The 27 Club

Last updated 08:48 19/01/2010

I'm sure most of you know that you can find just about anything on Wikipedia. And I'm sure most of you have heard of "The 27 Club" - or something along those lines? You know, the main members are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison - they all died aged 27. You can look up 27 Club on Wikipedia and get a longer list.

It might have started with Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones or - given that his songs were so influential to many of the British musicians working in the 1960s - perhaps it started with bluesman Robert Johnson?

You can include lesser known people in the list - Peter Ham from Badfinger and Pigpen from The Grateful Dead for example - or you can just jump forward to April 5, 1994...

Kurt Cobain dying definitely got people talking about the strange coincidence of this age - he was another who died at age 27.

Very soon after Cobain burned out in favour of fading away, Kristen Pfaff was gone. Also 27. She had been a member of the band Hole - the band that featured Mrs Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love.

So is it a curse?

You can go back to the death of ragtime musician Louis Chauvin (March 26, 1908) or you can look to Lily Tembo - a Zambian musician who died on September 14, last year. I'm not sure there's any connection between Chauvin and Tembo, apart from them both being aged 27 (actually they both died due to complications from stomach pains). But between their deaths at least 40 well known musicians have had their lives ended (some choosing to do so themselves) well before their time. All of them into their 28th year only.

Not only is there a Wikipedia link to this apparent "club" - there's also a book on the subject.

Over the recent holiday period I read The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll by author Eric Sagalstad and illustrator Josh Hunter.

The book combines a linear narrative - spiralling and combining names - with the "visual trip" of images also telling the story. It's a fun read and although I can't say I learned a lot (beyond a few extra names for the club, like D. Boon of The Minutemen and Chris Bell of Big Star) I can recommend it as a book to dip in and out of.

With that, I thought I'd offer my own narrative and visual trip - thanks to the illustrations of Matthew Couper - click on his name there to head directly to his website for more of his work.

Robert JohnsonI can't promise coverage of any new ground at all...in fact I'll just be treading over the same territory. But I'll offer my thoughts on the club-members mentioned. And you'll have Matt's pencil drawings as your visual guide.

Robert Johnson

There's something eerie about sitting, late at night, listening to The Complete Recordings. I have the 3-LP set and have often sat, a bottle of wine to the side, working my way through six sides of the devil's music. There's trouble and torment in every tune; there is the sound of hellhounds on his trail. I first fell under the spell of Johnson's music through the covers by Led Zeppelin, Cream and The Stones. And of course the movie Crossroads. There were better players than Johnson but these are the songs that were passed down. These are the blues standards that informed so much of the early rock music and continue to be covered as blues classics today. That so little is known about Johnson, including speculation over how he died, sends people to the music for answers. And you'll find something different every time - it might be Me and the Devil Blues that stands out on one listen. And the next time through it might be Come On in My Kitchen that owns your ears. But from Johnson's voice offering sermons from a troubled soul through to his inventive guitar rhythms there's a timelessness to these tunes.

Brian Jones

Brian JonesIt's impossible to imagine The Rolling Stones now - still going - if Brian Jones was alive. And yet it's impossible to imagine the Stones lasting anywhere near as long as they have without the early work of Jones - the leader who could not lead. It was Jones who added the slide sounds he had absorbed from Elmore James records. It was Jones who added marimba and sitar to the Stones' musical vocabulary. It was Jones who played a saxophone solo for The Beatles. It's amazing to think that there have been books and films dedicated to examining his death; the case was reopened recently. Is it time to suggest that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had him killed so that they could keep all songwriting royalties and publishing rights? They didn't attend the funeral.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi HendrixPart of the magic of listening to the music of Jimi Hendrix now - as is the case with so many cut down in their prime - is that we will never have anything but that thought of what would he have gone on to do? We'll never have the proof that he was winding down and had in fact covered all the ground that he could. I'm not saying he had - I'm just saying we'll never know; that's part of what makes it so amazing every time you hear his take on All Along the Watchtower; his Voodoo Chile and Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). He was burnt out and he'd had enough and he was looking for other ways to explore music - wanting to take more of a back seat; wanting to be part of a band, a member not a leader. And it couldn't happen. So we can listen to the music of Carlos Santana now for some of that spirit. But we'll never know quite where Hendrix was going to go. He worked with Miles Davis - apparently. He wanted to be a texture within a band as much as he wanted to be a member. But he didn't know how to escape himself to buy the time - beyond the ultimate exit: asphyxiating on vomit, combining booze and sleeping pills.

Janis Joplin

Janis JoplinI have Janis - a 3-CD career overview. I reckon it covers Joplin's career. She's touted as some great white female blue singer and I think that Joplin, on the night, was (and still is) hard to beat. And when she worked so hard to sing and lived that hard either side of the tune she was never going to survive as long as the music.

Jim Morrison

Jim MorrisonI have a love/hate relationship with The Doors - perhaps more so than with any other musical act. I have bought all of the band's albums and then sold them (more than once). I have read all of Morrison's nonsense poetry - but he did have a great voice for recitation; he knew how to deliver the sound. Morrison - more than anyone in the 27 Club - has suffered after death. His iconoclasm comes at a cost. It impacts on how the band's music is listened to; on how it is consumed. He epitomises that strange pull of the dark side of being famous - not a care in the world, no interest in facing up to responsibility, rebelling almost for the sake of rebelling rather than for any real cause. And it both covers up for the worst of the band's music and sometimes ruins the very best of The Doors' collective magic. Oliver Stone, Wayne's World 2 and "the weird naked Indian" have all contributed to that; drawing from the absurdities inherent in Morrison's persona.

Kurt Cobain

He wasn't the first musician I was interested in who died on my watch (that was Stevie Ray Vaughan) but the death of the Nirvana frontman was certainly a memorable time/place-thing for me and a group of high school friends. Nowadays, people will say - almost with anger - that they don't understand the appeal of NiKurt Cobainrvana. But actually it's very simple: Cobain wrote great songs, simple and effective. He had punk's attitude and metal's plod; he had the loud/quiet/loud dynamic borrowed from the Pixies and he had the slow grind of the earliest grunge antecedents. He also had a great pop songwriting sense. I choose to believe, troubled as he undoubtedly was, that Cobain died at his own hand (not due to any of the absurd conspiracies) because he saw it as the only way out; he was embarrassed to be raising a child in a world where its parents were junkies. He was crippled with pain and he lacked the strength to walk away the conventional way.

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What do you think about The 27 Club? Do you think the above members had said all they were going to say? Who do you wish was still with us, still delivering?

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Phil   #1   09:12 am Jan 19 2010

Fascinating topic, and one which I've often thought about myself, but never knew that there was a whole formulated culture around the '27 club'. My theory has always been that 27 is the age when someone has gone through the fame cycle: Teenage dreams of stardom - Starting to make it, while getting inspiration of how great the life will be - enjoying the ride, along with the excesses - hitting the productive high - getting roped into the grind of touring and recording, and not realising it's eating you away until you're well past the point of no return - starting to despise the life that your musical passion has brought you - the internal conflict at despising the life that you always dreamed of - disillusionment and/or the excesses start really taking their toll - suicide or bodily collapse.

Kind of like an extreme mid-life crisis without the life experience to know that life can go on.

Karlos   #2   09:12 am Jan 19 2010

Interesting read. Out of the 'club members' you've mentioned, I wish Jimi was still with us. It would have been interesting to see and hear where he ended up musically. I hear they're going to release another album this year of about a dozen unreleased recordings of his.

Sylvian   #3   09:15 am Jan 19 2010

Richey Edwards, Manic Street Preachers. Officially presumed dead in 2008 after his disappearance in February 1995. For so long he was my idol, I absolutely adored him. Hearing that he had gone, I remember shaking and feeling my entire world had collapsed around me. Silly really, I didn't even know him, but aesthetically, intellectually and artistically I felt we shared a common bond. What is even more tragic about his 'death', was that the band achieved the success they had always striven for after he had gone. Naturally, I switched my alleigance to the true hero of the band, James Dean Bradfield, but Richey's legacy will always cast a shadow, especially after leaving behind the their greatest work and perhaps one of the best albums of the 90s, The Holy Bible.

Old Drunk Mike   #4   09:26 am Jan 19 2010

Great read but have to agree its all a bit of a myth really, sure Jones, Morrison and Hendrix all died at 27 within a few years of each other but to be honest they were all fairly hard living types and the other members of the 'spooky' 27 club are pretty much a pick and mix(Drummmer for Echo and the Bunnymen anyone?). Why isn't there a 29 club for guys like Marc Bolan and Ronnie Van Zant?? How about a '32 club' for drummers?- John Bonham and Keith Moon both went to the recording studio in the sky at this age... I also like your efforts at a new conspracy theory regarding Brian Jones and his late night 'dip in the pool' but have a look at the state of the guy in The Rock and Roll Circus dvd..as if anyone would have to murder Jones, how he managed to even drag it out another six months is a minor miracle in itself! Whats that? Frank Thorogood you say?

samm   #5   09:28 am Jan 19 2010

Not sure if Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon) is on the wikipeida list but he is in the club. I think I even remember his mother being quoted in 'Rolling Stone' as saying 'He's gone and joined that stupid club' in reference to his death and the 27 club.

I think all of the members would have been potentially interesting if they had lived. I get annoyed by the elevation of some to saint/matyr status though (Cobain in particular) just because they happen to be dead.

Darren Watson   #6   09:48 am Jan 19 2010

Not sure I buy all the 'Faustian pact with the devil' stuff about Robert Johnson. I love his playing and singing, but I believe he was really just a talented working musician in the Delta in the 1930s. A lot of the mythology that has grown up around him is has been mixed up with Tommy Johnson by early blues scholars and repeated verbatim to this day. I'd recommend a read of 'Escaping The Delta' by Elijah Wald. He debunks a lot of the RJ myths with good research and logic. Doesn't stop Johnson being important in music history but he's not the God Eric Clapton has made him into.

Jed   #7   09:54 am Jan 19 2010

I'm generally more depressed when reminded that George Harrison was 27 when the Beatles broke up. George and the great talents in the 27 Club make me realise that I really wasted my 20s.

Old Drunk Mike   #8   10:15 am Jan 19 2010

Samm #5 I like your point re Cobain. I've always found it a little nauseating that he has been elevated to an almost mythical status simply because he opted to put a gun in his mouth. Nirvana were a good band without a doubt but were they necessarily any better than Soundgarden? Alice in Chains? Darby Crash tried something similar in order to 'seal his legend'..unfortunately he got the timing all wrong as Mark David Chapman ruined his plans and stole his thunder. Doesn't always work...

Don 1   #9   10:35 am Jan 19 2010

Not a very impressive club really, is it? I mean RJ, fair enough and Jimi, but the rest are kinda "Meh". Morrison is possibly the most annoying tool of the late 60s-early 70s, Cobain is the most overrated songwriter/guitarist for decades and Janis was just a needy narcissist with a really good backing band. Brian Jones is not the "leader that never was" of the Stones either - Jagger and Richards' songwriting would always have dominated the band. I think most of them - with the exception of Hendrix - had done their dash, really. And I think some of them might have realised that too.

Danny   #10   10:38 am Jan 19 2010

I'm not sure I agree entirely with Darren Watson, or Simon. I am certainly not one to hold someone up as a god, or anything like that, and i am not someone who worships Robert Johnson. But i think you underestimate his ability a little. There are not many around who can do some of the things he did. It may sound simple, but one man playing all those parts is not. I do agree entirely about the whole "pact with the devil" being a myth....or a story that got embellished over the years.


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