Wasted Lives and Wasted Dreams–The Truth of “Forever 27”

Talk about a club where people are dying to get in….(yeah, that WAS pretty lame).

The 27 club or “Forever 27 curse” is a rather morbid curiosity in rock and roll folklore.  While it technically was many years in the making, it is actually more a product of the entertainment TV/Internet age.  According to rock and roll biographer Charles Cross in an article published at Seattle PI  (February 22, 2007), a comment made by Kurt Cobain’s mother shortly after his death sparked much of the concept.  In her grief, she spoke of telling him not to “join that f***king club” which in turn sparked several websites, stories, and further fascination to this fabled group.  The only requirement to join was to be a somewhat influential musician and dead at 27.

It makes for a fascinating story.  The lives of popular musicians are often romanticized up to and including their deaths.  The members of this “club” are in and of themselves interesting albeit self-destructive characters in their fans idealized tragedies.  From that, it is not hard to see how an apparent bump in rock star deaths at 27 would lead to speculations of a curse.  After all, what more fitting way to glamorize self-defeating behavior–give it a pre-destined ending.

The club is often referenced as though it is common factual rock and roll knowledge.  However, the results of a study published in the British Medical Journal (December 20, 2011) by statistician Adrian Barnett illustrate popular music artists may have a propensity for a shorter life span, but it isn’t exclusive to age 27.

The study, conducted by Barnett and several colleagues from Queensland University of Technology, collected data for U.K. popular musicians that died between the years 1956-2007.  A slight spike for age 27 was noted as well as comparable spikes for ages 25 and 32.  What was observed from the data collected; popular musicians were 2-3 times more likely to die in their late twenties to early thirties.  Those spikes correlated with self-destructive behavior and reckless lifestyles, not a “curse” or a club.  “Death by misadventure” appears often.

The air of mystery that surrounds the passing of several “Forever 27” musicians compounds the plot of this tale.  Certainly there were prominent ones whose deaths are short on definitive answers and long on speculation.  The Doors front man, Jim Morrison’s death certificate is extremely vague, his manner of death still a question for many.  Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones seemingly drowned in his swimming pool, but so many questions remained due to persistence of certain witnesses that the Sussex police did consider reopening the case in 2009. Members of Jimi Hendrix’s band, especially Noel Redding, had questions about Jimi’s official cause of death (overdose).  Conspiracy theories still run rampant with Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

Sadly, the only real connection lies with what people want to see.  Morrison’s and Jones’s deaths are mysterious because the witnesses were in altered states of mind.  Hendrix was a known heroin addict and addicts run the risk of pushing it too far no matter how experienced they may be.  Kobain surrounded himself with people who enabled his habits and were not equipped to help him with his pain.  In absence of real evidence to the contrary, the mysteries are in what people want to create.

There can be no doubt that the death of anyone with their whole life ahead of them is a tragedy, especially when there is so much promise.  We as a culture love our celebrities, and many people identify with their favorite stars as though there is a personal connection.  This, along with our brain’s tendency to see patterns (and a wider definition of an ‘influential’ musician) has gotten quite a list together of artists that will remain ‘forever 27’.

The deaths of people in the prime of their lives should not be fodder for an imagined curse or some  pre-destined club.  We should instead remember the magic they brought us with their talent.

For list of those who have been placed in the “27 Club”


For further reading:

http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/6250/the_forever_27_club.html  (Fortean Times article)

http://www.history.com/news/curse-of-27-or-is-it-only-rock-n-roll (History.com article)

http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/P-I-s-Writer-in-Residence-Charles-R-Cross-1229072.php  (Charles Cross article)

http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7799  (link to Barnett study)