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The Forever 27 Club

Amy Winehouse was the latest star to join the so-called '27 club'. Christian Saunders ponders the pop-cultural curse that makes 27 a particularly dangerous age for musicians

FT280

On the afternoon of Saturday 23 July 2011, five-time Grammy Award-winning singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London home at the age of 27. At the time of writing, the circumstances surrounding her death are still under investigation. But Winehouse, often described as a ‘lost soul’, never seemed entirely comfortable with stardom and her battles with drugs and alcohol are well documented. The passing of this popular and unique talent is a tragic loss indeed, but her premature demise solidifies her position not just in pop culture but also within the realms of folklore – because only in death could she be granted entry into the fabled 27 Club.

 

The 27 Club – variously known as Club 27, the Curse of 27 and the Forever 27 Club – comprises an eclectic and exclusive collection of influential musicians, all of whom died at the age of 27. Some of the most notable previous additions include Rolling Stone Brian Jones (died 3 July 1969), Jimi Hendrix (18 September 1970), Janis Joplin (4 October 1970), Jim Morrison (3 July 1971) and Kurt Cobain (5 April 1994).

 

It should be noted, too, that most of these deaths occurred under mysterious circumstances and, to this day, speculation and controversy rage about many of them. As recently as August 2009, Sussex police launched a review of the Brian Jones case, 40 years after he was found dead in his swimming pool, when new allegations were levelled at a builder working on Jones’s property at the time of his death. Presumably, the review is ongoing.

 

Another member, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, only officially joined the 27 Club when he was declared dead on 23 November 2008, having gone missing over 13 years earlier. He is believed to have committed suicide by throwing himself from the Severn Bridge, though no body was ever found.

 

Many of the celebrity deaths above are linked by some bizarre and unlikely correlations. For example, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison all knew each other and died within a 10-month period. Jones and Morrison died on the same day, two years apart. And Cobain was married to Courtney Love, who was pictured as a five-year-old child on the back of the Grateful Dead’s 1969 album Aoxomoxoa along with Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (who joined the 27 Club on 8 March 1973), and played in the grunge band Hole with Kristen Pfaff (who became a member on 16 June 1994) (1). Hendrix, who was born on 27 November, counted astrology as one of his hobbies and said many times that he expected to die at 27. This kind of foresight or foreboding seems to have been mirrored in Winehouse’s behaviour in the final weeks of her life. Though she stopped short of openly predicting her death (unless you believe some of the more bizarre Internet theories) (2) she is known to have spent time tracking down long-lost friends and acquaintances, as if wanting to say goodbye.

 

Wikipedia lists over 40 other musicians who met their end at 27. The Drifters, Canned Heat, the Stooges, Badfinger, Uriah Heep, the Minutemen, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Mars Volta and American Head Charge have all lost members, as have a plethora of lesser-known acts. Admittedly, most are hardly household names, and sceptics would argue that if you took the trouble to research how old every musician was when they died, statistically no more would have died at 26, say, or 28 than 27. But even the most cursory research blows this theory out of the water. There are a few other ages with slightly higher results, such as 29 and 33, but even these pale in comparison. As biographer Charles R Cross says, “The number of musicians who passed away at 27 is truly remarkable by any standard. Though humans die regularly at all ages, there is a statistical spike for those who die at 27.” (3)

 

In another strange twist, the curse of 27 is believed by some to have begun with the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, a primary influence on many modern guitar slingers, who is famously said to have made a Faustian deal with the Devil. Johnson’s life (and death) was poorly documented but the widely accepted, heavily romanticised version of events maintains that after beginning his career as a mediocre guitarist playing on street corners, he met the Devil at a crossroads near Dockery Plantation, Mississippi, at midnight. There, the Devil took his guitar, tuned it, and handed it back, giving him a mastery of the instrument and thereby inventing the Delta Blues.

 

Johnson’s popularity soared, and by the time he was 27 he was one of the most sought-after musicians in the area. With his new-found fame came success with the ladies, and his death on 16 August 1938 is said to have been a result of strychnine poisoning, the deadly substance passed to him in a whiskey bottle by a jealous husband.

 

We’ll probably never know the exact circumstances of Johnson’s death, but all these years later, and in light of other developments, we can make certain observations. During his lifetime, Johnson was a nomadic traveller and notorious womaniser. He never really made it big, and at the peak of his powers only ever played small dance halls and the like, never achieving any level of fame until 1961 when Columbia bought the rights to his back catalogue and released the seminal album King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume I. It has been suggested (though never proved) that during the mastering process the original recordings were speeded up, giving them an ‘otherworldly’ quality and making them sound much more impressive than they really were (4). Furthermore, some observers claim that the ‘Devil’ he so often sang and talked about was, in fact, a metaphorical name he had for whiskey. The 1986 film Crossroads is loosely based on Johnson’s story (5).

 

Certainly, the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and years of excess seem to be major contributing factors in a large number of 27 Club deaths, but among the overdoses and suicides there have also been some bizarre and unlikely ‘accidents’. Malcolm Hale of Spanky and Our Gang was gassed by a faulty space heater, Leslie Harvey of the Scottish blues band Stone the Crows was electrocuted live on stage by a microphone, and Roger Lee Durham of Bloodstone fell off a horse. Yes, accidents happen, but there does seem to be a higher probability of ‘something happening’ to musicians when they are 27 years old. A significant number were murdered, with Mia Zapata of Seattle punk band the Gits being the subject of an Unsolved Mysteries segment. Incidentally, a benefit concert in her honour marked one of Kurt Cobain’s last live appearances before he committed suicide, yet another of those tenuous yet undeniable links between various members of the 27 Club.

 

It has been suggested that the very lure of joining the exclusive 27 Club and guaranteeing some level of rock ’n’ roll immortality has been too much for some to resist. Shortly after Cobain’s death, his mother Wendy O’Connor proclaimed: “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club! I told him not to join that stupid club!” (6) This attests to the fact that mother and son must have had previous conversations about the 27 Club. Interestingly, several researchers have noted that during his formative years Cobain mistakenly believed that the ‘Big Five’ (7) all died by their own hand. This may have had some influence on him in later years, though this is pure speculation.

 

Since Cobain’s death, which roughly coincided with the birth of the Internet, interest and debate about the 27 Club has increased immeasurably, leading to a deluge of articles and dedicated websites. While it may be true that people now actively seek out new additions to support the myth, this in itself presents a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario.

 

So, is there anything special about the number 27? Well, the short answer is yes, there is (though this is true of most numbers if you look hard enough). To begin with, 27 is the cube of 3 (total sum of 3x3x3), with 3 being the original ‘Magic Number’. Much like its famous cousin 23 (see FT23:32–35, repr. FT221:22–23; 175:23), 27 is one of those numbers that recurs time and time again in nature and popular culture. For example, the Moon takes 27 days to orbit the Earth, the Sun revolves on its axis every 27 days, there are 27 bones in the human hand, and human outer skin cells are shed and regrown every 27 days. The number also features prominently in various sections of the Bible. The 27 Project aims to collate instances of the number occurring in the world around us (8)

 

The 27 Club is making steady inroads into popular culture, aided no end by a best-selling book by Eric Segalstad called The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll which weaves together the lives of 34 club members into a narrative (9) and a 2008 movie in which the surviving member of a rock band attempts to carry out his best friend and bandmate’s last request after his suicide (10). The number 27 has been used in the titles of tracks by Fallout Boy, Biffy Clyro, Lagwagon, Cartel and the Dave Mathews Band, while US parodist ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic is known to bury the number in his songs and videos and there is even a band from Boston simply called 27 – all of which reinforces the number’s seemingly powerful association with music.

 

1 The Dead, of course, have their own ‘Curse of the Keyboard’, which has seen off Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick. Even Dead tribute band the Dark Star Orchestra lost their keyboardist while touring in 2005.

2 http://bit.ly/oU59IM (mediaexposed.tumblr.com).

3 http://tinyurl.com/448t2zk (seattlepi.com).

4 This may have been an unintentional side-effect of the original 78 RPM records being converted to the standard 33.3 RPM used for long-players.

5 http://imdb.to/Ro5kE (imdb).

6 http://tinyurl.com/3hsw9fd (BBC).

7 The Big Five being the then-most prominent members Johnson, Jones, Jimi (Hendrix), Janis (Joplin) and Jim (Morrison).

8 http://27project.wordpress.com/.

9 http://bit.ly/bVPipM (wikipedia).

10 http://www.the27clubmovie.com/.

 

The 27 Club: The List

(in chronological order)

Louis Chauvin (Ragtime musician, died: 26 Mar 1908)

Robert Johnson (Blues guitarist/singer, 16 Aug 1938)

Nat Jaffe (Jazz pianist, 5 Aug 1945)

Jesse Belvin (Rhythm & Blues singer, 6 Feb 1960)

Rudy Lewis (the Drifters, 20 May 1964)

Malcolm Hale (Spanky and Our Gang, 31 Oct 1968)

Dickie Pride (Singer, 26 Mar 1969)

Brian Jones (Rolling Stones, 3 Jul 1969)

Alexandra (Singer, 31 Jul 1969)

Al ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson (Canned Heat, 3 Sept 1970)

Jimi Hendrix (Guitarist/singer, 18 Sept 1970)

Janis Joplin (Singer, 4 Oct 1970)

Arlester ‘Dyke’ Christian A:(Dyke and the Blazers, 13 Mar 1971)

Jim Morrison (Doors, 3 July 1971)

Linda Jones (Soul singer, 14 Mar 1972)

Leslie Harvey (Stone the Crows, 3 May 1972)

Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (Grateful Dead, 8 Mar 1973)

Roger Lee Durham (Bloodstone, 27 Jul 1973)

Wallace Yohn (Chase, 12 Aug 1974)

Dave Alexander (the Stooges, 10 Feb 1975)

Peter Ham (Badfinger, 24 Apr 1975)

Gary Thain (Uriah Heep, 8 Dec 1975)

Cecilia (Singer, 2 Aug 1976)

Helmut Kollen (Triumvirat, 3 May 1977)

Chris Bell (Big Star, 27 Dec 1978)

D Boon (the Minutemen, 22 Dec 1985)

Alexander Bashlachev (Musician, 17 Feb 1988)

Jean-Michel Basquiat (Gray, 12 Aug 1988)

Pete de Freitas (Echo & the Bunnymen, 14 Jun 1989)

Mia Zapata (the Gits, 7 Jul 1993)

Kurt Cobain (Nirvana, 5 Apr 1994)

Kristen Pfaff (Hole, 16 June 1994)

Richey Edwards (Manic Street Preachers, declared missing 1 Feb 1995, officially presumed dead 23 Nov 2008)

Stretch (Rapper, 30 Nov 1995)

Fat Pat (Rapper, 3 Feb 1998)

Freaky Tah (Lost Boyz, 28 Mar 1999)

Rodrigo Bueno (Singer, 24 Jun 2000)

Sean Patrick McCabe (Ink & Dagger, 28 Aug 2000)

Maria Serrano (Passion Fruit, 24 Nov 2001)

Jeremy Ward (the Mars Volta, 25 May 2003)

Bryan Ottoson (American Head Charge, 19 Apr 2005)

Valentin Elizalde (singer, 26 Nov 2006)

Orish Grinstead (702, 20 Apr 2008)

Lily Tembo (Musician, 14 Sept 2009)

Amy Winehouse (Singer, 23 Jul 2011)

 

Further Reading

http://www.forever27.co.uk/27/

http://www.the27club.net/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/27_(number)

 

 

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Author Biography
CHRISTIAN SAUNDERS is a freelance writer and ESL teacher. His latest novella, zombie-fest “Dead of Night”, is available now on Damnation Books. He is currently being haunted by the number 27.

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