all about when they started out,” states udiscovermusic.com. Although he stayed with the band for only a few years, his importance to the Stones cannot be overstated.
  2. Arguably the greatest guitarist ever, James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942. Hendrix pioneered several electric blues guitar styles, sometimes playing with his teeth or other parts of his body. Starting out on the Chitlin’ Circuit, Hendrix became rock’s highest paid performer by 1969. Beside his mega-hit “Purple Haze,” he is perhaps best known for his performance of the national anthem at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix died of a barbiturate overdose in 1970.
  3. Janis Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur Texas. “Joplin brought her powerful, bluesy voice from Texas to San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, where she went from drifter to superstar. She has been called ‘the greatest white urban blues and soul singer of her generation’,” claims www.rockhall.com. There was no doubt that Janis was singing the blues as soon as she had sung the first note. She died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel room in 1970.
  4. Jim Morrison, an American singer-songwriter who founded The Doors, was best known for performing “Light My Fire” on the Ed Sullivan show in 1967 and for gaining notoriety for “This is the End,” an anti-war song about Vietnam. He was found dead in a Paris hotel bathtub in 1971, allegedly from a heroin overdose, although there was no autopsy performed to prove it.
  5. Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington and formed his band Nirvana during the Grunge music popularity of the 1990s. “In Charles Cross’ excellent biography Heavier Than Heaven, you can see a much fuller picture of Kurt Cobain than we were given in 1994 — a tornado of physical pain, mental pain and addiction,” says www.stereogum.com. He died in Seattle of a self-inflicted shotgun blast in 1994, but his wife, Courtney Love, believed he was murdered.
  6. British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse battled alcohol and other addictions for years. “Her final album, Back on Black (2006) was an international hit, and ‘Rehab’ (2008) was number nine on the United States pop charts. Amy Winehouse became the first British female to win five Grammy Awards on the same night, February 10th, 2008, including Best New Artist and Record of the Year for ‘Rehab’,” states Wikipedia. She died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning.

So what do these artists have in common other than passing away at the age of 27? The first four started off with a direct connection to the blues and the same four died within a year of each other. Is this just a coincidence or is there something deeper underneath? One can see the direct influence of Robert Johnson on Janis Joplin, but did that have anything to do with Brian Jones? One can also state that death at age 27 and pacts with the devil are myths, but can we be absolutely certain?

Conversely, there are some authors who criticize the whole concept of the 27 club. “There’s no mystery: if you start abusing drugs and alcohol in your teens, your body may well give out in your late 20s. The rock ‘n’ roll mythology that encourages our young artists to do that is pernicious enough without reinforcing it further, even if you think you’re doing so in the pursuit of some kind of analysis,” writes Tom Hawking in www.flavorwire.com.

Fair enough, but like the crossroads myth (where Johnson allegedly met the devil at a Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul for mastery of the guitar), the 27 Club theory lives on in modern mythology. Perhaps this is because we lament the loss of great artists at such a young age or maybe it’s pure schadenfreude, a German word that means feeling pleasure from watching someone else fail. But we have to ask ourselves: would we feel the same about Janis Joplin today if she was a has-been singer from the ‘60s or would Robert Johnson still be considered such a great guitarist without the crossroads myth? Vexing questions, for sure.