It’s lonely at the top: remembering the 27 Club

As the 21st anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain approaches, we here at Howl & Echoes are taking a look back at the lasting legacy of those rockers cut down in their prime, that who’s who of rock and roll’s so-called ’27 Club’.

Association between musicians and premature death, specifically at the age of 27, began with the spate of high profile deaths between 1969 and 1971. Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones, was discovered at the bottom of his swimming pool in July of 1969. He had been contributing only erratically to the band and amidst drug abuse issues had departed the band only a month earlier. The coroner’s report attributed heavy drug and alcohol abuse as factors in his untimely death.

Jimi Hendrix followed in September 1970, in the devastating (yet pretty undignified) manner of being asphyxiated by his own vomit. It occurred after a day mostly spent with his girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, reportedly consisting of heated arguments, a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, and a couple tuna sandwiches. Hendrix had allegedly been dealing with two pending lawsuits, issues with his management, not to mention physical exhaustion in the lead up to his death.

Here’s Jimi doing what he does best:

Just 16 days later, in early October, Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose. Another artist notoriously embroiled in a love affair with heroin and alcohol, she had been disappointed that neither her fiancé, Seth Morgan, or one of her closest friends, Peggy Caserta, had come to keep her company throughout that weekend. The rest is history.

Notice Janis Joplin’s raw energy on the Dick Cavett show, in one of her final public appearances here:

The Doors frontman Jim Morrison was found dead in a bathtub in July of 1971. In accordance with French law, no autopsy was done on Morrison, whose official cause of death of ‘heart failure’ left a void for speculation and conspiracy theorists to fill. His high profile trial for indecent exposure in a 1969 Miami auditorium would surely have left him feeling heavily targeted and despondent. Here’s an excerpt from his 1970 volume of poetry, The Lords and The New Creatures:

‘There are no longer “dancers,” the possessed. The cleavage of men into actor and spectators is the central fact of our time. We are obsessed with heroes who live for us and whom we punish. If all the radios and televisions were deprived of their sources of power, all books and paintings burned tomorrow, all shows and cinemas closed, all the arts of vicarious existence…

We are content with the “given” in sensation’s quest. We have been metamorphosised from a mad body dancing on hillsides to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.’

The death of four iconic musicians of the era, all within two years and at the same age, undoubtedly raised questions as well as eyebrows. Music lovers would have been drained by the loss of some of the most uniquely talented artists to grace the planet. Yet the comparison bears similarities in ways that are more telling than the age of the club members. For all their grand abilities, each of these masters of their craft had scaled the lofty heights and found the rarefied air lonely. Masked by an extraordinary talent was the insecurity of a regular attention seeker failing to cope with the difficulties associated with the limelight.

The same can be said of the more recent members of the 27 Club that, upon their passing, returned the club to the collective consciousness. Kurt Cobain committed suicide around April 5, 1994 (he was found on April 8 so the coroner’s report only provides an estimated date) leaving behind a daughter, Frances, with wife Courtney Love, and a suicide note addressed to his imaginary childhood friend, ‘Boddah’. His heroin addiction had continued despite an intervention arranged by Love only a fortnight earlier. Cobain’s mother added fuel to the flame, indeed she may very well have been responsible for reigniting interest in the tendency of rockers to die age 27 by claiming in a statement, ‘Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.’ But that’s only speculation.

One of the latest major new 27 Club entrants was Amy Winehouse. With a history of mental illness, substance abuse, eating disorders and overall erratic behaviour in her final years, the music world was crushed to hear of her death by accidental alcohol poisoning on 23 July 2011. Her death once again brought the 27 Club into the spotlight, accompanied by her own admission of fear about dying at the age. Have a listen to Amy Winehouse as she was meant to be heard; stripped back, soulful and accompanied by acoustic arpeggios:

So why does the 27 Club fascinate us so? While it’s never about idealising drug-fuelled injuries, and hedonistic excess, there is a certain romanticism to the self-destructive tendencies of an artist expressing their soul’s inner-workings in a tune we can relate to. Indeed, the relatability of these music giants may just be the key to our captivation. They hold the same vulnerabilities as us lesser mortals, can be corrupted in the same way we can and feel isolated in a distinctly human way.

That there is mystery surrounding many of the deaths only adds intrigue, particularly to the conspiracy theorists of the world. The Seattle Police Department, for instance, receives weekly requests to reopen the case on Kurt Cobain’s death. The internet is eternally rife with varied theories on the ‘real’ causes of death of Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Morrison’s own cynical words in the above excerpt seem to hold an element of truth, that we raise our idols onto pedestals, only to morbidly relish their fall from grace. They turn into precautionary tales of excess and confirmation of our own satisfied existence. They are to fall like Icarus, by flying to close to the sun, whilst we maintain our sedate pace. Yet theirs is ours to envy, they have risen to heights rarely seen and fallen dramatically, rather than carry on until their relevance faltered. If there were a motto for the club, it would be the words famously penned by Cobain in his suicide note; ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

So the next time you consider the 27 Club, spare a thought for Iggy Pop, eking out a living selling car insurance, for Axl Rose, maintaining a questionable feud with half of his former band, and for Sid Vicious, whose star burnt so brightly he only lived until 21.

To celebrate his life, a documentary entitled, ‘COBAIN – Montage of Heck’ will be coming out in May this year.