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?
Kurt Cobain dying definitely got people talking about the strange coincidence of this age – he was another who died at age 27.
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, 2009. 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 documentaries and several books on the subject.
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.
I 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.
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.
It’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.
Part 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. 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.
I have Janis – a 3-CD career overview. I reckon it covers Joplin’s career. She’s touted as some great white female blues 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.
I 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.
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 Nirvana. 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.