On 16 August 1938, some 24 kilometres from Greenwood, Mississippi, the devil collected a debt, one man’s soul. At a country dance, known in those days as a juke-joint, the indebted man clutched his chest, collapsed and after three days of violent convulsions, died.
He was 27 years old, a bluesman who had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar. His name was Robert Johnson, and the curse of his death has seemingly been passed down the musical liner notes. Did the deal he made with the devil result in one of the most tragic mysteries in music? Robert Johnson was the first member of the so-called 27 Club. A club reserved for highly influential musicians who died three years short of their thirtieth birthdays, under mysterious and eerie circumstances. Fuelled by the recent and untimely demise of 27-year-old Camden songstress Amy Winehouse, public interest in the phenomenon has led to an endless evaluation as to why more musical artists die at 27 than any at other age?
Is it a pop-culture phenomenon, a fad of sort impelled and embraced by tabloids? Perhaps it is the shady dealings with the supernatural. Faustian myths such as that related to Robert Johnson, or even Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, are not as uncommon as one would imagine. Or are these deaths of the fast-living merely a statistical outcome, an anomaly that has to exist? Whatever the case may be, the list of influential artists lost to the number 27 is uncanny.
Sympathy for the Devil
Before the Jagger/Richards song-writing duo became what we see today as only rivalled by that of the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones was the de facto founder and leader of the Rolling Stones. However, Jones would not live to see the blues cover-band he fronted become what is arguably the most influential recording group still active almost 50 years after their first album in 1964. Jones was found dead in the bottom of his Cotchford Farm swimming pool in 1969, one year after leaving the Rolling Stones and three years before turning 30.
Like many of the rock stars who make up the 27 Club, Jones suffered from drug abuse throughout most of his career, particularly during the estrangement from his Rolling Stones band mates. And even though it is unknown whether drugs played a definite role in his death, which was reported as “death by misadventure” by the coroner’s office that performed the autopsy, it is difficult to ignore the fact that alcohol and drug addiction play an essential role and are often the common thread linking the deaths of all of the musicians who died at 27. Perhaps, though, Jones was a victim of the Robert Johnson curse. He considered the Delta bluesman, along with Chicago blues star Muddy Waters, as major influences and Johnson was his inspiration for taking up jazz and blues, a catalyst in the formation of the Rolling Stones. The band itself paid homage to the prince of darkness in a number of their works during Jones’ tenure, including the album Their Satanic Majesties Request as well as the universal hit, Sympathy for the Devil. However, those titles can be credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and they made it past 27, just.
If Jimi Hendrix sold his soul to anyone it might have been to the British, for it is there that the young guitar virtuoso made a name for himself after initially being shunned by his American countrymen. Perhaps the Americans did not like his style, the psychedelic outfits or, more importantly, the strange, fantastical sounds he made with his electric guitar. If Jefferson Airplane was pushing the boundaries with its groovy and psychedelic music in the 60s, Hendrix toppled them over. American music in the 1960s was never the classic-rock haven Woodstock 1969 would have you believe. So Hendrix took his experience to the UK, which already had Cream, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and The Who and many others who could handle the blazing wall of reverb Jimi’s Stratocaster had to offer. The British embraced Hendrix, giving him his initial success and a legion of dumbstruck fans, which he took back to the United States in 1967. And, as audiences rose, so did the pressure, culminating with a psychedelic version of the Star Spangled Banner before 400,000 people during the final sunrise at Woodstock.
Much like a grungier fellow 27 Clubber who would die 24 years later, Hendrix was a coy man, unimpressed by the size of his fame and with little willpower and basic common sense to guard him from the bottom feeders and those tugging on his bejewelled coat-tails. And it is this personality trait which led Hendrix to succumb to the pressures of the time, particularly the psychedelic lifestyle of drugs and promiscuity. He died in the early hours of 18 September 1970 by asphyxiating on his own vomit after underestimating his girlfriend’s Vesparax sleeping pills, and taking nine.
Nowadays Hendrix is considered the most influential, if not the greatest, guitarist in music history, albeit being active in the public eye for a mere six years. The mysteries surrounding his death, the notions that he was actually murdered because he wanted out of his managerial contract and that he would never make the mistake of taking nine sleeping pills, have since been mostly forgotten. Some have even tried to impose Johnson’s Faustian myth on Hendrix after his death, to no avail. Hendrix, as it has turned out, was a child of voodoo.
Piece of My Heart
If Jimi Hendrix was the king of the psychedelic area, then Janis Joplin was undoubtedly its queen, or at least shared that title with Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. Lead singer and songwriter of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and subsequently as a solo artist, Joplin fused soul, rock and blues, and like Amy Winehouse, possessed a voice she had no business owning, becoming one of the most fêted vocalists of her generation, and until the recent death of Winehouse, was the only celebrated female to make it into the exclusive 27 Club.
Unlike any of the other famous members, Joplin’s death included little mystery: a heroin overdose brought on by alcohol on 4 October 1970. What made reports of Joplin’s death more shattering than the age at which she passed was that she died precisely 16 days after the death of Hendrix. As part of the 60s generation, who shared a lifestyle of free drugs and free love, Joplin seemingly suffered the same fate as the guitarist, with a career-worth of substance abuse, especially LSD, the drug of the era, heroin and alcohol. Fittingly then, shortly after her cremated remains were scattered into the Pacific, hash-brownies were served to the guests at her wake.
Two years to the day after the death of Brian Jones, The Doors front-man, The Lizard King, Jim Morrison died of an apparent heroin overdose in Paris, in 1971. The eccentric singer and poet was known for being, for lack of a better word, mad. There are numerous stories alluding to the fact that Morrison would, in all probability, never really go out a normal way. Such stories include Morrison missing a Doors concert because he felt that going to the cinema would be more appropriate, or the fact that on numerous occasions Morrison would force his band-mates to go back on stage after a show and keep playing, after the audience had left or until the stragglers got bored. Being arrested for pulling out his own lizard on stage, apparently in order to incite a riot, may not sound all that impressive now, but it was 1969.
His death was, however, surrounded by controversy and speculation. Because he died in Paris, and under French law no autopsy was allowed to be performed, his death was officially reported as heart failure. But, stories supplied by Morrison’s long-time companion Pamela Courson, who had found Morrison’s body, contradicted the official line and led to much suspicion of the real cause of death. Courson was often reported as saying that she was responsible for Morrison’s death, apparently allowing him to snort what he thought was cocaine, which turned out to be her heroin. Strangely enough, Courson suffered a fatal heroin overdose herself three years later; when she 27 years old.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Kurt Cobain might never have been on the same esteemed musical echelon as Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix but his suicide on 5 April 1994, 23 years after Jim Morrison’s death, once again pulled aside the ropes of the 27 Club and firmly instilled it into the public imagination. The idea of the 27 Club was brought into the limelight again because of the resulting controversy surrounding Cobain’s death as well as famous quotes by his sister and mother that Cobain knew about the club as a child, and had spoken about joining it.
The angst Cobain and Nirvana, along with artists such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Faith No More and Mother Love Bone, represented in the early 1990s, after the excess-focused, colourful and ball-less 1980s resulted in a catastrophic right-time, right-place fame for the Seattle musician. Hating every second of the attention bestowed upon him by the massive success that was Nirvana’s Nevermind, Cobain, reclusive and fragile, seemed to find reprieve in habitual and extensive drug use.
The drugs Cobain chose, mostly cannabis and later heroin, were more than just a result of the rock-star lifestyle. In Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, Charles C Cross paints a portrait of the childlike Cobain, suffering early on in his life from poverty and tormented by an undiagnosed and chronic stomach ailment. Cobain himself said that once he started taking heroin, the pain went away. However, the pressures upon his brittle, anti-social mind did not, and so the 27 Club gained another member.
Back to Black
The fame and admiration Amy Winehouse earned with her two studio albums, 2003’s Frank and 2006’s Back to Black, were only matched by the subsequent, salacious and, at times, plainly malicious public scrutiny. Hounded by tabloids and the entertainment networks, post-Back to Black, Winehouse was seen as a shrivelled, aged alcoholic junkie, a car-crash one could not look away from, the “new Bardot” as Karl Lagerfeld enthusiastically exclaimed.
When her death occurred at age 27, the magic number did not pass unnoticed, and it only reinvigorated the Club’s esteem, as did Cobain’s 17 years earlier. Tributes poured in for a frail and damaged young woman, influenced by a lover and abandoned by management and the powers that be. The countless awards, the introduction of a dying genre to a new generation and the millions upon millions of recordings sold were forgotten.
The official cause of death was, again, reported as “misadventure,” whereas the toxicology report stated that Winehouse’s blood alcohol level was five times the legal drink-drive limit. The only real controversy surrounding her death was that it took an unusual time for the report to be made public. Speculation during this time was rife, but the end result was more or less expected. At least one person won an iPod Touch, courtesy of whenwillamywinehousedie.com.
The crossroads myth was a popular legend during the 30s, 40s and 50s, particularly in the southern states of the US. Young men would walk to the crossroads where, at midnight, they would be met by the devil who would offer them a chance to sell their soul in return for their heart’s desire. So, is this what Robert Johnson and some of our other 27 Club members might have done? In fact, Robert Johnson was not killed by the devil, he was killed by reported strychnine poisoning after drinking a bottle of infected whiskey at a party. It is unclear whether the laced whiskey he drank was intended for him, but what is clear is that Johnson’s legacy became eternal and his influence extensive. Eric Clapton, for example, considered Johnson to be the most important blues musician in history.
There are some 43 members of the 27 Club who have been inaugurated since the start of the 20th Century. Many are faceless band members or long forgotten genre-specific performers, whose greatest achievement might just be making it into the 27 Club, yet the handful of deaths including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, have been too influential and too instrumental in the shaping of music to be attributed to some something-out-of-nothing club. Unless the guitar is reinvented, there will never be another guitarist who can make the instrument their own as much as Hendrix did. With the cash-cow that is MTV, the voices of Joplin and Winehouse are few and far between, and what would have fuelled the marijuana trade had the Doors not been around? The age of 27 is too young to die, but had it not been for the way they lived, their music and their legacy would have been dead too.
By Luka Vracar
Published in Playboy SA January / February 2012