Who's In The '27 Club'? The Members Who Partied Hard And Died Young
Cool people like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison may be members, but the 27 Club is one of the few institutions of fame that no one in their right mind wants to join. It may not have a brick and mortar location like the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, but it stands tall in the minds of music lovers across the world. Those three late-'60s figures, plus Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, plus modern inductees like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, all died at age 27, giving birth to the idea that talented but troubled musicians don't, won't or can't live to see age 28. The members of the 27 Club range from psychedelic poets to troubled R&B singers, and it could even be expanded to include painters and punk visionaries, but is it a real thing? And who are the members of this grim collection of superstars?
Why do so many stars die young?
You’ve heard of “live fast, die young,” but is there really a large amount of famous people who die at the age of 27? In 2011, British researchers found that yes, more rock stars die before they’re 30 than the average person. Their sex, drugs, and rock n roll lifestyle aids this quick demise, but so does the non-stop travel and work associated with fame.
While more rockers have died at the age of 27 than any other, it’s not the climax of death. The researchers found that the late 20s and early 30s are the most volatile time for performers, and that European and English rockers are more likely to die young than their American counterparts.
It makes sense that most of the members of the 27 Club were performing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when drug use and chaotic behavior were not only rampant, but applauded by audiences. As for why the world at large is so obsessed with this “club,” it helps that four of the most famous people on the planet (Jimi, Janis, Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones) died at 27 between 1969 and 1971.
Jim Morrison always seemed to be on a crash course with oblivion, but once The Doors became a household name he was driven towards drugs and alcohol as a means for escape. After recording L.A. Woman in Los Angeles, Morrison fled to Paris with his longtime partner Pamela Courson in spring of 1971. By all accounts he was doing well and losing weight, but on July 3, 1971 he was discovered dead in his bath tub from a heart failure. His death at the age of 27 occurred nine months after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and two years to the day of the final moments Rolling Stones member Brian Jones. Morrison’s death has remained intriguing to rock n roll fans, and the timing of his death makes the 27 club feel all the more cosmically connected.
In hindsight it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jimi Hendrix died young. His music has never ceased to feel magical and breathlessly organic, even decades after imposters and soundalikes have tried to capture his essence, but Hendrix was also self destructive. He took whatever drug was handed to him with little care for its effects, he lit his equipment on fire in the middle of a set and lived with reckless abandon. That doesn’t mean he wanted to die.
On Friday, September 18, 1970, Hendrix was staying in London and gobbled down something like nine Vesparax, a barbiturate that was known for knocking people out for a full night’s sleep - and that’s only if you took half of one. Officially, Hendrix passed away from suffocation through vomit, but Eric Burdon of The Animals says that Hendrix was tired of being alive. After the discovery of a multi-page poem written for Hendrix’s girlfriend, Burdon explained:
The poem just says the things Hendrix has always been saying, but to which nobody ever listened. It was a note of goodbye and a note of hello. I don’t think Jimi committed suicide in the conventional way. He just decided to exit when he wanted to.
To make matters more mysterious, Burdon has never shown the poem to anyone so it’s not clear if it even exists.
When Janis Joplin returned to her hotel room from a recording session on October 4, 1970, she dug into a stash of heroin that she purchased earlier that week and shot up. When she was found by her friend, Peggy Caserta, Joplin was clutching a new pack of cigarettes in one hand and some change in the other. The police ruled Joplin’s death a drug overdose based on the fact that she’d just shot heroin and that there were a series of overdoses from people who bought heroin from the same dealer as Jolplin, but Caserta thinks that the death had little to do with the heroin.
Caserta believes that Joplin, having just injected heroin, went to the cigarette machine at her hotel and walked back to her room, where she tripped and slammed her head onto the room’s desk, broke her nose, and asphyxiated.
The first “official” member of the 27 Club, Brian Jones fell victim to what’s quite possible the most mysterious deaths of the group. The accepted story of Jones’ final moments is that on July 3, 1969, Jones was drunk and high and fell into his swimming pool, he never came up for air. His girlfriend at the time pulled him out and insisted that he still had a pulse, but by the time medical authorities arrived Jones was gone.
There are a handful of theories surrounding Jones’ death, with the most prevalent being that he was murdered by secret agent working for Richard Nixon who was posing as a construction worker on Jones’ property. Reportedly, he wanted £6,000 on top of the £18,000 that Jones paid him, and then killed him for not ponying up. The theory suggests that senior police officials helped cover up the crime because it had so poorly handled by local authorities. Unfortunately, we’ll never know the real story.
Even though he doesn’t fit into the psychedelic world of the main four members of the 27 Club, Robert Johnson is ground zero for the sound and the lifestyle of rock and rollers throughout the 20th century. If you don’t know the story, Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for the ability to play guitar like no one else.
His haunting take on the blues changed music forever, but he passed away poor and relatively unknown. Johnson turned 27 on May 8, 1938, and in August of that year he was playing at a roadhouse. After making a pass at the wife of the roadhouse’s owner he was sent an open bottle whiskey from which he drank deep. The roadhouse owner didn’t appreciate Johnson on his wife so he spiked it with strychnine. Johnson died three days later from strychnine poisoning and pneumonia, he was buried in an unmarked grave.
There are many incarnations of the Grateful Dead, but in their early years Ron "Pigpen" McKernan was prominent. Pigpen was an alcoholic whose poetic rants became known throughout the scene as one of the many textures to be discovered in the songs of the Dead. Pigpen was an alcoholic from an early age, and the non-stop party that came with being in a popular band didn’t help his body.
By the 1970s he began suffering from congenital primary biliary cholangitis, a rare autoimmune disease that when coupled with his alcoholism and drug use was absolutely crippling. He slowly backed away from the Grateful Dead, severing his ties with them following a show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1971. On March 8, 1973, his body was discovered by his landlady. He passed away from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage.
Even though Badfinger was one the bands that the Beatles had tapped to be on Apple Records, essentially crowning with the title next big thing of rock, the band never reached the heights of the bands springing up around them. After Apple Records fell apart, Badfinger were signed to Warner Bros., but the band’s manager absconded with their advance, putting the band in limbo and leaving Pete Ham and bandmate Tom Evans penniless.
On April 24, 1975, Ham met up with Evans at a pub near his home and expressed that he knew how to get them out of debt, and out of the lawsuit with Warner Bros. Later that night he wrote a note to his wife and son before hanging himself in his garage. Evans did the same seven years later.
In the 1980s there was a specific look and sound that was prescribed hardcore music, the sped up, angrier, and more aggressive younger sibling of punk rock. The genre was filled with meatheads, which meant that D. Boon and his band The Minutemen stuck out like a sore thumb. He was a bigger guy, he was happy, and his blistering guitar was influenced as much as funk as it was by the New York Dolls.
Unlike many of the members of the 27 Club, D. Boon wasn’t self destructive. He liked to play music, draw, and hang out with his friends. His life came to an end on the road in Arizona. He was lying down in the back of the band’s van when their rear axle broke. He was flung out of the van and his neck broke on impact. He died instantly.
Do you have to be a musician to be a part of the 27 Club? Neo-Expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat passed away from the injection of a speedball on August 12, 1988, after trying and failing to kick his habit. For the purists out there, Basquiat was a member of the noise group Test Pattern, who later renamed themselves “Gray,” but the 27 Club is really less about music and more about artists who give and give and give so much of themselves that they’re squeezed dry by life until they have nothing left. Basquiat certainly fits under that rubric.
On April 8, 1994, the world was shook by the news that Kurt Cobain, the singer and guitarist for Nirvana, had killed himself with an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. Cobain’s body was found by an electrician and medical authorities deduced that he passed away three days earlier. Though he was hailed as the savior of rock at the start of the ‘90s, the decade wore on Cobain. Addicted to heroin, suffering from depression as well as severe stomach pains, he was faced with fame when he was least prepared.
One month before his death, Cobain was placed in the hospital after overdosing on painkillers. He claimed that it was an accident, but his former wife Courtney Love says that there “was a definite suicidal urge.”
Cobain went missing the week of his suicide, although Seattle locals claim to have seen him in the area. While there are multiple theories about whether or not he was murdered, all evidence points to the sad fact that he ended his own life in the greenhouse attached to his home.
When Amy Winehouse appeared in the 2000s her voice felt like it was crooning from another era. Whiskey and cigarette soaked, she wasn’t like the other pop singers of the era. Winehouse spunded like ‘60s Motown stars with a touch of Janis Joplin -- and certainly had some of Janis' problems. She drank vodka as if Russia would run out of it and she couldn’t kick heroin.
By all accounts Winehouse was trying to stay clean, and trying to create new sounds. She never wanted to be in the 27 Club. On July 23, 2011, Winehouse drank herself to death at her home in Camden, north London.