Opinion: Surviving 27—What It Means To Join One Of The Most Famous & Exclusive Clubs In The World

By Kalina Nedelcheva

Jimi Hendrix, 27, death by asphyxiation. Brian Jones, 27, death by drowning. Janis Joplin, 27, death by heroin overdose. Jim Morrison, 27, death by heart failure. Kurt Cobain, 27, death by suicide. Amy Winehouse, 27, death by alcohol poisoning.

Some of these deaths are still being reinvestigated.

The building pillars, the most famous members of Club 27, are all musicians. What they have in common is not only their age and career choice, but the conspiracy behind their deaths. Left unsolved, the “cause of death” is merely a presumption of the public eye.

According to Freud, “the death instinct” shows that humans are prone to violent behaviours, including suicide, the fourteenth most common cause of death, as ranked by the World Health Organization. But why would one turn to such extreme measures?

Many would point to depression as the main cause of these self-inflicted tragedies. Some of the factors of depression include family genes, writers block, tragedies, and/or pressure. Faced with the question of what this phenomenon really is, Pat Durish, a clinical social worker and course instructor at the University of Toronto, replied, “Depression is a subcortical response to stimuli that exceeds the individual’s capacity to tolerate and regulate affect.”

Surely, musicians could be at risk because of the expectations of the public and the music industry towards artists to create something bigger and better than their previous work. People are vicious and society, as we all are well aware, can make even the most confident of all feel insecure in their own abilities. Fans treat their favourite artists as godlike figures, not as human beings. Thus, when an artist makes a simple mistake, everyone blows the situation out of proportion, a heavy weight for someone to carry on their shoulders. As Janis Joplin says in her last interview, four days before her death, “For me it was really important if people were gonna accept me or not”.

It is well believed that those who are most creative have more than the average amount of energies. They dig deep into their own soul and get in touch with their own spirit. Their emotions are magnified, because they rely on these emotions to create their art. And from here stream the hardest questions: “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?” Unsurprisingly, what they most often find is that those questions do not have a definite answer. Then why live if there is no meaning to life? The thought in itself is depressing.

“Triggers for depression are also going to be deeply personal – reflective of someone’s life experiences and character strategies. It is reasonable that many creative individuals will find the demand to produce in accordance with market expectations, rather than in sync with their own creative rhythm, to be dysregulating and therefore act as a trigger to throw them into depression,” stated Durish, to clarify the origin of depression.

What Cobain, Hendrix, Joplin, and the others had in common was that they were extremely talented, intelligent, and yet very emotionally unstable and insecure. A recent book by Howard Sounes, Amy Winehouse and the 27 Club, states, “Several of the 27s showed signs of mood or personality disorders from an early age, conditions that border mental illness,” and this, accompanied with the music industry — a business in which drugs and alcohol are a large part of the culture — constructs a recipe for self-destruction.

If we look into the family history and early childhood of each musician mentioned above, we can see strange patterns that might, in a way, justify their substance abuse: Brian Jones was described as bipolar by Linda Lawrence, a woman with which he had a child in the 60s; Hendrix has a poor and dysfunctional family; Morrison, raised with great discipline, sang about killing his father and having sex with his mother in “The End”; Cobain had a history of odd behaviour and violent deaths in his family, which led him to believe he had the “suicide genes”; and Joplin was openly insecure. Amy Winehouse, the most recent member in the club, had a history of substance abuse and self-destructive behaviour since she was a teenager. But the most serious problems began in 2006 with the release of her award winning album, Back to Black, as she became addicted to crack cocaine and heroin. Although she quit hard drugs in 2008, she did so by switching to alcohol and finally meeting her death in 2011.

What I would like to ask is this: is there a rock star who hasn’t tried cocaine, or a musician who hasn’t drawn inspiration from the dark side of their lives? Accompanied by the drugs and alcohol, opening doors that are usually closed for the sober brain, one couldn’t help but wonder, what if all the deaths by overdose were merely a disguise for suicides? And yet Durish tells me that suicidality can be conscious or unconscious, which forces us to look for signs of depression in the few months before the (un)expected deaths.

Many doctors warned Amy Winehouse that she might die soon, but she laughed about it and didn’t take it seriously. Many of Joplin’s friends died by overdose and she had experienced one or two, according to her old friend, Patti Smith, but that didn’t stop her from taking heroin one last time. On a deeper level, one can argue, Joplin knew what was going to happen. And many deaths like Morrison’s, Jones’, and Hendrix’s are left with a big question mark at the end, since no one was there to witness their death.

So what might be drawn from all the facts? Is the 27 Club full of really “tortured artists” or people with troubled pasts that successfully channeled their depression to creating some of the most iconic albums/songs of the century?  This theory can never be proven due to the wide variety of depression in artistic and non-artistic individuals. One truth can be drawn from the 27 Club deaths, though: if one truly thinks of committing suicide, they won’t always seek the help of their family, friends, or psychologist. Their family — and in the case of the Jimi, Janis, and Jim, the rest of the world — might be left oblivious and in the dark to what has happened.

This article appeared in Demo‘s January 2014 issue.

Kalina Nedelcheva is a first year student in Book and Media Studies who enjoys reading, writing, horror movies, and dark stuff. She has been head-banging and mosh-pitting at concerts since birth. She enjoys her daily twenty cups of coffee and loves to explore new music in the punk, rock, and alternative genres.


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