”Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club,” Kurt Cobain’s mother said in the wake of her son’s death in 1994. Cobain’s life had ended sensationally, overdosing on heroin and then shooting himself in his Seattle home. Wendy Cobain was talking about the club no one would want to join and yet an astounding number of musicians have: The 27 Club. To the uninitiated, this refers to the over 50 people who have achieved notoriety through popular music and also met their end at this precise age. This week marks the release of a new book which takes a look at this peculiar trend: 27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse (Da Capo Press, November 12) by Howard Sounes.
Oh Yes, the 27 Club…
Sounes isn’t a newcomer to writing about personalities like these, having previously published biographies of Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, and Paul McCartney. Unlike those, however, 27 isn’t about one person or career. Instead, by using the 27 phenomenon as its starting point, the book manages to create a study of fame, damaged people and the occasionally disastrous results when you mix the two. And, naturally, when you mix drugs into the bargain.
Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. In the history of popular music, stardom and addiction have complimented one another again and again like chorus and verse. Drinking, drugs, and all of the pleasure and misery inherent in using them to excess have repeatedly turned up in song lyrics, tabloid headlines, arrest records and, of course, autopsy reports. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and death. All of the “big six,” as Sounes calls them, found wild success through their ability to write and perform music, and sought solace through mind-altering chemicals in extreme volume. All six were addicts.
Pointing out that all of these famous people died at the same age isn’t new. The idea has led to countless rounds of speculation about numerology, conspiracy, and supernatural influence. In the age of the Internet, urban legends like these echo back and forth for an eternity and anyone interested can find more than enough to satisfy their otherworldly thirst.
A Much-Needed Perspective
Luckily for the reader, Sounes’ book contains none of this out-there speculation. 27 instead makes very clear from the start that the particular age of death isn’t the product of any sinister forces allied to silence unique voices in music. With that out of the way, the author can instead look at each of these stories on a personal level and draw real, substantive lines between them that go well beyond coincidence.
It’s not surprising that Sounes makes reference in 27 to the work of Émile Durkheim, the 19th century French sociological pioneer best known for his investigation into the commonalities between suicides. Durkheim looked beyond individual motivations for the act and instead at the big picture to try to determine what social forces led to greater rates of suicide in Protestant and Catholic communities. Sounes turns a similar eye on these six young musicians, who all led reckless and dangerous lives for years that put them in danger of death far in advance of the actual event at the age of 27.
The remarkable trick pulled off by 27 is its method of conducting this macro study. The book leads the reader to look at the group as a whole by first examining the participants individually and then comparing one to the next. It takes a very careful and detailed path through the lives of the people concerned—from their childhoods to their experiences with fame and success and eventually through a detailed narrative of how each met their end. While every artist is unique, the common challenges these six overcame to achieve what they did—and the common pressures and temptations their achievements made a part of their daily lives—are easily visible. Why did people with so much to offer find it so uniquely irresistible to destroy themselves with drinking and drugs? Sounes looks at each life to find the similarities that exist beyond the loud ones of artistry and substance abuse.
Finally We Get the Full Picture
While this is not a biography, it serves as a more than adequate one for anyone wishing to learn about the real people behind the canonized music. As far as the deaths are concerned, most people who are familiar with the lives of the people involved will have some understanding of how they lost their lives. What makes Sounes’ portraits more interesting is the detailed presentation of the players without the stardom and partying. Many people know Jimi Hendrix as Woodstock’s Star Spangled Banner performer who later died choking on his own vomit after a barbiturate overdose but they may have never seen him as the poor kid who asked friends to hide his guitar because he feared his alcoholic father would smash it. Likewise, it’s easy to remember Kurt Cobain as the depressed, heroin-addicted frontman of Nirvana who ultimately took his own life with a shotgun but not nearly as canonized is the story of him learning Christian music from his aunt as a little boy and being crushed by the news that his parents were divorcing shortly after his ninth birthday. These are the stories that 27 takes care to tell so that when the more commonly trafficked tales of excess come, they have the proper context and can be seen in three dimensions.
For someone seeking the most comprehensive story of a favorite short-lived rock star, 27 might lack the micro details available in the thousands of pages available in countless books about all of these people. Yet when it comes to the story of talent, fame, and excess—and the volatile combination these things make for in an already wounded young life—Howard Sounes has produced a gold record.