Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “27 Club” Myth Needs to Die

The notion that 27 is some sort of mystical age is one that gets wheeled out every time a rock star dies young — everyone starts whispering solemnly about how someone new has joined the 27 Club, and how dramatic it all is. Blogs put together listicles of “10 Famous Musicians Who Died at 27.” Every so often, someone writes a book about the “tragic history of the 27 Club” or somesuch. And it needs to stop.

It’s remarkable how many people buy into this horseshit. Nirvana biographer Charles R. Cross, who of all people really should know better, urged us back in 2007 to “add in Cobain’s modern passing, and consider that four of the most famous musicians in rock ‘n’ roll history passed away at the same age. That is either an extraordinary coincidence or, if you believe in the ominous idea of the 27 Club, a curse.” Actually, it’s neither. It’s a load of mythologizing codswallop based on an arbitrary and facile connection between artists whose only commonality really lies in the fact that they a) were famous, b) possessed talent, and c) died young.

Today marks the arrival of a new book on the topic, written by one Howard Sounes. Titled 27: A History of the 27 Club, it examines the lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse, all of whom died at, yes, 27. Sounes’ book has gotten decent reviews, and his analysis isn’t entirely superficial, even if he does have a habit of writing in a rather over-familiar and unpleasantly salacious manner: “Like the other 27s, [Winehouse] had been living dangerously for a long time. Death had been shadowing her for years, sometimes coming close, sometimes retreating. Amy had imagined ghosts in the night. We can imagine Death materializing at the foot of her bed as the vodka bottle slipped from her grasp and the last grains of sand ran through the hour-glass.”

The materialization of the Grim Reaper aside, the whole premise is flawed. Sounes devotes much of his intro to a hand-wringing first-person monologue about how he had to write his book despite himself, dammit: “To test the theory, I compiled a list of 3,463 who died between 1908 and 2012 having achieved notoriety in popular music… confounding my skepticism, I found a sudden and dramatic increase… at age 27.” This all sounds very clever and authentic, but if you actually stop and think about just how many musicians there are around the world — or even in the societies that produced all of Sounes’ subjects — 3,463 is a pretty damn small sample size, one given to throwing up all sorts of statistical anomalies.

You could just as easily argue for a July club — hey, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones all died in July, and so did “Mama” Cass Elliott, Nico, and Mark Sandman from Morphine! Or maybe a 26 1/2 — 27 1/2 club! Or, if you actually look at Sounes’ graph, you see there’s a helluva big spike between age 43 (35 deaths) and 45 (61 deaths!), falling back to 49 deaths at age 47. It doesn’t look as dramatic as the 27 spike, but it’s statistically just as significant.

The point is that there is no goddamn 27 Club. It’s a statistical quirk that reinforces its own mythology (something that Sounes at least acknowledges in a piece for Rolling Stone on the same subject — discussing Morrison, he says, “The 27 link helped reinforce the idea that Jim had been special; that his death was fated; that there was something weird going on”). You can slice and dice statistics whatever way you like. If there’s anything in common here, it’s that if you drink too much and do too many drugs, you’re probably gonna die young — and that the mythology of rock ‘n’ roll tends to encourage musicians to do exactly that.

This is what really bothers me about the 27 Club: the idea that there’s something special going on here, that these musicians share some sort of bond of self-destructive genius that led to them being somehow predestined for an early death. But they could just as easily have survived — Jones could have stayed out of the pool, Hendrix could have rolled onto his side instead of his back, Morrison’s girlfriend could have stayed awake long enough to call an ambulance. And it goes the other way — if someone had sold him some shonky smack in the ’70s, Lou Reed could have died decades ago. Townes Van Zandt’s alcoholic blackouts could have easily led him to choke on his own vomit like Hendrix years before his heart gave out. And so on.

The deaths of Sounes’ subjects were sad and premature — and crucially, they were as much a product of the environment in which musicians operate as anything else. If this were any other industry, there’d be actual inquiries into the dismal attrition rate among musicians — the fact that they’re pretty much required to ply their trade in premises where alcohol is a way of life, their general lack of health insurance and mental health coverage, the fact that successful young artists often get large advances with little in the way of financial counseling and/or support structures, etc. In focusing on the mythology of the 27 Club, you miss the wider point: that musicians and other artists often die far younger than they should, at 27 or otherwise.

In fairness to Sounes, his analysis acknowledges this. And you can see why he wanted to use the whole 27 Club idea as a hook for his book pitch. But then, the very existence of this book only serves further to highlight those who fit the myth, discarding those who didn’t. There are plenty of artists who have lived lives just as tragic, and whose stories have just as much to tell us about the destructive nature of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. If you’re going to put together a “club” of artists who fit the book’s criteria, you could just as easily include, say, Tim Buckley or Shannon Hoon (who both died at 28), or Gram Parsons (26.) Or Layne Staley, whose body somehow lasted until he was 34 before it finally gave out under the weight of years of brutal drug abuse — his addictions had rendered him largely non-functional by his late 20s, so does he count? Or Gil Scott-Heron, whose crack addiction cost him three decades of productivity?

All these stories are worth exploring, and it’s well past time that someone wrote a more insightful treatise about just how destructive the whole idea of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock and roll can be. Instead, for the last few decades, the depth of analysis hasn’t really extended further than a whole lot of nebulous piffle about whether there’s some sort of supernatural curse surrounding musicians who died at some point between their 9,855th and 10,230th day on earth. 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.

Top image: Scott Lobaido’s popular Forever 27 poster.