The 27 Club: Forever 27

This is it. The most infamous and elusive pantheon to reach in music history. If there were a list of musical tragic heroes for our times, it would be these people. As Hozier said so poetically about a lover, “there’s something tragic about you, something so magic about you”. I feel like this relates, in some way, to how I feel about the music of the people in this club. If their music was sub-par, then I would think it was just a sad coincidence, which it still is, but it also helps that all of these tragic figures made good music. In fact, to some people, these musicians actually created music that was, as Nacho Libre would say, “the best”. Everyone has their own opinions, and I’m sure many would disagree with me, but for some strange reason, this fact seems to be true. Just in case you didn’t know who the people in this club are, I will go into detail on each one of them to explain why this suspicious coincidence lines up to something more devious.

First up is the man who met the devil himself, Robert Johnson:

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The first ever “rockstar” to die at the age of 27, Robert Johnson is one of the most famous blues musician’s of his era to come out with what I would call hit singles. Songs like, “Cross Road Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Hell Hound On My Trail”, and “They’re Red Hot” have cemented him as one of the best guitar players to ever live, as well as one of the most heartfelt singers that could really deliver emotion in the way that only the early bluesmen could (in my opinion, Lead Belly was a more prolific performer in the way that he was able to remember all of the songs he ever heard and perform them for the Smithsonian recording sessions, but I will go more into detail on that probably soon in another blog post about just about Lead Belly). The legend goes that Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads at night to meet a tall, black man that would tune your guitar for you, and then that was it. You were sold, to the devil that is. In my mind, this mythical moment starts the idea of selling your soul to the devil in modern pop-culture, and the fact that he is the first person in the 27 club makes it even more eerie.

Next up is a not so well known member of the 27 club, founding Grateful Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan:

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I once bought a biography of the Grateful Dead, called So Many Roads, and it went into detail about different concert dates every couple years until the end of their career. Pigpen unfortunately only made it until the end of the European tour of 1972, in which the book describes him as being “fragile and isolated” (end of Chapter 6). Essentially, the book describes him as taking the most wear from the tour, making it difficult for him to record and come into the studio. But it should be known that Pigpen was a founding member of the Grateful Dead and provided vocals and his songwriting skills. Check out this performance of Pigpen singing the song “Hard To Handle” which I really like here. I would also suggest watching the Amazon original series, Long Strange Trip, which provides another good viewpoint of the early days all the way to the last shows. I would also suggest reading On The Road, by Jack Kerouac, which I am currently reading. Jerry Garcia cited this book as one of his biggest influences to start the Grateful Dead, which he stated in the show I talked about before, Long Strange Trip.

Around the same era as the Grateful Dead, there are four members of the 27 Club that mysteriously died between 1969 and 1971. Their names are Brian Jones, founding member of The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, of The Doors. I will start with Brian Jones:

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Brian Jones was the founder and original band leader of The Rolling Stones. If it wasn’t for him, there probably wouldn’t have been The Rolling Stones as we know it today. Original bassist Bill Wyman said of Brian:

He formed the band. He chose the members. He named the band. He chose the music we played. He got us gigs.  … he was very influential, very important, and then slowly lost it – highly intelligent – and just kind of wasted it and blew it all away.

Essentially, Brian wanted to make The Rolling Stones a more blues-oriented band, but when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took over songwriting duties to to Brian’s drug habits, they changed the direction to more Rock and Roll, even though the Blues was one of their biggest influences. In his short lived musical career with The Rolling Stones, he helped to make hits such as “I Wanna Be Your Man”, “Street Fighting Man”,  “Paint It Black”, “Under My Thumb”, “Ruby Tuesday”, “Sympathy For The Devil”, as well as many other songs. Like I said, without Brian Jones, there would’ve been no Rolling Stones, so rock music owes a great deal of gratitude to his contributions.

The next of the people to have tragically died between 1969 and 1971 is one of the greatest, if not the greatest guitar player of all time, Jimi Hendrix:

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Jimi Hendrix, born Johnny Allen Hendrix, was the leader of numerous bands, most famously The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Raised in Seattle, Washington, Jimi started playing the guitar at around age 15, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961 at age 19. After being honorably discharged, he started playing the Chitlin’ Circuit with bands like The Isley Brothers and Little Richard. In 1966, he moved to England and was discovered by The Animals bassist, Chas Chandler. This is when he formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchel on drums. To name the hits by Jimi Hendrix is to essentially name three-fourths of his catalog. “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”, “All Along The Watchtower”, “Voodoo Child”, “Little Wing”, “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Red House”, “Castles Made of Sand”. I could really go on and on. Out of anyone in the 27 Club, Jimi Hendrix has influenced me the most. If it wasn’t for Jimi Hendrix, I probably would’ve given up playing the guitar seriously years ago. His ability to use his voice and guitar as instruments is rivaled by almost no one. He is my original favorite guitarist. Even though as time went on and I began to have many different influences, I realized that even those people probably owe a lot of what they do to Jimi Hendrix too. The only place I could find my favorite version of “Purple Haze” was on Spotify, but here it is.

Janis Joplin is the next person in the 27 Club to have died between 1969 and 1971. Even though she didn’t have much time to share her talents on this Earth, she definitely used what time she did have to make a mark on blues and rock:

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I watched a documentary on Netflix called Little Girl Blue about Janis Joplin, and it really opened my eyes to the real story behind the madness. I would highly suggest watching it if you are a fan or just interested about Janis Joplin’s music and/or life. Just like Jimi Hendrix, she put out three major albums in her lifetime. Her fourth album, released posthumously, was called Pearl, and reached number one on the charts. This didn’t just magically happen though. It took hard work and real talent to get to that point, nobody can argue that. Janis Joplin is known as one of the best female vocalists of her time, and is regularly regarded in rock music as the influence behind many female-driven rock bands. Her hits include “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Cry Baby”, etc. Even though I keep listing each artists hits, it would probably do you more justice to actually listen to these artists yourself and find your favorite songs, like I did and you possibly already have. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and remains one of the top-selling musicians in the United States.

The final artist in the 27 club to have died between 1969 and 1971 is Jim Morrison:

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Definitely one of the more enigmatic characters in the club, he was constantly surprising audiences and police officers alike. He was a rebel in every sense of the word and, in my opinion, one of the people that really showed by example what it meant to be a rockstar. Naming his band after a philosophy book written by Aldous Huxley called The Doors of Perception (he also wrote Brave New World, which I would also recommend reading), you knew there was something different about him. His prolific career in poetry rivaled his ability to be an almost perfect Rock and Roll frontman/songwriter, and his ability to speak in such a curious way shrouded him with an air of mystery. As with many of the people in this list, he suffered from drug and alcohol addictions, and in my opinion, the real tragedy is the influence this had on the general public and music fans alike. When you see your favorite musician endorse a reckless lifestyle of drugs and alcohol, there is obviously going to be repercussions that go far beyond what happened to many of the people in this club. Not to be a downer, but I thought I would include this in here as a disclaimer that I do not endorse drugs or alcohol if abused in any way, even though I know it sounds hypocritical coming from someone who is a fan of so many artists that suffer from these conditions. Other than the many albums The Doors released, such as their debut album The Doors, as well as L.A. WomanStrange DaysMorrison Hotel (which is a real hotel, by the way), Waiting for the Sun, and The Soft Parade, possibly my favorite release by Jim Morrison is his spoken word poetry album, An American Prayer. This album really extends many of the themes in The Doors’ lyrics, and adds more background to the stories that Jim Morrison told in his songs.

Now lets move 20 years into the future, specifically around 1987, where the band Nirvana was forming somewhere in a Seattle basement:

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Nirvana was a band in the 1990’s. Actually, Nirvana was the band of the 1990’s. There are many people who would argue otherwise, but in pure album sales and notoriety around the world, Nirvana was the band of the 1990’s. And where would Nirvana be without the lonely, gloomy leading man Kurt Cobain. It seems like every person in this list had some sort of defining characteristic about them: Robert Johnson with his meeting at the crossroads, Pigpen with his fragility and mellowness, Brian Jones with his driving motivation, Jimi Hendrix with his out there lyrics and style, Janis Joplin with her raw emotion, Jim Morrison with his rebellious nature, and finally Kurt Cobain with his sadness and depression. There is no doubt that Kurt Cobain made his public image to be a miserable, isolated person. Whether or not he was that way in his private life, that’s not for me to say, but he definitely is the patron saint of everything depressing. I literally had to look up synonyms for depression to accurately describe the way I see Kurt Cobain’s musical themes and public image. I think he made himself seem that way on purpose because he knew that everyone could relate in some way to being down and out, but he definitely pulled it off very well. From the fuzzed out guitar and drums on their somewhat major label debut, Bleach, to the sharp new wave type sounds of In Utero, Nirvana never stopped breaking down the musical boundaries that were in part created by the overwhelmingly popular hair bands of the 1980’s. I have heard so many people that lived through the nineties describe how much music changed after Nirvana, and based on their continued success on the charts and in Hot Topic, it would seem that they were right. Kurt Cobain’s suicide marked a change in the 27 Club, specifically because the deaths of all of the other members were not officially declared as suicide. There has been an air of controversy around his suicide, with movies and books being written about him really being killed by his wife, Courtney Love, but I think that these are all just the media’s way of profiting off of Kurt Cobain’s unfortunate death. Not to mention the suicide note he wrote, where he referenced his childhood imaginary friend Boddah, which is ironic coming from a man who named his rock band Nirvana, after the Buddhist term for enlightenment. Fun fact, I had to write an essay on Buddhism in one of my classes, and chose to cover the topic of Nirvana, peppering the whole paper with Nirvana puns. I don’t think the teacher found it very amusing, because I got a B-. Another interesting fact, Nirvana only released three albums, just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Overall, Kurt Cobain will go down as the one who really cemented the idea of the 27 Club in popular culture, ending his life with a shotgun, similar to how Ernest Hemingway, another American tragic hero, ended his life.

Let’s move even further into the future, around 2003, where Amy Winehouse began her professional career:

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Amy Winehouse is the first proper jazz singer to be in the club, and to my knowledge, the only one to win a Grammy, let alone multiple Grammys, in her lifetime. Even though her death is still fresh in the minds of the music world, her legacy is already cementing itself, mainly through documentaries such as Amy and the Amy Winehouse Foundation. It seems too late in some respects to make this foundation after so many deaths in the rock world, but as some would say, better late than never. With her image based on the girl groups of the 1960’s, Amy Winehouse produced two full albums in her lifetime, called Frank and Back To Black. Just like Janis Joplin, a posthumous release of her music called Lioness: Hidden Treasures debuted at the top of the charts, specifically the UK Albums Chart. Her voice is one of the most unique voices in music, and has been compared to the greats of jazz, including by jazz great Tony Bennet, who she recorded the song “Body and Soul” with (the song was originally sung by Billie Holiday, so you know she was in good company). Amy Winehouse will go down as one of the greats in the music world, but she will also be known for her erratic behavior and addictions, just like Kurt Cobain was known for his depression. One of my favorite songs of hers is one she recorded with Nas, called “Cherry Wine”. You can find this song here.

You probably think I am ending this list here, but you are wrong. There is one person left on this list, and you will never guess who it is. It isn’t a musician. It is one of my favorite visual artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat:

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If you don’t know who Jean-Michel Basquiat is, you are doing yourself a disservice. He is, without a doubt, an artist on par with the greats, such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollok, Mark Rothko, etc. His art is one of a kind, and you can’t really understand his art without actually seeing it and watching/reading about him.

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The piece of art above is called Untitled, and it just recently sold at auction for a record $110,500,000. Another interesting fact about him is that he was also part of a band called Gray. You can check out one of my favorite songs from them called “Cut It Up High Priest” here. He also worked with Andy Warhol, as the picture above suggests, which discovered him in a restaurant, and was recreated in the biographical movie Basquiat scene here. I would suggest watching this whole movie, especially because David Bowie plays Andy Warhol, which is pretty cool. Another movie I would suggest watching is a documentary about him, which really sheds a light on his life and professional career, and you can find that here. I would also suggest watching the whole series of BBC Modern Masters on YouTube which you can find here, here, here, and here. I would also suggest watching this documentary on modern artist Jeff Koons, which is truly a one of a kind individual that filled the gap artists like Andy Warhol left behind. I would also suggest watching the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, if you haven’t already seen it. I like art, haha. I hope this blog post was in some way interesting/informational, because I sure spent a while writing it (lol). Thanks for reading, and as always, God Bless America.

 

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