rock-n-roll's "27 club"
WEIRD TALES OF STRANGE DAYS IN ROCK HISTORY
On this date, April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain, singer and guitarist for the groundbreaking grunge band Nirvana, was found dead in Seattle from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. Cobain, at the height of his popularity, was 27 years old. For his followers and fan, Cobain’s death was a tragedy, but one that was not totally unexpected. He had battled both depression and drug addiction for years.
But was this the only reason why many were not surprised to hear that Kurt Cobain died at 27? Unfortunately, when it comes to rock-n-roll, and the cult of celebrity, there is a “club” that few of them want to join. Entry in this “club” is simple – you only have to die at 27.
In ancient Greek history, it was said that Alexander the Great made a pact with the god Zeus that allowed him to choose between living to old age and never achieving glory or gaining everlasting fame and glory but dying as a young man. Alexander chose a short life and he conquered the entire known world before dying at the age of 33. His body was encased in solid gold and carried through the provinces so that his subjects could pay homage to their fallen leader. The Egyptians worshipped Alexander as a living god in the same manner as they did the ancient pharaohs. He was buried in secret and to this day, his tomb has not been discovered. Did he make the right choice? In the words of James Dean, Alexander planned to “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.”
Sadly, throughout literary history a great number of the most creative writers may as well have entered into Alexander’s pact. The English Romantic poets are a prime example: John Keats died at age 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley died at 29, Lord Byron met his death at 36, each dying at the height of his poetic powers.
In the world of rock-n-roll, there have been a number of musical giants who died in the full bloom of youth and have now become legends. They are considered members of a sort of “club,” to which entry is simple – you only have to die at the age of 27.
The founder of this club was bluesman Robert Johnson. He became the catalyst for the mixing of spirituals, country and blues that would someday become rock-n-roll. Legend has it that Johnson made a deal with the devil at a Mississippi crossroads. Like Alexander, he was granted fame and fortune, but his life ended far too soon. Johnson died at the age of only 27, setting the stage for other musicians to come.
The largest number of premature deaths occurred during the two-year period between July 3, 1969 and July 3, 1971, when a total of five major rock icons died tragically. All of them were 27 years old.
The first to follow in Johnson’s footsteps was Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones. He had recently been replaced in the band, but according to friends was never happier and planned to start a new band. Unfortunately, Jones drowned in the swimming pool at his home after a long night of drinking and drugs. Jones’ death remains mysterious today. Although deemed accidental, rumors have suggested suicide or even murder.
The next to die was Canned Heat guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson on September 3, 1970. Wilson was said to have suffered severe bouts of depression, and on the night of his death was camping out behind Canned Heat singer Bob Hite’s house. The band was leaving on a European tour the next day. Wilson’s body was found in his sleeping bag the next morning. The official version of his death was an accidental drug overdose, but many of his closest friends believed that his premature death was a suicide.
Brian Wilson from the Rolling Stones; Al "Blind Owl" Wilson from Canned Heat; and Jimi Hendrix
Later that same month, the rock world was stunned to learn that Jimi Hendrix had died in a girlfriend’s apartment in London. Hendrix became known as a legendary guitar player in the late 1960s and some of his friends believed that he may have sensed his impending death. That July, before his death, he told some reporters, “I don’t think I will live to see 28.” The official version of Hendrix’s death states that he was unable to sleep on the night of September 17, 1970 and took nine sleeping pills. His usual dosage was two. While his girlfriend was away from the apartment buying cigarettes, Hendrix vomited in his sleep, inhaled it, and died. Rumors swirled that he may have committed suicide or may have been murdered.
Two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood. Joplin escaped a lifetime of pain through music, alcohol and drugs and became one of the greatest blues singers of all time. On October 4, her body was discovered in her hotel room after she failed to show up for a recording session. Her friends had often begged her to stop using drugs, but Joplin had a bitter answer for them, “Let’s face it, I’ll never see 30.”
Then, on July 3, 1971, the body of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, was discovered in a bathtub in his Paris apartment. He had died from a heroin overdose – a drug he supposedly never used – and his death certificate was quickly signed by a French doctor who apparently never existed. A funeral was held five days later and Morrison, like so many other musicians of the day, was inducted into the club of those who died at age 27. Of course, I don’t think he did… but that’s another story for another time.
When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, many believed that the “27 club” was alive and well and still claiming the lives of famous artists. Up and coming singer Amy Winehouse, who perhaps not in the same league as singers like Cobain and Janis Joplin was starting to make a name for herself in the music world, died in 2011 – she was also 27.
Is the curse still going? That remains to be seen, but there certainly will be plenty of opportunities to see as new performers come along every day. How many of them will “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse?”
FROM TROY TAYLOR'S BOOK, INTO THE SHADOWS, WHICH INCLUDES AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE MYSTERY OF JIM MORRISON'S LIFE AND HIS ALLEGED DEATH IN 1971.