The 27 Club
Friday, March 3, 2023, 9:07 a.m.Staff PicksMartin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library
The 27 Club
A Deeper Dive into a Tragic Phenomenon
**This is a heavy topic, and might be disturbing or upsetting to some readers, particularly because it involves death, addiction, suicide, and grief.
The “27 Club” refers to celebrities, mostly musicians, who died at the age of 27. This coincidence adds a layer of intrigue and infamy to already tragic events. Members of the club include: Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and more.
What is the significance of this club? There is an added notoriety, a morbid distinction, in membership- artists that lived decades apart are now assembled in the same group, sometimes curiously imagined together in “Rock and Roll Heaven”. Some people ascribe supernatural influences or conspiracy theories to prove that this is no mere coincidence. People often mythologize these musicians into Rock Gods and Goddesses, and sometimes regard their early deaths as somehow inevitable. But that can be misleading and limiting. I want to invite readers to look past the “Dead at 27” headlines and appreciate the gifts and struggles of real people living their lives. Also, we should consider how this excludes other brilliant and influential musicians who also died prematurely, just not at the exact age of 27 (for instance: Otis Redding at 26, Jeff Buckley at 30, Prince at 57- were these not tragic losses?). Does it really matter how old they were?
Nevertheless, for better or worse, the 27 Club is a noted and fascinating phenomenon. Using this as a basis for discussion, we have an opportunity to examine how we as a society regard talent, art, fame, death, and legacy. By exploring individual biographies, we give breath and detail to the lives of these talented and troubled human beings. This goes beyond a morbid fascination with notorious rock star deaths, and the salacious details and spooky happenstance of a common age at death. We can come to a better understanding of what influenced these artists who became influential and iconic themselves.
For further immersion, analysis, and enjoyment, listen to music by these artists on Freegal or YouTube, and watch free documentaries about them on Access Video.
27: A History of the 27 Club through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse by Howard Sounes
This book frames the discussion and provides an excellent analysis of the 27 Club phenomenon. Sounes refers to members of the club as “the 27s” and focuses on “the big six”: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. It begins with a detailed account of Amy Winehouse’s demise; this is the most contemporary example and an effective hook for readers who remember the summer of 2011. Sounes deliberately cuts through the mainstream media noise about the 27 Club to root out common traits and patterns in their lives. The intertwined narratives highlight themes of chronic unhappiness, insecurity, low self-esteem, tumultuous relationships, depression, personality disorders, and addiction. The real coincidence is not the age at death, but that each of these people were seemingly on paths to success that ultimately became paths to destruction. Thorough and easy to read with a sharp yet sensitive prose, this book acknowledges the influence and iconic status of 27 Club members, whilst reflecting their individual personalities and experiences.
Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain by Danny Goldberg
This is a well-written, personal biography written by Kurt Cobain’s former manager and friend. Goldberg provides a first-hand account of Nirvana’s rapid mainstream success and the effect of this on their charismatic frontman. This allows readers to go beyond the grunge god iconography of Kurt Cobain and see a man of complexity and contradiction. On one hand, we see the driven, ambitious, intense musician who achieved immense commercial success in a very brief time. And on the other hand we see the irreverent slacker, the sensitive daydreamer, from a background of poverty and punk. From Goldberg's perspective, there was a deep struggle to reconcile the two. Goldberg also discusses the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s suicide for friends, family, and fans. Much like other members of the 27 Club, his influence is still very strong today.
Up Jumped the Devil: the Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow
Robert Johnson is perhaps the most legendary member of the 27 Club, and proved to be a major influence on subsequent members. His story has a place in the myths and tales of Americana, and it is alluded to in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for supreme skill with the guitar. This book separates the man from the myth and provides clarity and truth to a life story embroidered with fantasy. Conforth and Wardlow fill in an information gap, as all previously published biographies omitted facts and focused more on the legend than the real life. This book is comprehensive, detailed, and engrossing.
Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren
Janis Joplin was an iconoclast and huge influence to subsequent musicians. George-Warren provides a psychologically sensitive and detailed portrait of a complex woman. In this biography, she shares the difficulties and contradictions of Janis Joplin’s life as well as the rocket rise of her career. Janis Joplin was rebellious and non-conformist, yet yearned for love and a place to fit in; she exuded confidence, freedom, and strength, yet suffered deeply from insecurity and low self-esteem. She was a breakout star and remains an iconic symbol of 60s rock. George-Warren brings her down to earth with intimate detail.
Amy, Amy, Amy: the Amy Winehouse Story by Nick Johnstone
This is an updated version of an unauthorized biography, marketed as a “Memorial Edition” after her death. Surprisingly, it is less tawdry than one might expect. Johnstone sifts through copious sensational and exploitative media coverage to provide a balanced and candid portrait of a talented, intelligent, and vulnerable young woman living a life under growing pressure. This account of Amy Winehouse’s background, career development, and public struggle with substance abuse is detailed and well-organized, and it complements the narrative told in 27.
Wild Thing: the Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix by Philip Norman
Intriguing and entertaining, this biography of Jimi Hendrix coveys the story of a sensitive genius. A boy with innate talent and inspiration, who may have lacked the means and parental support, but nevertheless taught himself to play and became a guitar god. Norman takes a somewhat personal approach to writing, relating himself and making associations to his own background and former biographical work (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton). This provides a lot of social context and juicy classic rock gossip, but it also shifts focus away from Hendrix. Nevertheless, the book does take us on a wild, fast, but all-too-brief journey from an unstable boyhood in Washington state, to the growing rock scene in London, to the transformative moments of the Monterey Pop Music Festival and Woodstock. The sense of loss, regret, and unfulfilled potential that we see in all biographies of 27 Club members (the sentiment of "gone too soon, what a terrible shame" can serve as a group epitaph of sorts) is especially painful in the case of Jimi Hendrix.
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About the Author:
Christine G. is a Library Associate at DC Public Library. A lifelong bibliophile and an avid fan of libraries, she loves her job at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. She has somewhat eclectic reading taste, but she is always down for a good biography or historical fiction, especially family sagas. In her spare time, she keeps busy with volunteering and interesting side jobs in local theater, church, and freelance research projects. She enjoys good coffee, meandering walks around DC, and practicing yoga.