The list of prominent musicians that have died since this past December is both stark and remarkable. Bowie. Lemmy. Prince. Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. Earth, Wind, and Fire founder Maurice White. Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The “Fifth Beatle” George Martin. A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg. Merle Haggard. It’s even more depressing when you examine the names en masse. 2016 has been a year of tragedy; there’s no doubt about it. If there’s a silver lining to be had, it’s in the countless tributes and memorials that have brought people together in the wake of those tragedies. Even at the cost of these deaths, it’s nice to be reminded that, despite individual differences, there is common love to be found in shared loss.
As significant as 2016’s toll has been, there is another span—some four decades ago—that, while less deadly, is even more remarkable. And in this case, alongside that communal feeling of shared loss, there sits a sense of the supernatural. This strange sense has given rise to a legendary club that fascinates us to no end—as terrible as its admission price might be.
Welcome to the 27 Club.
On July 3, 1969, Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones’ founder and original leader, was found motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool. Exactly two years later, (45 years ago last Sunday) Jim Morrison was found dead in the bathtub of his Parisian apartment. The deaths bookended a two-year span that also included the passing of Jimi Hendrix (September 18, 1970 from prescription drug overdose) and Janis Joplin (October 4, 1970 from heroin overdose). Each young star, as is well documented and mythologized today, died at just 27 years of age.
At the time, the coincidence did lead to some comment, but the 27 Club didn’t become a cultish phenomenon until April 8, 1994, when Kurt Cobain was found dead at 27 in his Seattle home. As curious beings, we seek explanation for such anomalies. Why 27? From afar, the 27 Club may seem like nothing more than a handful of coincidences. People die from drug overdoses every day at all different ages and, considering our young heroes’ fame and noted drug use, it’s not all that surprising that they died around the same age.
It’s much more interesting, though, to imagine the club as a prophetic force that steals some of our most intriguing and vitalizing humans. We are willing to entertain many farfetched notions in search of a more satisfying explanation. Drug overdose is simply too normal a death for these icons—there must be more to it!
Of course we’ve searched high and low for such explanations. In scientific terms, our fascination with the 27 Club can probably be chalked up as a product of apophenia, a condition in which meaningful patterns are perceived within random data. A phenomenon called the 23 Enigma, for example, suggests that most of life’s events are connected to the number 23. It was first associated with writer (and noted heroin addict) William S. Burroughs, and it eventually led to a bad Jim Carrey film, The Number 23.
The first musical analog for apophenia was the Curse of the Ninth, a theory suggesting that a composer’s ninth symphony is doomed to be his last. The legend is problematic—as are many of our apophenic explanations—because it’s dependent on loosely defined parameters. Many of the “victims” of the curse, for example, have symphonies that have been lost, remain incomplete, or could be categorized as something other than a symphony. Defenders of the curse manipulate these counts in order to land precisely on the number nine—a similar tactic used by the defenders of the 23 Enigma. Although the names of Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, and Dvorak are all linked with the Curse of the Ninth, the only definitive member is Beethoven, thus attesting to our infatuation with patterns and coincidences even when there’s not much to them. We simply prefer to believe that there’s more than the evidence at hand.
We’ve even looked to the cosmos for explanation of the 27 Club. There’s an astrological occurrence called the Saturn Return in which the planet Saturn returns to the exact spot in the sky that it inhabited at the moment of a person’s birth. The profound implications of this phenomenon, according to western astrology, are thought to begin in one’s late 20’s—specifically at age 27 (aha!). It’s said to mark the crossing of a great life threshold, usually from adolescence to concrete adulthood. In the case of our lost musicians, though, perhaps it was a threshold of a different kind.
These are the types of vague analogies we draw in order to attribute greater meaning to the 27 Club. And when we can’t find anything as grand as a historical or cosmological correlation, we resort to looking for any kind of connection at all.
Take the White Lighter Myth, for instance. Of the five members of the 27 Club we’ve mentioned, four of them—all but Jones—were left-handed and rumored to have died with a white Bic lighter at hand. Today stoners still respect the pearly torch as a sort of demonic device that will, at the very least, cause them to drop their bongs. It’s an odd coincidence, to be sure, but as we already know, neither white lighters nor being left-handed had anything to do with the musicians’ deaths—at least demonstrably. The curse is simply another example of our search to uncover a consistent mythology behind the 27 Club. Perhaps less conspicuously, it also exemplifies our search for some phenomenological rationale that explains why such beloved artists were taken from us at such a young age.
Whenever we lose someone integral to the state of our culture, we cannot help but shroud ourselves in the wistful speculation of what could have been. Think of the music each of these people gave us in their short lives. What art did we miss out on when Brian inked his membership to the 27 Club? and Jimi? and Janis? and Jim? and Kurt? It’s a question we asked again in 2011 when Amy Winehouse registered. And it’s a question we’ll ask again the next time it happens.
As a mask for our sadness, we try to find some apophenic explanation. They all died at 27, so let’s start a club about that. And then pretty soon it starts to feel like everyone dies at 27, even if there are many more young stars that were taken at different ages. Otis Redding was 26. Buddy Holly was 22. Jeff Buckley was 30. Elliott Smith was 34. Ian Curtis was 23. Tupac was 25. Biggie, 24.
Perhaps we hold onto things like the 27 Club because, in a way, it helps keep them alive. It preserves our young heroes in a golden past. They were always larger than life to us, and so should they remain in death, where they are part of some mythical club with supernatural implications, where they are impervious to the rust that steadily coats aging vocal cords. Even though, logically, we know that drugs took them as easily as they could take any one of us, we choose to demand more from their legacies. How could such a voice be extinguished so easily when it still shines through today, resounding from the airwaves, still ringing true and helping us discover who we are. We never actually knew them, sure, but without their music, how well would we know ourselves?