When Amy Winehouse was found dead this past Saturday in her London flat, few people expressed shock or surprise. Unfortunately, the talented but troubled singer never seemed to be able to get it together, suffering from various drug, alcohol, and legal woes that kept her momentum stalled, unable to capitalize off the Grammy-approved superstardom that her 2006 album, Back to Black afforded. While many have been busy writing introspective tributes to her career, others have been taking to social media outlets with torrents of gratuitously snarky remarks and “told you so” choruses that seem a bit ill-fitted and tawdry, but unsurprising considering that shallow glibness passes for introspection on Facebook and Twitter.
Although I rarely listened to Ms. Winehouse’s music, when I did come across it, I appreciated her voice and chops, and knew that although her status as a tabloid queen underscored her viability as a performer, she possessed a rarified talent far superior to many of her musical peers. However, upon hearing news of her death I was shocked to realize that she was two months shy of her 28th birthday, putting her squarely into the pantheon of The 27 Club, a grim collection of musicians who passed away at this way-too-soon age. For some reason, I pictured her as being older than that. Perhaps intentional or perhaps conversely due to her vices, Ms. Winehouse had that lived-in look of someone who put in her time over the years, playing dark and dank clubs six nights a week in the hopes of making it big. In reality, her meteoric rise to the top likely enabled her poor decision making and unfortunately hurried her demise.
In looking at The 27 Club, there are several music superstars who succumbed to the same demons that haunted Ms. Winehouse: Kurt Cobain, unable or unwilling to deal with the demands of stardom and plagued by heroin addiction committed suicide; years before in 1970, Jimi Hendrix choked to death in his sleep following a lethal ingestion of pills, followed by Janis Joplin’s similar overdose a few weeks later, and topped off by Jim Morrison’s “heart failure” death less than a year later. These famous deaths at 27 attract the headlines, but several others of note also belong to the club. Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones’ mysterious drowning occurred while he was 27, as did Pete Ham’s suicide, Mia Zapata’s murder, and both Chris Bell’s and D Boon’s automobile crashes. Going the route of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison were Kristen Pfaff, “Blind Owl” Wilson, and Dickie Pride. Unofficially, there are 45 members of this infamous club, including the legendary Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, whose 1938 poisoning death makes him the charter member.
Examining these details is a morbid, yet fascinating affair that makes you question the cosmic powers of the universe. Certainly, many of these deaths were self-inflicted, caused by excessive indulgence, careless behavior or self-destructive acts. However, the fact that 27 is the common age is too big a deal to simply be explained away as coincidence. What is it about this age that makes it unique for lots of negative reasons? My 27th year was undoubtedly one of the worst of my life thus far. Trapped in a thankless job in a small town with limited options, I struggled to find an identity that would forge a future plan for myself and wondered if my life would ever get better. It appeared at the time like a lot of adolescent rage was coming back to get me, although this time it brought with it the added burden of adult problems. Thankfully, I never entertained the destructive tendencies outlined above, but there were lots of dark and depressing moments of doubt, angst, and fury. When I’ve disclosed these feelings to friends, most of them have the same reaction to this time in their lives. Historically, psychologists and researchers view the late teens as the period of “storm and stress”, but I think the past few decades have lent validity to age 27 being one of the most complex eras in one’s lifespan.
One of my favorite songwriters is Patterson Hood. In addition to making amazing albums and writing extremely articulate songs, he is always honest and forthright in the interviews he gives and the essays he often pens for his band’s website. He is not shy about his struggles in his 20’s, as he talks about failed relationships, band personnel changes, and working dead-end jobs with great wisdom and insight. In the song, “A World of Hurt”, Hood’s guitar and lyrics weave together the tangled emotions that accompany the process of growing up and living life. It is never easy, it is often messy, but it is nonetheless a rewarding journey. It’s one of Hood’s finest moments and when performed live never fails to awe the crowd. What rings truest to me though is his choice of age:
I was 27 when I figured out that blowing my brains wasn't the answer
So I decided, maybe I should find a way to make this world work out for me
And my good friend Paul was 83 when he told me; that "To love is to feel pain"
And I thought about that then and I've thought about that again and again
As a rock musician, was Hood conscious of the mythical powers of The 27 Club when he wrote this song or was it something about his personal 27th year that made it stand out? I don’t know the answer, but his powerful revelation says a lot about the unyielding pathos that surrounds rock and roll and this thorny year of life.