When British singer Amy Winehouse died late last month of as-yet-unknown causes, media sources were surprisingly quick to note the significance of her age at death, twenty-seven years old, the same age at which a number of the most famous Western musicians died. The following is a briefly annotated list of the members of the so-called “27 Club,” with a couple notable mentions for those who nearly qualified.
(Unsurprisingly, the cause of death of many of these individuals is not entirely clear, so I’ll include the official cause of death, along with any other rumored causes, as available.)
Robert Johnson: May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938
The first member of this group, Johnson easily is the most important, which is saying something, given the remarkable legacies of many of those on the list. As Cub Koda wrote,
If the blues has a truly mythic figure, one whose story hangs over the music the way a Charlie Parker does over jazz or a Hank Williams does over country, it’s Robert Johnson, certainly the most celebrated figure in the history of the blues.
The legend of his life — which by now, even folks who don’t knowanything about the blues can cite to you chapter and verse — goes something like this: Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery’s plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, and handed it back to him. Within less than a year’s time, in exchange for his everlasting soul, Robert Johnson became the king of the Delta blues singers, able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard.
Cause of death: “No doctor” (official); poisoned whiskey; selling soul to devil.
Brian Jones: February 28, 1942 – July 3, 1969
Original member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones joined Keith Richards on guitar in what was to become arguably the biggest rock and roll band the world has seen. Becoming known for his fashion sense almost as much as his musical sense in the early 1960s, Jones was a bit egomaniacal and found himself socially distanced from the later-emerging leaders of the band, Richards and Mick Jagger. Jones was out of the group in the summer of 1969, probably because he was fired, and he was dead less than one month later.
Cause of death: “Death by misadventure” (official); drowning; overdose-related drowning; murder.
Jimi Hendrix: November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970
One of the most popularly recognizable musicians, both aurally and visually, the Seattle native probably paved the way for a later member of this group, even though he spent much of his adult life in the Army and recording in England. Jimi Hendrix is a singly indispensable figure in the American music story, like none other on this list surely– important as they are– save, perhaps, Johnson.
Rather than attempt grand statements on a figure such as Hendrix, I’ll recommend Charles R. Cross’ 2005 biography, Room Full of Mirrors. (Interestingly, Cross earlier wrote a biography of that other Seattle musician.) Cross relates this nugget from Hendrix’s wake, where speculation was that attendee Miles Davis “might play a grand eulogy”:
Someone brought Miles a horn, but he refused to play, saying even he couldn’t add a coda to the musical life Jimi had already created.
Charles R. Cross, Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix 340 (Hyperion 2005).
Cause of death: asphyxiation by inhaling his own vomit (official); suicide.
Janis Joplin: January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970
Until Winehouse’s recent passing, Janis Joplin was alone as a woman in this group. If Joplin is to be identified by her gender, then perhaps she deserves to stand alone, though. (Although we lack sufficient perspective in 2011, we may decide that most on this list are a cut above Winehouse, as interesting, talented, and unique as she may be.) Though Joplin did not shy from her womanhood and certainly embraced it, the Texan who escaped to San Francisco to sing the blues had a voice stronger than anyone, male, female, or otherwise. More urgent even than someone like Joe Cocker and more complete than the loudest swamp-blues howlers, Joplin’s voice cut through booming fuzz Bay-Area blues bands, first as a part of Big Brother & the Holding Company, and then under her own name. Her recordings and performances are so strong, in terms of straight-up musical performance, that it, upon present reflection, makes me wonder how people can ignore Joplin’s achievements in writing some of the things they have about Winehouse. Big Brother’s Cheap Thrills and her Pearl and Kozmic Blues should be all you need to hear.
Cause of death: heroin overdose (official).
Jim Morrison: December 8, 1943 – July 3, 1971
Leader of the major rock and roll group the Doors, Jim Morrison was decidedly on the dark side of the 1960s psychedelia. Cerebral and visceral, poet and rocker, Morrison’s voice and ideas bolstered his larger-than-life persona. For some reason, it seems like he must’ve been older than twenty-seven when he died exactly two years after Jones, and like most of the others here, he and the Doors left behind a radio dial full of music that has lasted decades.
Cause of death: heart attack (official); heroin overdose. See also this.
Ron McKernan: September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973
A Grateful Dead founding member, Pigpen had partnered with Jerry Garcia even before the formation of Warlocks, the proto-Dead band that included rhythm guitarist Bobby Weir, drummer Billy Kreutzmann, and bassist Phil Lesh. Pigpen handled vocals and keyboard (organ) work for the early Dead, playing an important role in anchoring the band to its early jug and country style. For health reasons possibly tied to the band’s transition from that early style into its famous psychedelia, he stopped touring with the band after their tour of Europe in 1972, and he died the next year. Although Garcia certainly shared Pigpen’s musical inclinations among his own vast interests and Weir carried them on to a certain extent with his blues-rock style, I’ve often thought that, had Pigpen, the band’s early leader, lived a longer life, we may have a different image of the Dead today. There may be no basis in fact for that, though.
What I do know is that he is almost certainly the least well-known of the musicians appearing on this list, although he certainly belongs, both for his role in starting a band with the magnitude of the Grateful Dead, and because he shares characteristics with the other members of this fateful group. On that latter point, Rachel Sprovtsoff suggests a possibly unrealized romantic connection between Pigpen and Joplin, who sang together on a number of occasions. More famously, Pigpen was the first to occupy the keyboard chair for the Dead, a position that was something of a curse: while the band’s lineup remained consistent from inception to Garcia’s death in 1995 (excepting a three-year absence by drummer Mickey Hart in the early 1970s), their keyboard players kept dying. (After Pigpen, the band also lost to various causes, in succession, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, and Vince Welnick, all of whom played keys for the band. Some speculate that this curse inspired a similarly bizarre hex on the drum chair for the band Spinal Tap.)
Cause of death: Gastrointestinal hemorrhage (official).
Kurt Cobain: February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994
Like Hendrix, Kurt Cobain was from the Seattle area, and like Hendrix, Cobain introduced the world to a new sound, and his grunge style swept North America and Europe in the 1990s. A generation removed from most members of this group, the troubled Cobain’s (and Winehouse’s) rumored desire to join the group perhaps is unsurprising. (And after all, even Hendrix expressed a lack of confidence in making it to his twenty-eighth birthday.)
Cause of death: Suicide by “contact perforating shotgun wound to the head” (official); murder.
Amy Winehouse: September 14, 1983 – July 23, 2011
Of this lot, I admittedly am least familiar with Amy Winehouse. As I’ve listened to her songs in the days since her death, I recognize some of them, but it’s the first time I’m hearing them knowing they’re hers. Even so, I knew her basic story from the news, and when I made the connection between her and “Rehab,” I was shocked and unsurprised at the same time. Shocked in that way we still sometimes respond to postmodernity’s bluntness, and unsurprised because who else’s song would it be? Like most of the people in this post, she was troubled. Robert Johnson sang about what happened at the crossroads and the hellhounds; Jimi about the purple haze in his mind; Morrison about blood in the streets and the next whiskey bar. Winehouse took it much further, though. I still don’t know a lot about her, but even while she was living I knew she was the pop star for postmodernity even more than Lady Gaga’s act.
Our hyperlinked society has ported itself into a thoroughly referential era, where the nods to the past no longer evoke something real, but rather, the nods are just nods to the nods themselves. Our listening habits have followed suit. The catchy, heavy-rotation single has become the only bankable product, and any project that cannot generate its own buzz has been waylaid in favor of the overly produced, Auto-Tuned, YouTube-verified flavor of last month. Because there is too much risk involved, once-reliable commodities are repackaged and recycled. A healthy portion of iTunes sales come from Glee, a television show that tries to devour every era of American pop at the same time. Lady Gaga is just an amalgam of old Madonna, old-ish Madonna, and a well-funded drag masquerade. Pop music is now just a boring version of Girl Talk.
Within this circuitous landscape, where does one place a hatchet-faced neo-doo-wopper whose songs were deliberate anachronisms, but whose live shows always straddled the ravine that separates genius from a discomforting debauchery? That was always the strange duality of Amy Winehouse — she was a product of our synthetic times, but the force of her performance and the unfolding tragedy of her battle with addiction seemed to hearken, earnestly, back to an era when music demanded its own significance. She, somehow, was a predictable creation who took her given music contraption and blew it out.
RIP Amy Winehouse. We lost a true heroin addict today.
Cause of death: [pending]
Gram Parsons: November 5, 1946 – September 19, 1973
Simply stated, Gram Parsons is the father of country rock. The Grievous Angel, who died a month shy of his twenty-seventh birthday, called his music “Cosmic American Music.” In his short life, Parsons helmed the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, played in The Byrds, released two solo albums, and got the Rolling Stones to play country rock (see “Wild Horses”). While it can be tough to gauge the unrealized potential of bright stars that burn out when they’re young, with Parsons, we have an interesting point of comparative departure in Emmylou Harris, his protégé. Harris, who has had a long and successful career, provided backup vocals for Parsons’ solo performances at the end of his life.
More on GP in Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life.
Cause of death: “Drug toxicity” (official); or this.
Duane Allman: November 20, 1946 – October 29, 1971
The founding member of the Allman Brothers Band and revolutionary slide guitar player tragically died at the age of twenty four in a motorcycle accident. Tragedy struck the band again when bass player Berry Oakley died almost exactly a year later in a motorcycle accident just three blocks from the location of Duane’s in Macon, GA. Allman did an impressive amount of recording in his few years. Of note outside of the ABB, Allman played on Wilson Pickett’s blistering cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and, famously, as a member of Derek and the Dominos for the gold album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Cause of death: Internal injuries resulting from motorcycle accident (official).