A tribute: A sign in Kurt Cobain Park in Aberdeen, Washington, near the house where Cobain lived and committed suicide. — AFP
The 27 Club is one of the most infamous and tragic things about rock music.
Nearly 20 years ago, on April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home. The singer, guitarist and songwriter for Nirvana had apparently killed himself a few days (April 5, 1994) earlier by pointing a shotgun at his chin.
Despite having a promising future in rock ‘n’ roll – in the space of a few years, Nirvana had become one of the most popular, influential and lauded bands of its generation – Cobain was haunted by personal troubles that were amplified by his drug addictions. He was 27 years old.
As the shock that swept through the music world abated, a morbid fascination was rekindled – thanks, in part, to a quote Cobain’s mother made in the press. Wendy Fradenburg Cobain O’Connor told an Aberdeen, Washington newspaper, “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.”
Although she was likely referring to three of Kurt’s uncles who had committed suicide, some fans thought she was talking about one of music’s most notorious legacies: the 27 Club.
This is one club that no sane rock star would want to join. The only members of the 27 Club are musicians who died at the age of 27, often as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, suicide and even murder. At present, more than 40 departed musicians can be considered members of the club.
The notion of some sort of link between these deaths began in the early 1970s, after four of the most famous figures in rock ‘n’ roll died within a two-year span ... all at the age of 27. Brian Jones, founding guitarist of the Rolling Stones, drowned in July 1969 after taking drugs and alcohol. Jimi Hendrix, arguably the most important guitarist in rock history, choked on his own vomit – a result of a cocktail of heavy-duty sleeping pills and alcohol – in September 1970. A couple weeks later, Janis Joplin, famous for her raw and soulful singing, died from a heroin overdose. Then, in July 1971, enigmatic Doors frontman Jim Morrison died from heart failure (likely brought on by drug use).
The mysterious circumstances that surrounded these deaths only added to the intrigue of the 27 Club. Jones’s coroner report lists his demise as “death by misadventure” and some, including Stones bandmate Keith Richards, still think that someone else was at least partially accountable for whatever happened. There also have been persistent rumours that Hendrix and Morrison each had some assistance in getting to the sorry states that led to their deaths – although each had an obvious history of heavy drug use, too.
Other notable musicians died at the age of 27 in the 1970s – including Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Stooges bassist Dave Alexander and Badfinger leader Pete Ham – but it wasn’t until Cobain’s untimely end in 1994 that the notion of the 27 Club really became a well-known musical phenomenon.
Making it past that age became a strange rite of passage for young, troubled musicians. Authors began to devote entire books to the 27 Club and some even toyed with the idea that stars faced an increased risk of dying at that age. While there were claims of a strange spike in death statistics at 27, a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2011 proved that this was nonsense. However, the study did explain that all musicians had a higher risk of expiring in their 20s and 30s, in comparison to the average person, due to an unhealthy lifestyle.
In addition to the various theories that began to gain prominence in the wake of Cobain’s suicide, more musicians joined the 27 Club. Manic Street Preachers guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared in 1995 and was never seen again. He was 27. Mars Volta sound technician Jeremy Michael Ward died from a heroin overdose in 2003. He was 27. And blues legend Robert Johnson, who was poisoned in 1938, was grandfathered into the club. In spite of the controversy and rumours surrounding his passing – he has no less than three gravesites in Mississippi – it’s certain that he was 27 years old when he strummed his last chord.
No disrespect to those talented music figures and their tragic ends, but it took the death of another enormously popular star a few years ago to breathe new life into this particular fascination. Soul-singing megastar Amy Winehouse, whose battles with substance abuse were so well-known that her most famous song was about refusing to go to rehab, passed away as a result of alcohol poisoning in July 2011.
And, as soon as the obituary writers discovered Winehouse’s age, the 27 Club was introduced to a new generation of music fans. Although the club is more coincidence than conspiracy, given the amount of music stars who leave this world too soon, it’s likely the 27 Club will last as long as rock ‘n’ roll.
This is the last instalment of the Music Lessons column. Thanks for joining Bryan Wawzenek on the ride! Keep it rock ‘n’ roll.