“Tragedy is so romantic when people write about it, but it is horrible to see. There is nothing pretty about a person destroying themselves.” – a close friend of The Doors’ Jim Morrison
This April 5 will serve as the twentieth anniversary of the death of the musical group Nirvana’s iconic frontman, Kurt Cobain, who took his own life at the age of 27. I recently reviewed a book for San Francisco Book Review about the strange and coincidental deaths of a half-dozen rock stars who each died at 27 years old.
With Kurt’s death expected to be the topic of news over the coming weeks, I thought this review was not only timely, but serve as a reminder (especially in light of the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s drug overdose) about the lethal mixture of drugs, alcohol, and fame.
After reading Howard Sounes, 27: A History of the 27 Club through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse, I am reluctant to utter ever again the popular phrase, “party like a rock star.” Partying like a rock star is often used to describe a night of drug and alcohol debauchery, not uncommon among well-known entertainers in the music industry.
Several, in fact, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors’ Jim Morrison, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and, most recently, Amy Winehouse, met an untimely end; all dead at the young age of twenty seven. Is this just a random coincidence? Coincidence or not, pop culture biographer Howard Sounes was determined to get to the bottom of these tragedies.
Using both a quantitative and qualitative approach, Sounes furthers our understanding of what happened to these talented, young people. In his statistical study, the author tabulated over three thousand individuals connected to the music industry during the past century and, using a bar graph, displayed a range of ages of when these individuals had died. What was most revealing was a “spike in music industry deaths at twenty-seven.”
Through a series of mini-biographies, the British author then channeled his focus to the psychological characteristics shared by the six notable members of the Twenty-seven Club. The commonalities identified were not surprising. The rock stars all used drugs at an early age; had unhappy childhoods; prior to their success, had run-ins with police; and experienced stardom at an early age and very swiftly, which proved “overwhelming.”
Even though only one had died from a documented suicide (Cobain), they were all headed down a self-destructive path. If the autopsies that had been performed took into account the stars’ personal histories, there’s no question, according to the author, that the death certificates would likely be changed from accidental overdose to suicide.
Unlike Cobain who left a note, failure to leave a message, Sounes argues, does not necessarily mean that suicide should be ruled out. Another common pattern was the conspiracy theories linked to the tragedies. From Kurt Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love to Brian Jones’ home contractor, a relative or associate were considered suspects in each of the cases. In view of their premature deaths, fans (as well as the media) were of the opinion that these twenty-seven-year-olds were victims of foul play. But as the author explains, the deaths in questions were almost predictable.
For anyone expecting in-depth biographies of these particular rock icons, you will be disappointed. In Sounes’ defense, though, that was not the objective. Aside from the improvable assertion that “Creative people are often bipolar, and the disorder is found in many members of the Twenty-seven Club,” this is a provocative and persuasive read that goes further than any other publication on this particular topic.
Of greatest import, Sounes’ book is a reminder to any aspiring or current rock/hip-hop/country star (or any young person whatever the industry), there is a price you pay for partying like a rock star.
For more information…
- To purchase 27, click here
- Howard Sounes, Author of 27
- Biography of Kurt Cobain
- Read the original review in SF Book Review