The story of the dead rock star is almost a sad cliche at this point in time; certainly when a famous musician dies at a young age, most people aren't surprised and in many cases, it's almost expected to happen. Drink, drugs, reckless behavior, and unhealthy lifestyles are all some of the reasons many of the top musicians of their day end up passing away before their time at an age when most of us are just starting to come into our own as adults. However, there is a small subset of these deceased stars who all have a rather eerie thing in common; this is, of course, the fact that a disproportionate number of them died at the age of 27. Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain are the most famous and highest profile cases of this, but there have been numerous others, including Amy Winehouse, D. Boon, Pete Ham, Al Wilson, Robert Johnson, Pigpen McKernan, and so on. What is it about the age of 27 that seems to be so cursed? The exploration into this phenomenon is the thesis behind Howard Sounes' new book 27: A History of the 27 Club.
The term "27 Club" was coined by Kurt Cobain's mother after he died in 1994, when she said "now he's gone and joined that stupid club..." The idea behind the term has been around for decades, however, most notably after three of the highest profile rock stars of all time all died within ten months of each other: Jimi Hendrix in September 1970, Janis Joplin in October 1970, and Jim Morrison in July 1971. Their deaths brought to larger attention the fact that so many musicians before them had died at 27, and the pattern continuing to the present day has only strengthened the idea that there is something almost supernatural behind it. However, is this really the case? Author Howard Sounes takes a look at six of the highest profile deaths in order to examine this.
The book is set up as a multi-strand mini-biography of each of the subjects, starting with investigations into their births and childhoods, later going on to detail how they achieved fame, how they coped with it, and the series of events that ultimately led to their untimely and premature deaths at 27. In this way, the author hopes to see if there is any commonality between his subjects and whether the fact that they (and many others) all died at the same age is more than just mere coincidence. While the level of depth into the lives of the subjects (with the exception of Winehouse...more on this in a bit) isn't any deeper than what can be found in any potted synopsis of their lives, the author does a nice job weaving them all together, which is especially useful given how much the lives and careers of Jones, Joplin, Morrison, and Hendrix overlapped and interacted.
While there is much that is different about them, one thing they all do have in common is their unhappy childhoods. In the cases of Morrison, Joplin, and Jones, they came from intact nuclear families that nevertheless had strained parental relationships that were not as emotionally nurturing or safe as they should have been. Conversely, Hendrix, Cobain, and Winehouse all came from broken homes. In all cases, all six had very strained, and sometimes nonexistent, relationships with one or both of their parents that persisted into adulthood. All found success at a relatively young ages after years of struggle, and all used drugs and alcohol in order to cope with their sudden fame and wealth, as well as to dull the pain of their unresolved traumas. In several cases (Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix) there were serious mental issues such as depression and bipolar disorder, while Brian Jones singularly seems to have simply been a nasty piece of work as a human being. Indeed, as the author points out by the end of the book, of all of the "Big Six 27s" (as he calls them), at their core they all seemed to be decent people who had serious issues, except for Jones, who seems to have just been an unlikeable character; nearly everyone he worked with or interacted with did not speak kindly of him.
The premise of the book is that there is something all of the Big Six 27s have in common may that explain their demises at the same age (as well as the others who have died at the same age)...is this really the case? I commend Sounes for debunking any supernatural connotations that many others have tried to ascribe to this tragic coincidence of age, because as he rightly points out, nearly all of them led lives of high risk. Whether it was drugs, drink, reckless behavior, or in some cases simply bad luck, it was inevitable that unless they changed their lifestyles, that probability that it would catch up with them was inordinately high. However, at the same time, this makes it less than surprising that any of them died, and because of this I was somewhat skeptical going into the book; is it really shocking when someone abuses their bodies with substances, lives on the edge, and as a result dies at a premature age? Obviously it's not, but regardless of that fact, it is still curious that, of all of the ages between, say 21 and 30, an unusually high proportion of these deaths occur at 27. Indeed, when plotting over 3,000 prominent musician deaths over the past 100+ years, Sounes' chart shows an prominent spike at 27. And while he doesn't offer an explanation as to why this is so surprising, he does show that given how the 27 Club members lived and the various mental and behavioral issues they struggled with, it's not unsurprising.
Getting back to the subject of the book's over-emphasis on Amy Winehouse, it does at times seem that this is a book about her with small amounts of material about the others sprinkled throughout in order to make it more broadly about the 27 Club; in the afterword Sounes admits as such when he admits that his intention going into the book was always to spend the most amount of time and detail on Amy. As someone who is not really a fan of hers, I did feel that while her story was interesting and tragic, she perhaps didn't deserve this level of emphasis nor to be put on the same level as the other five main subjects. I will say that I am also of the opinion that her musical output (while pretty good) does not stand up to that of the other five and her iconic status seems to be based almost solely on her wild behavior and death, and not any profound cultural impact the way the other five had. It did feel as though her inclusion was either shoehorned in, or that, as I said above, this was to be a biography on her within the greater framework of the 27 Club. That being said, the book was still enjoyable and a quick, easy, and fun read. The writing style was a bit stilted and simplistic, and I'm not sure if that's simply because of the subject matter or if that's just Sounes' style (I'll know for sure when I read his biography on Paul McCartney).
Overall, this is a book that is enjoyable and thought-provoking. It doesn't really offer all that much new information apart from the sections on Amy Winehouse, although it does draw on new research the author conducted, as well as previously available information in order to debunk many of the conspiracy theories that have arisen over the years as pertaining to the deaths of Jones, Hendrix, Morrison, and Cobain (the author does not think foul play was involved in any of them). This isn't a groundbreaking or revelatory book, but any rock music fan will enjoy it, and looking at his list of 27 Club members at the end of the book will open your eyes to the fact that if there isn't something supernatural going on behind the scenes, it's still a might strange coincidence how many of them all expired at 27.
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