27: The Musical Club With a Grim Entry Fee

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Photo by Anton Corbijn/Courtesy of Nasty Little Man
Nirvana
27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse
By Howard Sounes
Da Capo Press, 360 pp., $26.99

When reached for comment shortly after the world found out that Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain had committed suicide, his mother, Wendy O'Connor, was succinct. "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club," she offered. "I told him not to."

The "Club" she refers to is the possibly acrophycal "27 Club" whose members are musicians that die of tragic circumstances (often the result of their own doing) at that age. Journalists and fans started commenting on it shortly after the bang-bang-bang deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison, who all went in short succession of one another.

Music writer Sounes, who has also penned the definitive Paul McCartney bio Fab and a well-regarded Dylan tome, Down the Highway, has a two-fold aim here.

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The first is to present mini-bios of the six most famous club members -- with an emphasis on their backgrounds and actions which led to their deaths over musical biography. The second to see if the idea of the Club is real or -- as he says -- "a media construct based on coincidence."

By book's end, the answer is... still not clear. While there are many common threads in some of the lives of these six 27 Clubbers (parental divorce, career pressure, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts), it may be no more than any other group of successful musicians of other ages. Here, Sounes is more of a theorist than a detective, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

That latter members of the Club were cognizant of its existence -- and what impact that may have had on their own joining -- is one interesting balloon floated.

An index lists other musicians who passed at that age, including blues great Robert Johnson, Stooges bassist Dave Alexander, Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan, and Cobain's fellow Seattle musos Kristen Pfaff and Mia Zapata. Houston rapper Patrick "Fat Pat" Hawkins also makes the list for his 1998 shooting death.

Sounes completed an impressive list of original interviews for this book, which shed further light on area like Jim Morrison's last days in Paris, Cobain's fragile mental state, and Winehouse's seemingly insane drinking bouts.

The book gives the most focus and page count to the Back to Black singer's tragic road to the 27 Club, a fact that Sounes admits in the afterword, as the member he has the most personal and professional interest in.

Possibly the most self-destructive member profiled, Winehouse emerges as the Club's most tragic figure, a shambling, rambling wreck alternatively used by and using her husband, friends, lovers, and father -- the last of which, Sounes notes, has carved a somewhat dubious career of his own out of Amy's posthumous legacy.


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