On this day in 1994, Kurt Cobain died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, becoming Generation X’s most famous inductee to the “27 Club”. The club, a cultural concept without an official membership, is a list of musicians, actors and other artists who have died at the age of twenty-seven. The theory was first floated fifty years ago, when four prominent rock musicians of the time – Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – all died at twenty-seven within a two year period. Some twenty-five years later, Cobain’s death reignited the conversation. Although the notion of a statistical spike has been dispelled time and again, the myth persists, largely due to the violent and/or mysterious nature of many of the deaths. Experts have concluded that being a rock star of any age is statistically riskier, and a generally unlimited supply of illicit and prescription drugs fuels that risk. Here are some of the most notorious members of the “27 Club”:
- Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938)
Robert Johnson, a pioneering blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, is widely considered the founding member of the 27 Club. His life was poorly documented, and the cause of his death unknown, which has resulted in many a legend, the most popular of which is that he sold his soul to the devil at a crosswords in order to achieve musical success. Johnson was found dead at the side of the road near Greenwood, Mississippi. No autopsy was done, and his death certificate lists no official cause of death. Theories about his death abound: he may have suffered from congenital syphilis, or he may have been poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he flirted with at a club three days before his death. Johnson only participated in two recording sessions during his lifetime; those recordings were finally released by Columbia Records in 1961. The resulting album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, was enormously influential on the burgeoning blues-rock scene of the time, including some of the other artists on this list.
- Brian Jones (February 28, 1942 – July 3, 1969)
Brian Jones was the founder and original leader of the Rolling Stones, and a talented multi-instrumentalist1. As the band gained acclaim, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took over the musical direction of the group, sidelining Jones; Jones also found himself at odds with the band’s manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. Tensions mounted in 1967, when Jones’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg left him for bandmate Richards. Jones’ alcohol and drug use resulted in him becoming increasingly unreliable, and his appearances with the band became more and more sporadic. On June 8, 1969, Jagger, Richards and Charlie Watts visited Jones and informed him he was no longer a member of the band he founded. Less than a month later, Jones was found motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool. His death was ruled a drowning, but the coroner later changed the ruling to “death by misadventure”, noting the significant damage to Jones’ organs due to his drug and alcohol use.
1Aside from playing lead and slide guitar, here are some of Jones’ most significant instrumental contributions to the band:
Sitar on “Paint It, Black”
Organ on “Let’s Spend the Night Together”
Recorder on “Ruby Tuesday”
Dulcimer and harpsichord on “Lady Jane”
Mellotron on “She’s a Rainbow”
- Jimi Hendrix (November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970)
Born Johnny Allen Hendrix in Seattle, Washington, Jimi Hendrix was perhaps the greatest guitarist of all time. A pioneer in the evolution of blues-rock, he was instrumental in popularizing the use of feedback and fuzz distortion. Success for Hendrix came in Europe first, where his sound complemented the British blues scene of the time. His big break in the US came with the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where he was introduced by Brian Jones; Hendrix lit the crowd – and his guitar – on fire, and a star was born. By 1969, Hendrix was the world’s highest paid rock musician, and he headlined Woodstock in August of that year; his scorching version of “The Star Spangled Banner” was a highlight of the festival, even as the crowd had all but disappeared by the time Hendrix took the stage Monday morning. For years, Hendrix had abused alcohol, and experimented with drugs like LSD and amphetamines, and the pressures of fame began to take an additional toll. On September 18, 1970, Hendrix supposedly took nine of his girlfriend’s prescription barbiturates, eighteen times the recommended dosage, and was found unconscious. He was taken to the hospital and declared dead at 12:45 pm. Hendrix’s cause of death was listed as asphyxiation; the coroner concluded that he had aspirated on his own vomit.
- Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970)
Janis Lyn Joplin left her childhood home in Texas for San Francisco at the age of twenty, and three years later became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. The band’s appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival brought them national – and international – acclaim. By 1969, Joplin was a solo artist, and an absolute superstar. Joplin could never seem to resist the trappings of fame, and drank heavily throughout her career. She also abused narcotics like methamphetamine and heroin. By early ’69, Joplin was allegedly shooting up $200 worth of heroin a day. Joplin was at work on her new album (released posthumously as Pearl in 1971) when she died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970 – just sixteen days after Jimi Hendrix’s death.
- Jim Morrison (December 8, 1943 – July 3, 1971)
James Douglas Morrison was a songwriter, a poet and the iconic lead singer of the Doors (fun fact that my bestie loves to dole out – the group took its name from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which itself is a reference to a William Blake quote). The Doors were among the most successful bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Morrison, with his distinctive voice and unpredictable personality, was the primary reason why. After recording the band’s sixth album L.A. Woman, Morrison joined his girlfriend Pamela Courson in a Paris apartment she had rented for him. On July 3, 1970 – two years to the day after the death of Brian Jones – Morrison was found unconscious in the bathtub of that apartment. No autopsy was done, because French law didn’t require it, but the official cause of death was listed as heart failure. The general consensus is that he died of an accidental heroin overdose, exacerbated by a years-long alcohol dependency. The lack of an autopsy – coupled with Morrison’s mythic personality – has even led to conspiracy theories that he’s still alive.
(Am I the only one who thinks that the aged version of Morrison in this article looks like Jon Voight?)
- Chris Bell (January 12, 1951 – December 27, 1978)
Musician, guitarist, singer and songwriter Chris Bell was the co-founder, along with Alex Chilton, of Big Star, the best god damn band you’ve never heard of. Big Star was the quintessential power pop artist, and their music influenced a generation of indie rock artists like R.E.M., The Replacements and Beck. #1 Record – the only Big Star album officially credited to Bell – is a stone-cold classic, with songs like “The Ballad of El Goodo”, “In The Street” and “Thirteen” (my personal favorite). Bell left the band in 1972, and attempted a solo career without much success. Plagued by depression, and battling drug and alcohol addiction, Bell was only able to record some demos and a single prior to his death (a posthumous collection was released in 1992 as I Am the Cosmos). On December 27, 1978, Bell was on his way home from a rehearsal and lost control of his Triumph TR7; the car hit a pole, the pole fell and Bell was killed instantly.
- Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent who was an influential figure in the early days of hip-hop culture in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1970s. At the age of twenty-two, Basquiat became the youngest person to exhibit at the Whitney Museum Biennial. Basquiat’s work was overtly political, with emphasis on the criticism of colonialism and the systems of racism. Basquiat sold his first painting, 1981’s Cadillac Moon, for $200 to Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.
Basquiat’s collaboration with Andy Warhol between 1984 and 1985 produced some of the decade’s most iconic pop art.
Despite professional success, Basquiat was haunted by emotional issues and began coping with his fame and the pressures of the art industry through drug use. On August 12, 1988, Basquiat was found unresponsive in his bedroom and taken to Cabrini Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The cause of death? A heroin overdose.
- Kurt Cobain (February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994)
Singer, songwriter and musician Kurt Cobain is Generation X’s most iconic rock star. No, it’s not up for debate, and yes, I will die on this hill. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain formed Nirvana in 1987 with Krist Novoselic. Aaron Burckhard, the band’s original drummer, was replaced by Chad Channing for the band’s 1989 debut album, Bleach. Unhappy with Channing’s performance, Cobain and Novoselic fired him; Dave Grohl joined the band in time for their major-label debut, 1991’s Nevermind.
Nevermind, generally regarded as the most important and influential album of the 90s, was a critical and commercial smash and yielded the #6 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Faced with overnight success, and already managing a fragile psyche, Cobain developed a heroin habit. His tabloid-fodder marriage to Courtney Love threatened to dwarf his musical career, but Nirvana managed to create one more brilliant album, 1993’s In Utero (which contains my favorite Nirvana song, “Heart Shaped Box”). But by early 1994, Cobain’s mental and physical health had deteriorated. A March 4th overdose of alcohol and Rohypnol led to an intervention, and Kurt agreed to check himself into a drug treatment program in Los Angeles. After one day, he hopped the facility’s fence and flew home to Seattle. On April 8, 1994, electrician Gary Smith arrived to install a home security system and found Cobain’s body. Although he left a suicide note, Cobain’s death has generated several urban legends over the years: his death wasn’t a suicide and Courtney was responsible, or he isn’t actually dead at all. Cobain never wanted to be the voice of his generation, but his tragic, untimely death ensured that he forever would be.
- Kristen Pfaff (May 26, 1967 – June 16, 1994)
A little more than two months after Kurt Cobain’s death, Courtney Love’s Hole bandmate Kristen Pfaff lost her own battle with heroin. Pfaff had only joined the band the previous year, moving from Minneapolis to Seattle to help record the gorgeous Live Through This. The album, released four days after Cobain’s body was discovered, was a massive commercial and critical success. But living in Seattle had left Pfaff with a heroin addiction. After a stint in a Minneapolis detox facility, and distraught by Cobain’s death, Pfaff decided to leave Hole and return to Minneapolis permanently. On June 14th, Pfaff flew to Seattle one last time to gather her belongings; on June 16th, a friend found Pfaff’s body. On the floor was a bag of syringes and other drug paraphernalia. The official cause of death: acute opiate intoxication.
- Jonathan Brandis (April 13, 1976 – November 12, 2003)
Jonathan Brandis began modeling at age two and acting in television commercials at age four. He found success in movies like Ladybugs and Sidekicks, in the ABC mini-series It (based on the Stephen King novel of the same name) and in guest spots on series such as Murder, She Wrote and The Wonder Years. Brandis’ big break came in 1993, with a regular role on the NBC series seaQuest DSV; the show made him a teen idol, but once the series came to an end in 1996, Brandis struggled to find work. In 2002, he thought he’d found the role that would revive his career, in the film Hart’s War, but his performance was drastically reduced in the film’s final cut. Grappling with depression and alcoholism, Brandis hanged himself in the hallway of his Los Angeles apartment on November 11, 2003. He was found and transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he succumbed to his injuries the next day.
- Amy Winehouse (September 14, 1983 – July 23, 2011)
Never has a song been so retroactively heartbreaking as Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”, the lead-off single to her 2006 album Back to Black.
They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said “no, no, no”
Yes, I’ve been black, but when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go
Amy Jade Winehouse, born in north London, knew early on she wanted to perform. She began attending Susi Earnshaw Theatre School at the age of nine, and founded a short-lived rap group there called Sweet ‘n’ Sour. She bought a guitar at age fourteen and started writing songs shortly thereafter. Winehouse recorded her first album, Frank, in 2003 at the age of just twenty, and though it was a critical success, it made little impact beyond her native England. Back to Black, however, made her an international superstar. Her sultry, distinctive contralto voice, the 60s girl group inspired harmonies and the first-rate production by Mark Ronson – not to mention her shockingly intimate, confessional lyrics – made Back to Black one of the best albums of the decade. But stardom came with a price: Winehouse’s heavy drinking, drug use and eating disorders ramped up, and her live performances were often disastrous. A promised third album was delayed. Legal problems ensued – she was arrested numerous times for drug offenses and assaults. Multiple stints in rehab proved unsuccessful. On July 23rd, 2011, Winehouse’s bodyguard found her lying in her bed, unresponsive; the Metropolitan Police and two ambulances arrived but were too late, and Winehouse was pronounced dead at the scene. Her death was officially declared “misadventure”, but a second inquest in January 2013 reclassified her death as accidental alcohol poisoning (her blood alcohol level had been .416%).
- Anton Yelchin (March 11, 1989 – June 19, 2016)
Anton Viktorovich Yelchin was born in Leningrad to Soviet figure skaters. When Yelchin was just six months old, his parents travelled to the United States and were granted refugee status by the State Department. Yelchin grew up in Los Angeles, and began acting professionally at the age of ten. He is perhaps best known as Chekhov in the Star Trek film series that launched in 2009. He also played a young Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation and starred in the lovely romantic drama Like Crazy in 2011. On June 18th, 2016, Yelchin failed to appear at a rehearsal; friends went to his house, where they discovered him trapped between his Jeep Grand Cherokee and a brick driveway pillar. It was determined that his vehicle rolled backwards down his driveway, which was on a steep incline, and trapped him against the pillar. He was pronounced dead at the scene just after midnight on July 19th.
In doing research for this piece, one of the things that struck me was how devastatingly young these people were. The other thing that struck me was just how profoundly sad so many of them were. The tragedy of so many of these deaths was how inevitable – but preventable – they were. My heart aches for the parents who lost their children, the people who lost their partner, the children who never knew their fathers, and the people who live with so much pain that they will go to such lengths to alleviate it. In so many of these cases, mental illness and substance abuse went hand-in-hand. As someone who suffers from several mental health issues (among them, depression, anxiety and insomnia), I know first-hand how it feels to want so desperately to quiet those voices.
One more thing – my morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I did an internet search for “people who just missed the 27 club”. The search generated this list:
- Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon) – died 26 days after his 28th birthday of a cocaine overdose
- Steve Gaines (Lynyrd Skynyrd) – died 36 days after his 28th birthday in a plane crash that killed six members of the band and its entourage
- Gram Parsons – died 47 days before his 27th birthday of a morphine and alcohol overdose
- Bradley Nowell (Sublime) – died 93 days after his 28th birthday of a heroin overdose
- JP Richardson AKA The Big Bopper – died 102 days after his 28th birthday in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens
- Tim Buckley – died 135 days past his 28th birthday of a heroin/morphine/alcohol overdose (Buckley’s son Jeff missed the club by just over two years when he drowned at the age of 30)
- Nick Drake – died 206 days before his 27th birthday from an antidepressant overdose
- Otis Redding – died 274 days before his 27th birthday in a plane crash
- Hillel Slovak (Red Hot Chili Peppers) – died 292 days before his 27th birthday of a heroin overdose