The text popped up on Saturday afternoon, in the midst of my family vacation:
“Didja hear Winehouse joined the 27 club?”
27: the end of the road for a growing list of talented musicians. Famously, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix did not live to see their 28th birthdays. This realization has created dual auras of myth and dread. Myth, for so many artists cut down in their prime. They are frozen in their genius phase, their talent undiminished forever, for better or worse. (I often wonder if Nirvana would cast such an intimidating shadow over modern rock to this day if Kurt hadn’t pulled that trigger.) Dread, for many a music-loving commoner, myself included, who approach the age hoping they’ll make it to the next year in one piece. At this point in my life, I’ve surpassed the ages of all the 27 Club, Buckleys Tim and Jeff – and I’m closing in on Michael Hutchence. I measure my own path through life against those I’ve outlived.
If you look up “27 Club” on Wikipedia, you find that a vast amount of other musicians died at this age, including legendary blues man Robert Johnson, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead, and punk rocker Mia Zapata. However, the five artists I noted above are the only ones “officially” considered members. It appears one has to change the rulebook of rock n’ roll to enter the pantheon. A bit frustrating, since musical genius is in the ear of the beholder. For every Doors fan ruled by the Lizard King, there’s a baffled bystander like myself. That said, I can’t deny that Morrison and the Doors brought something new and revolutionary to rock at the time.
Chris Bell of Big Star died in a car wreck at age 27. Big Star created shimmering power pop out of internal chaos, influencing folks like R.E.M. over the years and paving the way for modern like-minded souls like Matthew Sweet. Yet Big Star barely sold any records in Bell’s lifetime, the release of debut #1 Record stymied by distribution issues. Badfinger’s Pete Ham took his own life at 27, a particularly harrowing irony as this man co-wrote a hit song with the chorus, “I can’t live if living is without you.” But most people only know “Without You” as a Nilsson song, or perhaps even a Mariah Carey song thanks to her cover.
To be a member of the 27 Club, everyone has to recognize your particular brand of genius.
Already, there’s some morbid speculation that Amy Winehouse perhaps wanted to die at 27, sealing her place in the club. There’s also been a lot of debate as to whether she should be considered part of the elite group, if her mark on music was indelible enough. I could sit here and armchair quarterback. She took Britain by storm and then conquered a nice chunk of America, too, winning 5 Grammys and opening the floodgates for a brigade of Brit retro-soul singers like Duffy and current chart-topper Adele. “Rehab” is undeniably a triumph of a song, though it will likely forever be tainted by its subject matter vis a vis Amy’s troubled life. Time will tell if her musical output is remembered more vividly than her outsized hairdo, her many tattoos, and her history of drug abuse. Perhaps for now, though, we should just remember that a woman died at 27, and that 27 – whether you’re an internationally-known singer or not – is far too soon.
The song that started – and ended? – it all:
Her amazing cover of the Zutons’ “Valerie”, from the Mark Ronson compilation Version:
Russell Brand’s tribute to Amy on his blog. He notes the tragedy of addiction better than I could ever approach it – so I left those words to him: