Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The 27 Club

The recent, tragically early death of Amy Winehouse saw yet another talented artist join the group of singers, songwriters and musicians who, like her, only made it to their 27th birthdays.

In the few weeks, hundreds of column centimetres have been penned on just what an exclusive Club this is. In 1970, The Doors’ vocalist and frontman, Jim Morrison, said to his Producer Paul Rothchild. ‘First Jimi, then Janis. You’re drinking with number 3.’ Sadly a few short months later, his words were to prove prophetic. Three of the most influential music legends of their day had joined Brian Jones and Robert Johnson. They were to be followed by a host of others including Kurt Cobain and now Amy.

But why 27? Why not a 30 Club or a 25 Club?  Various theories have been expounded and it helps to clarify when you look at the probable causes of death:

Robert Johnson, probably poisoned (murdered using strychnine-laced whisky). He was a known heavy drinker
Brian Jones – drowned while under the influence of drink and drugs (although rumours of murder abound to this day)
Jimi Hendrix – asphyxiation following a probable accidental overdose of sleeping tablets
Janis Joplin – heroin overdose
Jim Morrison – heart failure (although an autopsy was never performed and many conspiracy theories still abound). He was known to be heavily into hard drugs and alcohol at the time.
Kurt Cobain – suicide by shooting. Reported as having said he wanted to join ‘the 27 Club’ and was no stranger to drugs or alcohol in significant quantities
Amy Winehouse – inquest is still to be held although widely believed to be drink or drugs related

So all the above had one thing in common – they used drugs and/or drink and they used them to excess.

Over the years, there have been a number of theories for ‘Why did they all die at 27?’. A popular one is that at that age, it is quite usual for people to suddenly realise that they are hurtling towards 30 and a certain craziness sets in, leading them to party harder than ever while they’re still young enough to enjoy it. Perhaps 27 is a natural turning point when you realise you’re going to have to grow up.

Given what we know of the personalities above, I’m not so sure. Having lost someone close to me who died young of alcohol poisoning, I always felt that, in his case at least, he drank no more and no less that day than he had on other days. The difference was that on other days he woke up some hours later, feeling foul but nevertheless alive. On this particular occasion it was as if the pendulum had swung so far and then stopped. As if his body said ‘No. Not this time.’

Maybe, with the possible exception of Robert Johnson and Kurt Cobain, this was also the case. And maybe, because the effects of drugs and alcohol are cumulative, if you start abusing them when you’re young, then perhaps 27 is the age when your body’s pendulum simply says ‘Enough!’

Of course, you can while away many a happy hour musing on what some of them would be doing if they were alive today. Would Brian Jones still be touring with the Stones? Would Jim Morrison be touring with the remaining Doors or would he have reverted to his first love, writing poetry, and be living as a hermit in the woods somewhere? Would Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin be on Sixties revival tours or be recording songs as part of a supergroup with Eric Clapton? Maybe Kurt Cobain would be jamming along and they’d all appear on ‘Later with Jools Holland’ on deeply respectable BBC2.

No, I don’t think so either. Some people – and often highly talented ones – just aren’tmeant to grow old. They are meant to burn brightly (at both ends), live fast and pass on, leaving a legacy and a legend that far outlives them.

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