The '27 Club': rock 'n' roll deaths at a ripe young age

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When someone who has found fame dies young, it creates a mystique of legendary proportions. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse all belong to a rather exclusive group of musicians and singers who died at 27. When they died, their fans, deep in mourning, wondered what they would have done next.

The term "27 Club" was first used in Rolling Stone magazine after the death of Jim Morrison in 1971 after Jones, Hendrix and Joplin had all died within a span of a little over the two previous years. Though there have been dozens of books written about the six musicians, it is Howard Sounes' contention in "27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse" that based on their reckless lifestyles they all killed themselves.

By Howard Sounes.
DaCapo Press ($26.99).

Only Kurt Cobain had an actual post mortem ruling suicide. Jones, Hendrix, Joplin and Winehouse had findings of accidental or death by misadventure, though Jones was found in his swimming pool. Jim Morrison's death was ruled a result of natural causes -- cardiac arrest -- although the author presents strong evidence to the contrary.

"27: A History of the 27 Club" is divided into two parts: Life and Death. In the Life section, Mr. Sounes constructs a narrative, relying on various sources, of the principals' early family lives, leading up to their initial successes and beyond. Within this context he presents family and social situations, dysfunctional or otherwise, and psychological reasons as to why these individuals might later turn to self-medication and self-destructive behavior.

The Death section chronicles the last few weeks in each life. Mr. Sounes believes that their somewhat meteoric rise to fame had fatal consequences later on. They were ill equipped to deal with the pressures of having to tour or produce new material in a timely manner.

For some it was stage fright, while others felt that they couldn't be creative without alcohol or chemical assistance. In any event, their management in some cases provided them with access to their drug of choice via either cooperative physicians or drug dealers, which in effect regulated their lives.

Once they were established stars, the soon-to-be dead icons developed similar patterns of behavior. They all had drug and or alcohol dependencies, and they all dabbled with heroin. Their significant others were either users themselves or facilitators. They would overdose but continue to live dangerously.

There were occasional brushes with law, some drug- and alcohol-related, others involving domestic violence and battery charges. In the case of Morrison, a public indecency charge loomed over his later career. These scrapes with the law would result in the inability of some of these individuals to travel freely, as was required with touring.

The overall cumulative effects of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle resulted in a downward slide in most of their careers. Their live performances toward the end were erratic and sometimes ended after a few songs, or were canceled beforehand. Brian Jones was replaced with Mick Taylor by the Rolling Stones just weeks before his death.

It may be argued that Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin's posthumous album releases ("Cry of Love" and "Pearl," respectively) were still of a high quality, and that their careers were still on track. With the use of additional musicians and studio wizardry, there are still Jimi Hendrix albums released on a yearly basis that are selling well, some 43 years after his death.

The book is weighted toward Amy Winehouse as the main subject. More than a third of it relates to events in her life and death. The book was released in England as "Amy 27: Amy Winehouse and the 27 Club."

Mr. Sounes, a British journalist and biographer of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and the late poet Charles Bukowski, writes that the book was intended to be a biography of Winehouse, but he was thin on material. He added the other artists because it fit a common theme.

The book also lists 44 other notable 27's who passed away. Some of whom are included within the context of the book: Robert Johnson, the pioneering blues singer; Pete Ham, guitarist and composer from the power pop band Badfinger; Alan Wilson, guitarist from Canned Heat, and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, keyboardist and original member of the Grateful Dead, among others.

The book brings readers up to date with new findings, rumors and conspiracy theories. It could also serve as a primer for young musicians of what not to do if they achieve massive success.

Paul Zotter is a freelance writer living in the South Hills (

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