What is our obsession with the beautifully broken? There is something of a mythologising aura surrounding musicians who die at the tender age of 27. But not just any musicians. Wildly talented artists who passed away at the zenith of fame under tragic, if somewhat romantic circumstances. Enter the 27 Club.
It’s the very premise upon which Shakespeare, Sophocles and Euripides plays are based. Star-crossed lovers and tormented talents meet grim, often self-inflicted ends that are wildly publicised.
Between the years 1969 and 1971, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all passed away at the age of 27. Yet it wasn’t until Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 that the idea of the ’27 Club’ really surfaced. Now it has wormed its way into the pop culture psyche like the wriggling things that despoil apples.
Why was this particular apple golden? Why didn’t it spoil the bunch? And is there any veracity behind the legend of the ‘Forever 27 Club’?
As a society we have a unique perversion with tragedy and death. When musicians join the 27 Club they are immortalised and martyred by the very thing they love. Music.
Self Fulfilling Prophecy
Kurt Cobain once said, “Nobody dies a virgin, life fucks us all.”
When Kurt Cobain was found dead in his home in Seattle by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head on April 8, 1994, the world was astir. His death was one of the most discussed events of the ’90s and has even brought about conspiracy theories. The sudden death of this grunge icon shook the world, and fans mourned for many years.
Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor famously said after Kurt death, “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club, I told him not to join that stupid club.”
Unfortunately, this was the quote that dominated the headlines at the time, only deepening the already brooding mythology. Yet Cobain was known to thank suffering as he needed it as a source for his art. As Friedrich Nietzsche so eloquently puts it, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
Many believe that Cobain entered the 27 Club as a source of sacrificial inspiration and intentional martyrdom. Yet, Charles R. Cross, author of Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, begs to differ, “No person, no matter how many demons they had at age 27, would want that club in their obituary. I’ve seen some people who think that these deaths are intentionally timed.”
“Like Kurt Cobain intentionally killed himself at that age simply to be in that club. You know, he suffered from depression, drug addiction and numerous other issues. He tried to kill himself at 17, 25, 26 as well, so it’s not like he did it just to join a club.”
Statistically, only 1.3% of musicians from 1950-2010 died at the age of 27. The most common age for musicians to pass away is 56 with 2.3% of all musicians joining ‘The 56 Club’.
However, I don’t think it’s quantity that makes up the potent concoction of the 27 Club.
Dealing With The Devil
Perhaps the curse of the ‘Forever 27 Club’ is predicated upon one of its earliest members. Robert Johnson is the root and source of an entire generation of blues and rock n’ roll. The legend of his deal with the devil is as famous as the tales of Homer yet his real life is shrouded in poverty and obscurity.
Johnson was born in Hazelurst, Mississipi in May 1911 and died 27 years later on 16 August 1968. Robert’s mother Julia had ten children before he was born, all out of wedlock. Johnson was born illegitimately to a plantation worker called Noah Johnson and was sent to live with his stepfather Charles Dodds in Memphis when he as four years old.
Johnson learned the basics of guitar from a brother in Memphis before moving back to the Delta to live with his mother where he was far more interested in music than working the plantation. Robert married Virginia Travis at 16 in 1929 however Virginia died one year later during childbirth.
This was about the same time Johnson saw Son House play live for the first time. Son House recalled many years later that Johnson would pick up the guitar between sets, “… such a racket you never heard!… get that guitar away from that boy.. he’s running people crazy with it”. While Johnson made 41 recordings throughout his life though only made roughly $100.
The veracity of the story of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads is strengthened by the constant references to Satan in his music. Furthermore, he made blues widely popular again, bringing it to an entirely new audience and, as a result, birthed rock n’ roll. Pretty neat way for the Devil to make himself cool again.
Let’s propose the ’27 Club’ is not so special and indeed there is a club for every year. What about the ’26 Club’?
The members would include:
- Rapper Mac Miller
- Folk legend Nick Drake
- Otis Redding
- Gram Parsons
- Early RHCP guitarist Hillel Slovak
- Jazz cat Fats Navaro
Or we pick twin digits. Here are the members of the ‘Forever 44 Club’.
- Billie Holiday
- Marvin Gaye
- Mary Queen of Scots
- Steve Irwin
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Jackson Pollock
The list goes on and there is an endless amount of people who have died at a certain age. It’s certainly odd, if not a bit beguiling that four famous rock stars all died at the same age within a few years, or perhaps we are all fascinated with a bit of music mythology.
Nonetheless, wether the curse of the 27 Club exists or not, I hope the constant decoration of 27 Club members is not enticing more people to join its ranks. Farewell Amy Winehouse you beautiful soul.