|Gather 'round the campfire|
“”It's not just that this kind of early death has become a fact of life that has become disturbing, but that it's been accepted as a given so quickly.
|—Rock critic Lester Bangs on Janis Joplin's death. Bangs died at age 33.|
“”♫♬ Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin
And Keith Moon and Elvis Presley
Dead rock n rollers they were outta-controllers
|—"Dead Rock-n-Rollers" by Detention|
The 27 Club refers to the supposed phenomenon that rock musicians are more likely to die at the age of 27 than any other. The examples usually given are Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. True, they both died aged 27, but they were also both from Washington state. Perhaps there should be a WA club?
The idea of a cluster of rock star deaths at age 27 isn't completely silly. Rock musicians often gain their first taste of fame in their early 20s — drop out of school, learn to play, get noticed, and then make it big. Add five years or so of heavy touring and the drug-fueled excess that might come with it, and a statistical median centered around age 27 isn't too surprising. In modern times early deaths are rarely due to "natural causes," so are reported more readily in the media and gain a lot of attention. Meanwhile, deaths over the age of 30 are more likely to be of natural cause and not counted as "rock 'n roll" enough. Although this is just speculation, there's nothing particularly mystical about a statistical blip in mortality centered around 25-30-year-old rock stars.
All of this is wrapped up in the theme of selective reporting. It appears that the value of 27 is primarily chosen because of the deaths of Jones, Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison, all within the space of a couple of years. Their deaths were significant news events and, along with other events of the time, such as the breakup of the Beatles, seemed to mark the end of the hippie era's naive spirit of optimism.
Popular music may be the only profession in which dying young is considered a good career move, possibly aside from art.
Dead at 27
There are now six members of the "official" 27 Club. Except for Kurt Cobain, who shot himself under the influence of heroin, all their deaths are all reckoned to be directly drug-induced; overdoses and choking, for example. Details tend to be a little sketchy, with few witnesses, contradictory accounts, and inevitably some conspiracy theories claiming alternative explanations.
- Brian Jones (1969): Multi-instrumentalist and founder of the Rolling Stones, until forced out of the group due to not being able to handle his drugs. The coroner's verdict was famously listed as "misadventure" from drowning in a swimming pool; foul play has long been alleged.[notes 1]
- Jimi Hendrix (1970): Singer-songwriter and one of the most important guitarists. Choked on his own vomit,[notes 2] due to alcohol and sleeping tablets.
- Janis Joplin (1970): Blues and rock singer. Died through synergistic effect of combining heroin and alcohol.
- Jim Morrison (1971): Lead singer of The Doors. Heart failure in the bath, caused by heroin according to most accounts, but no autopsy to confirm this.
- Kurt Cobain (1994): Shotgun to the head following a heroin binge (conspiracy theories have sprung up to say he was killed by Courtney Love).
- Amy Winehouse (2011): Found dead in her flat. Cause of death appears to be excessive alcohol.[notes 3]
This main group of musicians who are considered part of the official club had also produced the "white lighter" superstition, based on the rumor that Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, and Cobain all had a white disposable lighter (often said to be a Bic lighter) on their person when they died. Snopes has debunked this, pointing out that disposable lighters weren't sold in the US until 1972, and Bic lighters were not available until 1973, although some other brands had been available in France since the 1960s. As far as Snopes could tell, there was no evidence of any of the musicians being found with a white lighter, still less that they all had one.
Wikipedia lists 36 others who are part of the "unofficial" 27 club; many of these members date from long before the official club started in the 1960s and 1970s. This list includes early blues musician Robert Johnson (1911–1938), who is possibly the most famous and influential outside the "official" 6 mentioned above. One of the 36 in Wikipedia's list, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was only incidentally a musician.
Although a death toll of 41 looks like a relatively high number, in context, the Wikipedia category "American rock musicians by instrument" lists 3,759 articles, and similarly "American blues musicians by instrument" has 1,078. So, 41 out of 4,837 gives us 1 in… quite a lot.
One doesn't have to be much of a statistician to see that that's looking like a pretty safe age to be twanging a 6-string or beltin' out the ballads.
Lesser known members of "the club"
- Robert Johnson (1938): Cause of death is unclear, but legend had it he was poisoned by a jealous husband, and/or sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.
- Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (1973): Gastrointestinal hemorrhage resulting from alcohol abuse, and being a keyboardist for the Grateful Dead.
- Pete Ham (1975): Singer and guitarist for the power-pop band Badfinger; hanged himself.
- Chris Bell (1978): Founding singer and guitarist for the influential power-pop band Big Star; he left after one album and died in a car crash.
- Dennes Dale "D." Boon (1985): Singer and lyricist for 1980s punk rock band The Minutemen; co-wrote an album in praise of safe driving (Double Nickels on the Dime), then died as a passenger in a traffic accident.
- Richey Edwards (1995): Lyricist for the Manic Street Preachers, who was overly into suicide chic. Disappeared at age 27, officially presumed dead in 2008, though some fans claim to have spotted him since in both India and the Canary Islands.
Not dead at 27
Many musicians died before they got old, but fail to qualify for the 27 club, although sometimes the "curse" of 27 is expanded to include those who died under the age of 27 — as if it were an "upper limit" to the career of a famous musician. The premature deaths of young musicians or artists are nothing particularly new as examples date back to the 1920s. Indeed, the premature deaths of young people aren't limited only to the music industry.
In reality, the spread of musicians' premature and unnatural deaths is quite broad, ranging from the very early 20s (Sid Vicious and Eddie Cochran) into middle age (e.g., Michael Jackson at age 50). Listed below are some more artists who lived fast and died (relatively) young.
- Ritchie Valens (17): Plane crash, along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.
- XXXTENTACION (20): Shot in the head in a robbery.
- Sid Vicious (21): (born John Simon Ritchie, later named John Beverly). Overdose of heroin, apparently supplied by his mother, while he was out on bail after being charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. He had attempted suicide earlier by slitting his wrists with a broken light bulb.
- Eddie Cochran (21): Thrown through the windscreen of a Ford Consul in a traffic accident.
- Juice WRLD (21): Sudden seizure at an airport.
- Lil Peep (21): Fell asleep and died after taking an accidental overdose of fake Xanax pills pressed with the powerful opiate fentanyl.
- Stuart Sutcliffe (21): Brain hemorrhage, possibly due to prior head injury.
- Buddy Holly (22): Plane crash, memorialized in Don McLean's American Pie.
- Aaliyah (22): Plane crash.
- Dead (22): Born Per Yngve Ohlin, the Mayhem singer slit his wrists and then put a shotgun to his head for good measure. Famously left a suicide note that included the line "Excuse the blood".
- Ian Curtis (23), member of the band Joy Division: In despair over his rapidly worsening epilepsy and the breakup of his marriage, hanged himself after watching Stroszek and listening to The Idiot.
- River Phoenix (23): Overdose of cocaine and heroin.
- Bobby Fuller (23): Found dead with multiple injuries and covered with gasoline.
- Selena Quintanilla (23): Singer shot dead by a friend and later honoured by George W. Bush.
- Pine Top Smith (24): Shot during a fight.
- Duane Allman (24): Motorcycle accident.
- Berry Oakley (24): Motorcycle accident.
- Cliff Burton (24): Killed in a bus accident.
- The Notorious B.I.G. (24): Shot in his car shortly following Tupac's death.
- Tupac Shakur (25): Killed in a drive-by in Las Vegas, Nevada. Still releasing music to this day.
- James Honeyman-Scott (25): Either too much or too little cocaine.
- Randy Rhoads (25): Killed in a plane crash resulting from pilot douchebaggery.
- Euronymous (25): Mayhem guitarist, was stabbed to death by bandmate and neo-Nazi shit-stain Varg Vikernes.
- Mac Miller (26): Accidental overdose.
- Hillel Slovak (26): Heroin overdose.
- Nick Drake (26): Suicide by an overdose of depression medication after a long bout with that illness.
- Otis Redding (26): Plane crash due to
inclementWisconsin winter weather.
- Trey Gruber (26): Heroin overdose.
- Toše Proeski (26 and 9 months — close!): Died in a car accident.
- Gram Parsons (26 and 10 months — ooh, closer!): Morphine overdose while hunting UFOs.
- The Big Bopper (28) (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.): Plane crash, see Buddy Holly above.
- Big Pun (28) (Christopher Lee Rios): Cardiac arrest.
- Bix Beiderbecke (28): Officially lobar pneumonia, but some reckon alcoholism played a part.
- Bradley Nowell (28): Heroin overdose.
- Tim Buckley (28): Heroin overdose.
- Tim "Avicii" Bergling (28): Suicide in an Omani hotel room.
- Shannon Hoon (28): Cocaine overdose.
- Viktor Tsoi (28): Automobile accident.
- Hank Williams (29): Mysterious circumstances involving heart failure (probably alcohol or drug-induced) in a Cadillac.
- Jay Reatard (29): Cocaine-induced heart failure.
- Marc Bolan (29): Never learned to drive because he was afraid of premature death. So he died as a passenger in a car wreck.
- Ronnie Van Zant (29): Plane crash. He frequently said he would never live to see the age of 30.
- Patsy Cline (30): Plane crash (but not the same one as Buddy Holly et al.).
- Pete Farndon (30): Drowned in a bathtub during a heroin overdose.
- Jeff Buckley (30): Accidental drowning.
- Dave Williams (30): Heart failure due to undiagnosed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
- Terry Kath (31): Shot himself by accident.
- Doug Hopkins (32): Suicide.
- Mama Cass Elliot (32): Not a sandwich, but heart attack brought on by "fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity".
- Keith Moon (32): Overdose on sedatives meant to stop his alcoholism.
- J Dilla (32): Cardiac arrest resulting from a terminal illness.
- Keith Godchaux (32): Automobile accident, and being a keyboardist for the Grateful Dead.
- Rob Pilatus (32): Prescription drug and alcohol overdose, and lip-synching.
- John Bonham (32): Warmed up with four quadruple screwdrivers[notes 4] on the way to rehearsal, where he began the serious drinking. Later that night, he died from choking on vomit (it was his own, so no need to dust).
- Karen Carpenter (32): Heart failure from side effects of anorexia.
- Nipsey Hussle (33): Multiple gunshot wounds, the murder suspect is currently awaiting trial.
- Scott Johnson (33): Radiohead roadie. Died during a stage collapse in Toronto.
- Hideto Matsumoto (33): Accidental asphyxiation (or suicide) after a night of drinking. Provoked several copycat deaths.
- Bon Scott (33): Choked on his vomit due to alcohol poisoning.
- Elliott Smith (34): Died of stab wounds to the chest, inconclusive whether they were self-inflicted. Had a tragic history of substance abuse.
- Layne Staley (34): Heroin overdose.
- Sophie (34): Accidental fall from a balcony
- Melanie Thornton (34): Plane crash.
- Matthew Ashman (35): Complications due to diabetes.
- Jimmie Rodgers (35): Tuberculosis. Not to be confused with Jimmy Rogers, who died a rock 'n' roll death due to colon cancer at age 73.
- Stevie Ray Vaughan (35): Helicopter crash. Managed to dodge an even earlier death from drug and alcohol abuse, however.
- Blind Lemon Jefferson (36): Unknown. His grave was unmarked until 1967 and is, finally, being kept clean.
- Bob Marley (36): metastasized cancer due to alternative medicine treatment by Josef Issels.
- Ian Stuart Donaldson (36): Car crash.
- Brent Mydland (37): Drug overdose, and being a keyboardist for the Grateful Dead.
- Michael Hutchence (37): Officially suicide, some speculation that it was autoerotic asphyxiation.
- Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (38): Heart attack.
- Paul Gray (38): Morphine overdose.
- Dimebag Darrell (38): Shot by a deranged fan.
- Fats Waller (39): Pneumonia.
- John Lennon (40): Assassinated.
- Chester Bennington (41): Suicide by hanging.
- Alexi Laiho (41): Liver failure after years of alcoholism.
- Elvis Presley (42): Heart failure after years of drug abuse. Infamously, he died on the toilet — unless you're one of the people who believes he's somehow still alive.
- Steve Marriott (44): Smoke inhalation after accidentally setting his house on fire while smoking and falling asleep.
- Jay Bennett (45): Accidental Fentanyl overdose. Attempted to sue bandmate Jeff Tweedy to pay for hip replacement surgery weeks before death.
- Freddie Mercury (45): AIDS.
- Dolores O'Riordan (46): Drowned in the bathtub while drunk on alcohol miniatures and champagne.
- Scott Weiland (48): Drug overdose.
- MF Doom (49): Unknown. Speculated to be from an embolism.
- Taylor Hawkins (50): Unclear, but almost certainly drug-related; ten different drugs were found in his system at the time of death.
- Chris Cornell (52): Suicide by hanging.
- Jerry Garcia (53): Heart attack contributed by heroin addiction and diabetes.
- Vince Welnick (55): Suicide, and being a keyboardist for the Grateful Dead.
- George Harrison (58): Lung cancer, just two years after he was stabbed in his home but survived.
- David Roback (61): Cancer.
- Lemmy Kilmister (70): Prostate cancer and heart failure after decades of a hard-drinking, chain-smoking lifestyle. His primary source of calories was the bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey he drank a day, supplemented with meat, cheese and the rare piece of cake. How he managed to live to that age is unknown.
- Chuck Berry (90): The hard-rocking lifestyle finally caught up with him.
Can nothing kill them?
This lot seems to have consumed half the world's drugs and fornicated with a goodly percentage of the world's women (or, in some cases, men), yet they're still going strong.
- Willie Nelson (1933–): Regular smoker of the wacky baccy, and equally regular arrestee. Has released a single entitled "Still Not Dead".
- Jerry Lee Lewis (1935–): How many wives is he up to now? "I don't want no headstone on my grave. I want a MONUMENT!!"
- Phil Lesh (1940–): Bass player for the Grateful Dead and various post-Jerry spin-offs.
- Sir Tom Jones (1940–): Still receiving female undergarments (granted, this is mostly for irony's sake these days).
- Sir Paul McCartney, (1942–): Actually had a life after the Beatles—unless he really died at 27! Mostly just a pot smoker, though, and has now given that up.
- Keith Richards (1943–): Cannot be killed by conventional weapons. Reportedly went clean and sober after falling out of a palm tree (that he did not recall climbing). Once told Pete Doherty to slow down on the drugs. When Keith Richards tells you to stop, you know it's serious.
- Sir Mick Jagger (1943–): Proof of the dangers of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Fathered his eighth child in December 2016.
- Tom Constanten (1944–): survived being a keyboardist for the Grateful Dead, a heart attack, and a broken neck.
- Iggy Pop (1947–) Actually immortal, thanks to a Faustian pact involving car insurance commercials.
- Sir Elton John (1947–): The Bitch Is Still Alive.
- Ozzy Osbourne (1948–): An example of a modern miracle, who probably should be dead, although once they discovered most of his problems were actually Parkinson's syndrome, things improved.
- Steve Tyler (1948–): and Joe Perry (1950–): The "toxic twins" of Aerosmith.
- Alice Cooper (1948–): Intentionally cadaverous since the 1970's.
- Stevie Nicks (1948–): Infamous for being in the news for drug use, has toned down a bit.
- Dave Mustaine (1961–): Of Megadeth fame. After being kicked out of a group nicknamed "Alcoholica" for drinking too much (that bad!), did virtually every drug in existence for twenty years, even dying briefly only to be revived, before becoming clean for good around 2001.
- Dave Gahan (1962–): First hit single was "New Life"; has nearly died four times. the "health" section of his Wikipedia article is as long as the "Career in Depeche Mode" section.
- Slash (1965–): Guns and Roses, has written in his autobiography that he has clinically "died" several times due to substance abuse, and is finally clean since 2005.
- Pete Doherty (1979–): Went through a period of self-destruction before finally becoming clean in 2014. Left a trail of chaos and shattered parents in his wake.
- 700 Club
- Clustering illusion
- Hollywood values
- Kurt Cobain murder conspiracy theories
- Selection bias
- Evidence was strong enough for the case to be formally reopened in 2009. But as almost all the suspects and witnesses have since died, it will likely never be settled to everyone's satisfaction.
- …which is somewhat better than choking on somebody else's vomit…
- Looks like she lived according to her last name.
- For the mathematically-challenged (or drunk) reader, that's 16 shots of vodka.
- Jackson, Buzzy (2005). A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 234. ISBN 0393059367.
- Dead Rock N Rollers Lyrics by Detention
- Would it be in bad taste to say the same for Embryonic Stem Cell research?
- "Amy Winehouse death: Coroner records misadventure verdict", BBC News, 26th October 2011.
- Did Several Musicians Die with White BIC Lighters in Their Pockets?, Snopes, 2 Jan 2017
- See the Wikipedia article on 27 Club.
- As of 20 March 2010
- As of 20 March 2010
- See the Wikipedia article on Selena.
- Adam Luck, "The Curse of Pete Doherty". The Mail on Sunday, 27 June 2015