From Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain, Stylist investigates the live fast, die young stars who have all succumbed to rock’s mysterious 27th-birthday curse…
Stylist, July 2010
Forty years ago this week, insanely-talented guitar god Jimi Hendrix left a chilling message on his friend’s answering machine. “I need help bad, man,” came the breathy cry for help. But by the time this distress signal was picked up hours later, Hendrix was dead. The trail-blazing axe-man who reinvented the way the electric guitar is played, was found dead in his girlfriend’s Notting Hill flat, having choked on his own vomit (the doctor at the scene later said he had, “drowned in a massive amount of red wine”). In doing so, Hendrix had just become an inaugural inductee of the ’27 Club’ – a mysterious cabal of influential musicians who all tragically kicked the bucket at that untimely age.
The roll-call reads like some morbid rock’n’roll Hall of Fame. One of the first members was 1930s’ bluesman Robert Johnson, who after allegedly “selling his soul to the devil” (in exchange for his guitar-playing gift), croaked his last after guzzling poison-laced whiskey. Next to sign up was The Rolling Stones’ rebel guitarist, Brian Jones, who “accidentally” drowned in his swimming pool in July 1969. He was swiftly followed by Janis Joplin and The Doors’ Jim Morrison, both surrendering to drugs overdoses. Then, some 25 years later, on 5 April 1994, Nirvana misog Kurt Cobain blasted his head off using a Remington 20-gauge shotgun. Twenty-seven years young, each and everyone.
“I told him not to join that stupid club," said Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor at the time of her son’s death. But by now, that “stupid club” was gaining serious notoriety. On 1 February 1995, Manic Street Preachers’ 27-year old troubled guitarist (he was self-harming regularly), Richey Edwards walked out of London’s Embassy Hotel at 7am, never to be seen again (his Vauxhall Cavalier was found next to notorious suicide spot, the Severn Bridge, three weeks later). It’s not just musicians. See fellow 27-casualties Jade Goody (cervical cancer, 2009), poet Rupert Brooke (sepsis, 1915), Warhol-feted artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (heroin overdose, 1988), Elephant Man John Merrick (asphyxia, 1890) and many more…
But can there really be such a thing as a 27 death hoodoo? Or is it all just grisly coincidence?
There is a scientific explanation – the brain of an average late twenty-something goes through some bizarre transformations at that age.
“The prefrontal cortex of the brain [the part involved with judgement] does not finish developing until people are 25-27,” says neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Dr Daniel G. Amen, author of Magnificent Mind at Any Age. “In your 20s, a process called ‘myelination’ occurs, where nerve cells become wrapped. If you disrupt this, with drink or drugs, you’re going to be more vulnerable for depression and impulsive actions.”
“Rock stars spend a lot of time inside because they can’t go out and be recognised,” adds Amen. “This causes low Vitamin D levels, which makes them more vulnerable to depression. If you have a confluence of all this, combined with drink/drugs, then trouble is likely to brew.”
You don’t have to be a self-destructive rock behemoth who sprinkles horse tranquiliser on his/her cornflakes to realise that 27 is a funny old age. Yes, it might be when many athletes reach their peak but you’re also teetering on the edge of a weird, intermediary no-mans land between responsibility-free youth and scary adulthood. Your metabolism fades, hangovers start to viciously kick in, your young person’s railcard is no more and all around you, friends are getting mortgages, racing up the career ladder and spawning sprogs left, right and centre.
All of which has given rise to the modern malaise that is the “quarter-life crisis”. Damian Barr, author of Get It Together: A Guide to Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis, says, “Your mid-late 20s are competitive. It’s like collecting Pokémon – you’ve got to get certain goals on top of each other – a job, house, marriage. With rock stars, you can have all this, but still be unsure about what it all means. They’re just as susceptible to quarter-life crises as everybody else…”
Dr. Amen agrees: “When we think of Hendrix or Cobain, they’d both had a lot of fame and excitement by the time they were 27. But soon, everyday pleasure such as holding your girlfriend’s hand, or playing with the dog, doesn’t work anymore because their brains have been over-stimulated and pleasure centres have burnt out. Therefore, they need ever-more higher levels of pleasure in order to feel anything at all, such as drugs…”
Or… as Barr calls it, “a hedonism escalator”. Meanwhile, occupational psychologist Kate Keenan says, “If you want to keep going, there’s nowhere else to go. The ultimate is to kill yourself; either intentionally or accidentally…”
There have been plenty of near-misses too. White Stripes’ front man, Jack White was relieved at “making it through the year of rock’n’roll death” after suffering a car crash with then-girlfriend Renée Zellweger on his 28th birthday in 2003. Russell Brand hit the pits of drug despair during his 27th year in 2002, and hasn’t touched them since. Meanwhile, the amount of times obituary writers reached for their pens when Pete Doherty was 27 doesn’t bear thinking about.
Even the most squeaky-clean pop stars have had moral crises at 27. It was the age when Cliff Richard found Christianity, Kylie started warbling murder ballads with Nick Cave and Britney finally cleaned up her act (according to biographer Ian Halperin, she “feared dying at 27”).
There’s also the notion that the 27 Club is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophesy, with many rock stars nihilistically egging themselves on to become members. Kurt Cobain (who signed off his suicide note saying, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”) always predicted he would die young, having bragged in high school, “I want to be rich and famous and kill myself like Jimi Hendrix.” Indeed, various studies have shown that suicides increase with media attention – it’s the reason why London Underground refrains from telling passengers about people killing themselves on the network. Could the 27 Club be weaving a similar Pavlovian spell?
“The mythology of these self-destructive icons resonates with younger people and seep through to their subconscious,” says Keenan. “Just look at Pete Doherty and the parallels with Romantic 19th Century poets.”
But maybe the Club has nothing to do with quarter-life angst or copying consumptive bards, but has actually been written in the stars all along…
“I believe many rock deaths happen at 27 because this is the Saturn Return age,” says Marion Williamson, editor of Prediction magazine. “It takes Saturn 27-29 years to return to the same part of your birth chart it occupied when you were born. It’s when you question whether you’re in the right job or relationship… it can bring on feelings of isolation, heavy burdens and feelings of stress.
“For creative types, Saturn can be seen as a wet blanket – you get writers’ block, find it hard to communicate, feel flat. It’s not a terribly inspiring time for artists…”
Faced with this inner turmoil, astrologists believe it’s why many rockers (and possibly 28-year old Heath Ledger, whose death from a suspected prescription drugs overdose aligned with his own returning personal Saturn) lose themselves in drugs and/or depression.
The number 27 is also revered by numerologists as it embodies the magical “power of three” (3 x 3 x 3 = 27). John Lennon, reportedly a keen numerologist, was deeply obsessed with the number nine and its multiples. Three of the most pivotal events in his life happened on the 9th. He was born on the 9th, The Beatles split up on the 9th, and even though he died, aged 40, on 8 December in New York, it was actually the 9th in Liverpool. Furthermore, his assassin, Mark Chapman, was carrying JD Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye when he shot the ex-Beatle. The tome has 26 chapters. Apparently it was Chapman’s wish to write Chapter 27 “in Lennon’s blood”.
Of course, the age-specific myth could be just that – a silly cock-and-bull story. After all, there have been plenty of stars who have perished tragically young, not just at 27 – James Dean (24), River Phoenix (23), Sid Vicious (21), Tupac (25). Furthermore, a 2007 LiverpoolJohnMooresUniversity found the average age rock megastars meet their makers is 42.
It’s also notable that had Cobain et al popped their clogs in a more mundane fashion, they wouldn’t be mythologised in the same way. As Keenan says, “Many rock stars find they can’t keep living life on the edge at this transitional age. It’s just a weird coincidence – nothing more.” Here’s hoping the waiting-list for the 27 Club is now closed…