“I told him not to join that stupid club,” were Wendy Cobain’s words to a reporter at the time of her son’s suicide. This quote sparked a conspiracy among fans that Kurt Cobain orchestrated his exit to be immortalised in the 27 Club - an eerie list of legendary artists who all died at the age of 27.
Wrapped in the mystique of rock and roll, the "The 27 Club” has become a myth that haunts all musicians.
Depending on whom you ask, the earliest known entrant could be either the São Paolo-born pianist ALEXANDRE LEVY, or the delta blues guitarist ROBERT JOHNSON. But everyone agrees the story behind the myth begins in the late 60’s, with the drowning of Brian Jones.
(February 28, 1942 - July 3, 1969)
Must hear: Paint It, Black
Lewis Brian Hopkin Jones was a founding member of one of the most well-known rock and roll bands of all time, The Rolling Stones. He was a guitarist but also played a number of other instruments, including sitar, keyboards, harmonica, and marimba.
He would soon become dependent on drugs and alcohol, even getting arrested in May 1967 for drug use. His recklessness forced the band to ask their once leader and manager to leave in June 1969.
A month later, Jones was found motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool in his Cotchford Farm home. He was pronounced dead by the time he got to the hospital. According to the coroner’s report, his death was caused by drowning, but his heart and liver were already enlarged from drug abuse.
The fascination keeping the “club” alive in the public consciousness is the belief that a statistically abnormal number of musicians die at the age of 27.
Charles R. Cross, the biographer of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, put it this way,
“The number of musicians who died at 27 is truly remarkable by any standard. [Although] humans die regularly at all ages, there is a statistical spike for musicians who die at 27.”
Though this spike was disproved in a 2011 study, in the British Medical Journal, it's still noteworthy that some of their deaths are tied to substance abuse.
Did you know that the age of 27 actually has a lot of spiritual significance? In astrology, 27 marks the start of your Saturn return, which is when the planet of Saturn goes back to the original location where it sat in your chart at the time of your birth.
Mind Body Green’s resident astrologers explain: “Our Saturn return, which will happen two or three times in your life, is a period of getting really serious about who you are, what your legacy is, and what you’re here to leave for the world.”
(November 27, 1942-September 18, 1970)
Must hear: All Along The Watchtower
James Marshall Hendrix, popular as Jimi Hendrix, is admired for his guitar skills, with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calling him “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”
Hendrix was known to use drugs, and some of his songs, including “Purple Haze,” reference drug use. In 1969, he was arrested at Toronto International Airport for possession of hashish and heroin, though he denied that the drugs were his.
Hendrix struggled with drugs and alcohol for quite some time. His friends described his drunken self as a completely different person, devoid of the love that Hendrix often expressed when sober.
Jimi Hendrix joined the 27 Club on September 18, 1970. Though many disagree on the details of his last day, the post-mortem examination indicated that Hendrix likely died of asphyxiation after choking on his own vomit. Prior to his death, he took nine Vesparax sleeping pills, a strong barbiturate with a recommended dosage of half a tablet.
One of the remarkable aspects of Hendrix's recording career is that his rich legacy was primarily established during a three-year period from 1966 to 1969. This raises an important question.
Do Drugs Make You More Creative?
A popular stereotype created by the evidence of the excess of popular artist’s lives is that everyone famous uses drugs or that drugs are necessary to become creative and successful.
A study that looked at 61 working writers, artists, and musicians found that most had negative opinions about how substances affected their creativity. The vast majority said they did not use drugs while working on a project and said that substances hindered the creative process, interfered with creativity, and made them unproductive. Many initially used substances but found them to be problematic in the long run.
Whether you’re famous or not, making a living as a working artist requires discipline, focus, and determination, all of which can be harmed by substance use.
So, How Does Drugs & Alcohol Affect the Body?
Long-term use of drugs can lead to a host of health problems. Though several members of the 27 Club died before many of these effects became apparent, some of the effects of protracted substance abuse were revealed after they died.
Brian Jones’ liver, for example, had “severe dysfunction due to fatty degeneration and the ingestion of alcohol and drugs.” Autopsy reports indicate that his liver was twice the normal size, and his heart was also enlarged. Janis Joplin’s liver also showed effects of heavy drinking.
Drinking and drug abuse affect the mind in various ways too. In fact, anecdotes from friends suggest that several, if not all, members of the 27 Club suffered from depression. This is especially true for the few mentioned here.
The effects of drugs, and the withdrawal that occurs when someone stops using drugs, can cause or worsen many mental health problems, including:
Although it can be difficult to tell whether someone begins using drugs to cope with mental health symptoms or develops them from repeated substance use, drug abuse, and mental health disorders are frequently seen together—a phenomenon known as comorbidity. In many cases, both conditions need to be treated at the same time for the person to fully recover.
(January 19, 1943-October 4, 1970)
Must hear: Ball And Chain
"The Queen of Psychedelic Soul" died just 16 days after Jimi Hendrix on October 4, 1970. Even before she became famous, Janis Joplin stuck out. When she studied at the University of Texas at Austin, the school newspaper ran an article on her entitled “She Dares to Be Different.” It read:
“She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levis to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her Autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy. Her name is Janis Joplin.”
Joplin was a drug user and drinker. She had several friends who died of overdoses and she even survived heroin overdoses herself. In 1965, after a stint with methamphetamine, Joplin tried to cut back on drugs and alcohol. She went back to school, nearly married, and soon joined up with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
But her on-and-off relationship with substance abuse was far from over, and by 1969 she was appearing onstage at Woodstock after mixing alcohol and heroin. The next year, saddened after two friends failed to show up on a night they promised to keep her company, she overdosed on an unusually potent strain of heroin and died.
Why do so Many Musicians Use Drugs?
It may be difficult to relate to the lives of celebrities and musicians, but they often start using drugs for the same reasons that regular, non-famous people do: Mental health problems, experienced trauma, or simply peer pressure. The only reason it feels so distant is because we don’t see the truth of their struggles, until it’s forced into the public eye because of admission to rehab or overdose.
(December 8, 1943 - July 3, 1971)
Must hear: The End
James “Jim” Douglas Morrison was the lead vocalist of the band The Doors. He had a wild personality and delivered electric performances with his poetic lyrics, which continue to inspire musicians to this day.
Fans of rock considered him the most influential frontman in the history of rock. And much like Hendrix and Joplin, they associate Jim Morrison with the rise of the counterculture in the mid-twentieth century.
Morrison was a heavy drinker and drug user. After Janis Joplin died, he supposedly told friends that they were “drinking with number three.”
Morrison’s substance abuse began to take its toll in the last years of his life. He said that he felt like a 47-year-old man. He moved to Paris to start a quieter life but died on July 3, 1971, two years to the day after the death of Brian Jones, and roughly nine months after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
The official cause of death was heart failure, but Pamela Courson, who was dating Morrison at the time of his death, stated that he snorted heroin under the false belief that he was doing cocaine. It appears that Morrison, like Janis Joplin, died after mixing heroin and alcohol.
Their story has one last twist, Courson lied to police when her boyfriend died as a means of covering up her own drug abuse. We’ve seen this time and time again with regular folks, why would it be any less true just because someone is famous?
It’s a simple fact that pain attracts pain, and drug abusing musicians often attract, either wilfully or not, other drug users into their lives. Most members of the 27 Club were romantically involved with other drug users at the time of their death.
The celebrity culture, coupled with the emotional lives that inspire many musicians to write and perform, provide the perfect set of circumstances for an early death. The Author Howard Sounes goes into this in more detail in his book The 27 Club. He links their fates to another commonality, that most members of the club had "strikingly difficult childhoods," producing emotional wounds that would inspire artists like Cobain and Hendrix to look to drugs, alcohol and music as a means of self-medication.
(February 20, 1967-April 5, 1994)
Must hear: Heart Shaped Box
Kurt Cobain was one of the leaders of the grunge rock movement in Seattle in the early 1990s. His band Nirvana released one of the defining albums of the era, “Nevermind,” which included the song “Lithium.”
A viscerally honest songwriter, the fact that Kurt Cobain struggled with demons was evident from his lyrics. He began to experiment with drugs in his mid-teens after his parents divorced, and he continued to use them later when he married Courtney Love, the lead singer of the band Hole. The two were investigated by social services after Love admitted to using heroin while pregnant.
Cobain attempted to kill himself on March 4, 1994, while he was in Italy with his family. He survived, but returned to the United States, increasingly withdrawn while still using drugs. He checked into a rehab centre but left after a few days.
On April 5, 1994, he shot himself with a shotgun, in his home. The coroner’s report stated that the amount of heroin in Cobain’s bloodstream was “a high concentration, by any amount”. In his suicide note, he stated that he no longer enjoyed the pursuit of creating music.
Shame is a powerful incentive to deny anything is wrong, says addiction specialist Clare Waismann of the Waismann Method Treatment Center in Beverly Hills, specialising in treating opiate dependence.
"I believe one of the main causes of all these overdoses is the word 'addiction' carries negative connotations and associations ... as if addiction was a living, breathing entity caused by a lack of morals, lack of strength or a flawed character," Waismann says. "This stigma that society has created keeps the ones that need help alone, hopeless and ashamed."
An overdose occurs when someone takes too high a dose or combines too many drugs at once, overpowering their system. Overdose isn’t always fatal but can be without immediate medical treatment. Overdose may be accidental or deliberate.
The truth of the matter is, if you’re using any drug frequently and at a high dosage, you’re putting yourself at risk for overdose whenever you use it. The best way to avoid an overdose is to seek treatment, like checking into a rehabilitation centre.
The special problem for celebrities, says Paul Earley, an addiction-medicine specialist and medical director of Georgia Professionals Health Program, is that no one wants to say no to them, not even doctors.
"Everyone is star-struck; they have problems confronting and pushing a celebrity to get proper treatment," Earley says. "Physicians and friends feed their substance use to be close to the celebrity aura. And then the celebrity dies."
(September 14 1983-July 23, 2011)
Must hear: Back To Black
Amy Winehouse broke two Guinness World Records for “the most Grammy awards won by a female artist in a year” and “the most songs by a woman to appear on the UK singles chart.”
While she poured her life into her songs, she also struggled in the glare of the spotlight, increasingly turning to alcohol and drugs to ease the pressure she felt.
She won 5 Grammy awards in 2008 but struggled with drug and alcohol use. She said she had “an addictive personality” and would “go from one poison to another.”
Aside from substance abuse, she struggled against depression, self-harm and eating disorders. These struggles appeared to continue over the next couple of years, then on July 23, 2011, Amy Winehouse joined the 27 Club. Despite remaining drug-free, she drank until she eventually succumbed to alcohol poisoning. The initial coroner’s report stated that, “The unintended consequences of such potentially fatal levels was her sudden death.”
Many 27 Club members all share a version of the same story – an artist with a budding career that’s cut short at 27 as they lose a backstage battle against alcohol and drug addiction.
Rehabilitation centres like Anunitha help people who are addicted regain control of their lives; in an environment where people can remove themselves from day-to-day temptations and triggers and just focus on their recovery.
If you or someone you know is abusing substances, don’t wait for “rock bottom” to begin seeking help. A meaningful life is like a good song, when it ends, you’re glad every minute happened.