Everyone’s got a favourite member of The 27 Club. Mine was Janis Joplin. Then Amy Winehouse died on this day (23 July) in 2011.
It had been over seventeen years since Kurt Cobain died by suicide, aged 27.
Over the subsequent decades, a young generation of adolescent music fans had grown up with new icons of non-conformity, including Winehouse, who mastered, embraced and bettered the old school antidote to auto-tuned RnB and soft rock which populated the charts of the nineties and noughties.
Her entry into the group of creative visionaries who passed away in tragic circumstances at the young age of 27, having never applied for membership, was historic.
The myth of The 27 Club had lain dormant for years – but was quickly seen to be embodied by Amy Winehouse when news broke that she had been found dead in her flat in Camden from alcohol poisoning after binge drinking following a period of abstinence.
Her struggles with personal demons and addiction are well-documented:
But seven years after her death by ‘misadventure’, according to the coroner’s report, many of those who love Amy’s unique vocal and lyrical stylings still struggle to listen to her back catalogue without some sense of melancholy.
The music industry and beyond mourned her death and the death of possibility which her youthful talent and fierce independence represented back in 2011.
Then, our media and music commentators collectively inducted her into The 27 Club, and somehow it became a little easier to process her untimely death.
But where did the mythology of The 27 Club start? And is it fair to commodify the lives of our idols into a numerical cult of coincidence to help us grieve?
Dr Jennifer Otter-Bickerdike, a music academic specialising in fandom, the cult of dead celebrity, pop culture, and Why Vinyl Matters, told UNILAD it all began with a man she knew personally – her most beloved member of this tragic club.
None other than Kurt Cobain.
Otter-Bickerdike recalls the origins of the mythology, and explains:
I’ve never heard of a person being credited like, ‘I started that thing’. But you see people start to use that phraseology and put together those icons as a group under that catchphrase with the death of Kurt Cobain.
But if Kurt started The 27 Club, Amy cemented it.
Here are the revered members of the most exclusive club in the afterlife:
Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27 between 1969 and 1971.
At the time, the coincidence gave rise to some comment.
So why did the death of Amy Winehouse, isolated and uniquely tragic as it was in 2011, strike such a chord?
Otter-Bickerdike posits it’s part and parcel of a media-driven self-fulfilling prohecy:
People might look at The 27 Club as an historical thing, but when Kurt died there wasn’t the same sort of instant global news loop as there is now.
Amy Winehouse passed away at the moment a lot of the apparatus we use to interact and create and memorialise – Twitter and Instagram – were not fully in bloom but were beginning to kick in.
For a 46-year-old Santa Cruz-born pop culture expert and former industry insider who toured with Nirvana in the nineties and got Christmas cards from Chris Cornell, the arc of Amy’s life is interesting – and somewhat personal – to address.
Amy was born and raised with a large Jewish family in London’s Southgate alongside her big brother, Alex, her mum, Janis and dad, Mitch, until her parents divorced when she was nine.
The house was full of jazz thanks to her uncles and grandmother, Cynthia, a singer who dated the English jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott.
So when times got hard, especially at school, Amy would soothe her own soul by singing Fly Me To The Moon in her trademark deep, expressive contralto voice, until she was scolded by teachers and sent to the headmistress.
At 14, she picked up a guitar and founded a short-lived rap group called Sweet ‘n’ Sour with her childhood friend, before getting a spot as the featured female vocalist with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and joining the BRIT school.
She honed her craft performing jazz classics at the Cobden Club and was quickly signed by Island Records, under cloak and dagger, while she recorded her highly-acclaimed award-winning debut Frank (2003), produced by Salaam Remi.
Back to Black was released in the UK in October 2006 and skyrocketed Amy into the mainstream, thus prompting the mechanisms of fame, success and their unwanted pressures.
The NME Awards nominated Winehouse in the categories of ‘Best Solo Artist’ and ‘Best Music DVD’ in 2008. In the same spirit of publicity, they also awarded her ‘Worst Dressed Performer.’
Newsweek called her ‘a perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse control’.
Otter-Bickerdike says, as a young adult, Winehouse was privy but relatively powerless to the way in which she was portrayed in the media.
She added Amy became – through no fault of her own – a ‘tragic figure’ like Joplin:
You read what the press wrote about Janis when she was an active musician; the narrative was she had bad skin, big hair. She’s remembered as unattractive but when you watch the videos of her, she’s so sexy.
Janis is memorialised as this sad, fat, unhappy person who could not find love.
The tragedy is that her and Amy [as the only two prominent female members of The 27 Club] are remembered in a way that’s so different to the others and far removed from the respect given to the male members.
Amy was a witty, intelligent woman with a knack for songwriting which spoke straight to the heart of the human condition.
Friends and family recall her kindness, as decreed by her many, many charitable donations – memorialised aptly by the Amy Winehouse Foundation.
But she is mostly remembered in light of her alcoholism, mental illness, and drug addiction, driven by the abusive relationships in which she found companionship.
Amy’s membership of The 27 Club goes some way to feed this incomplete representation of her public persona in pop culture history.
Otter-Bickerdike muses on her legacy and how we grieve for her music, saying:
The deaths of the 27 Club members are always seen as sudden – but Kurt and Amy – was it really sudden? They were really quite troubled.
If you plot their lives, their deaths perhaps weren’t that shocking – it’s the loss of potential that shocks. And that loss of potential is symbolic of our own potential.
But one man’s loss is an industry’s gain, they say.
After all, how healthy is it to put these passed legends and the business of their deaths on a pedestal within a music industry which rewards an artist’s estate with the financial benefits of dying tragically young?
Otter-Bickerdike, who has worked at SONY, Interscope and now lectures in music journalism, shone a light on the conversations which occur behind closed doors at record labels.
Take 2Pac, and the posthumous documentation:
Referencing her love of hip-hop culture, she said:
Every f*cking year it seemed we had a new Tupac record full of stuff he’d done in studio, remixed and backed – stuff he probably wouldn’t have even wanted out in the public forum.
If someone dies when they’re 28 people say, ‘Oh f*cking hell, die when you’re 27!’ It sounds really mercenary. The Smiths’ song Paint a Vulgar Picture is all about repackaging the dead star and that’s the truth.
Any time you see any of these people die, what’s going to be the number one thing on iTunes? It’s an easy way to exploit that person long past their death.
Her point was proven just last month when XXXTentacion, a 20-year-old rapper who had been awaiting trial for battery of a pregnant woman when he was killed, posthumously broke Spotify’s single-day streaming record with his song SAD!.
Amplify the effect with a cult club of cultural visionaries and Otter-Bickerdike lamented:
If you die at 27, even if you’re not as massive as those people we’re talking about, you have the marketing potential to become iconic just via the association with leaving the celestial body at this age.
We’re not gonna be remembering Chris Cornell in twenty years in the way we will Kurt and Amy because he died at an age perceived to be ‘incorrect’ – too young or too old.
The 27 Club is a merchandising brand in and of itself:
The main protagonists – Jimi, Janis, Jim, Kurt, Amy – are everywhere. In films, on t-shirts, fridge magnets and – to her surprise Otter-Bickerdike discovered – even on toilet roll.
The outliers – like Stooges’ Dave Alexander, former Rolling Stone Brian Jones, Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, blue guitarist Robert Johnson, and the visual artist Jean Michel-Basquiat – have their own dedicated following.
The 27 Club is almost an extension of the ‘marketing loop’ built around Amy Winehouse ‘to keep her in the public eye’, says Otter-Bickerdike, which speaks to our 21st century obsession with labels and commercialises the Western notion of loss even more.
But, despite its culturally pervasive power – for good or bad – The 27 Club ‘curse’ is a social construct proven inaccurate time and time again.
When Otter-Bickerdike says there is no ‘anybody good dies at 27’, she’s right. Musicians actually, statistically speaking, are far more likely to die aged 56, according to a Univeristy of Sydney study, with only 1.3 per cent of musicians having lost their lives at 27.
Nick Drake died at 26, as well as Otis Redding. Tupac was killed at 25. Ian Curtis of Joy Division passed away at the meagre age of 23.
So why 27? Well, the more you repeat something the more it becomes true in the collective conscious.
Citing the No Doubt record The Return of Saturn, Otter-Bickerdike apologises for sounding ‘so Californian’ as she muses on the titular theory of astrology which posits ‘massive changes in your life’ every 27 years.
She also points to the cultural significance of turning 30, adding she thinks your twenties are for figuring out who you are, whereas, the ‘thirty-marker suddenly gives you that cache of adulthood’.
At 27 most people look really beautiful and your perceived visual and sexual worth is heightened. Even if you’re drinking and drugging regularly, the ramifications have not really hit at that stage.
The second you hit thirty the clock strikes midnight and it’s like the Cinderella story; you’re supposed to have the job, the finance, the f*cking mortgage, the coke habit under control… Whatever it is, you’re supposed to be living la vida loca at 30.
So when Kurt Cobain died, we looked at his age and went, ‘F*cking hell, look at all these other cultural leaders who you can pin to a specific point in time or particular set of ideals who also all died at 27.’
The so-called ‘Tragic Six’ do all build upon the mystique of the last and the mythology as a whole, according to the academic, who tells UNILAD she is fascinated to think ‘the myth of the person in death is bigger than the person ever was in life’.
Not to say their lifetime achievements were insignificant, she jumps in:
A lot of their material is timeless because they didn’t have time to make that bad third, fourth, fifth record. Look at Kanye West. The members of the 27 Club didn’t have time to put out loads of silly tweets.
Indeed, their CVs read like a plethora of exceptional talent, groundbreaking musical innovation, intense psychological distress, a painful death at their peak, and subsequent immortalisation.
Earlier this year, 27-year-old Kim Jonghyun of K-pop fame died. His death wasn’t marked with an induction in the club in same way Amy’s was back in 2011, perhaps indicating The 27 Club speaks more to Western modes of dealing with death.
Otter-Bickerdike, having known a member personally, agrees:
We like to put things in categories because we have so much information coming at us at all times and it makes life so much easier to process.
It’s a way for us to organise our ideas and thoughts and it definitely is a really Western thing.
By saying someone’s in The 27 Club you don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of the artist to understand the gravitas of their loss, or to comprehend their talent and success. It’s a given.
The 27 Club doesn’t so much have an entry criteria, as it represents a perceived truth. It’s not the power of cool points – which are subjective – but the power of a person’s mythology which matter.
Unwilling members’ careers are the musical dichotomy to the slow burn phenomenon of the death album, the likes of which Leonard Cohen and David Bowie released, putting a ‘full stop not only on their artistic career, but also their life in general’.
Blackstar, for example, doubles as a gift to the fans as well as a final expression of Bowie’s own creative output which allowed the consummate performer to curate his own exit from this mortal coil.
So, by categorising our idols in this way, do we – the fans – do a disservice to the oeuvres of Janis, Jimi, Jim, Kurt and Amy?
Perhaps, says Otter-Bickerdike, who incidentally states she also believes in Big Foot as she asserts the importance of The 27 Club culturally.
We’ve created this economy when you can go on Spotify and hear Jimi Hendrix, with no extra effort, right alongside Amy Winehouse, right alongside the most contemporary of music.
The 27 club creates a long-lasting connection between musical history and musical present, kind of like a ‘family tree’.
Moreover, the whole point of The 27 Club is to help us, the general populace who helped create the myth, grieve for people we loved dearly but didn’t know.
After all, fans don’t get invited to funerals. We feel loss differently and distantly from the actual devastating real life impact of a person’s death, felt wholeheartedly by their friends and family.
In Amy’s case, her life can be quantified by so much more than the age of her death.
Amy became part of a public conversation centred around the fact that addiction and mental health concerns don’t discriminate against talent, wealth and success.
She was hospitalised during her twenties for what was reported as an overdose of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine and alcohol. In various interviews, she admitted to having problems with self-harm, depression, and eating disorders.
Her story isn’t rare among her peers, as UNILAD Sound discovered:
All the while, she trail-blazed for women, lent her face to the power of female creativity, and offered a generation of music lovers an alternative to the norm, while breaking through the music industry’s glass ceilings of genre, class and gender.
It is right she should be immortalised and celebrated, as Bob Dylan once put it, as ‘the last real individualist around’, beehive, winged eyeliner and all.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.
If you have a story to tell, contact UNILAD via [email protected]