State of the Art

The club people are literally dying to get into

Amy Winehouse, photographed here in happy days, never lived to see her 28th birthday.
Amy Winehouse, photographed here in happy days, never lived to see her 28th birthday. A24 Films via AP

If you search online for “27 Club,” you will come first to the Wikipedia entry. It contains a list of 50 musicians – just musicians, not writers or filmmakers or visual artists – who have died between their 27th and 28th birthdays.

I thought about this bizarre statistic after seeing “Amy,” the poignant documentary about British jazz-pop singer Amy Winehouse, which opens in Charlotte today. She died four years ago this month of alcohol poisoning, 53 days short of her 28th birthday.

This list begins in 1892 with Brazilian composer Alexandre Levy, whose “Tango Brasileiro” still gets done as an encore, and concludes in December 2014 with Slađa Guduraš, the Bosnian Serb whose singing career was just taking off when she died in a road accident.

The tally includes four performers from the 1960s who took on semi-mythic stature after their deaths: Jim Morrison of the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and guitarist Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. The 27 Club peaked from 1969 through 1975, claiming not only those four but Ron McKernan (co-founder of the Grateful Dead), Pete Ham (leader of Badfinger), Alan Wilson of Canned Heat and Leslie Harvey, the guitarist for Stone the Crows who was electrocuted onstage when he touched a microphone that hadn’t been grounded on a rainy day.

Seminal bluesman Robert Johnson, who influenced rock ‘n’ rollers from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton, is the first internationally famous person on the roster: He was poisoned in 1938, possibly by strychnine. While the list delves mostly into rock ‘n’ roll, it touches on ragtime (Louis Chauvin, whose beautiful “Heliotrope Bouquet” was finished by his friend Scott Joplin), R&B (Rudy Lewis of The Drifters and Joe Henderson), jazz (swing pianist Nat Jaffe), reggae (Jacob Miller of Inner Circle), hip-hop (Fat Pat and Freaky Tah, both murdered) and Mexican banda (Valentin Elizalde, also slain).

Though drug or alcohol overdoses predominate, deaths include injuries suffered by falling from a horse (Roger Lee Durham of Bloodstone), a fatal plunge from a height (Soviet singer Alexander Bashlachev) and a disappearance that was never solved: Richey Edwards, lyricist and guitarist for Manic Street Preachers, vanished on Feb. 1, 1995 and was presumed dead years later.

Some of the suspicious deaths could have been suicides, but this list contains only two confirmed self-killings. Ham hanged himself in 1975 – his good friend, Badfinger co-founder Tom Evans, did the same in 1983 at 36 – and Nirvana founder Kurt Cobain was found dead at his Seattle home in 1994 with a shotgun wound in his head.

Do musicians face more pressure to succeed than other artists? Are their highs higher and their lows lower? Are drugs and alcohol more readily available to them? Do their lifestyles, especially in rock music, wear them out faster?

I have no idea what, if anything, to make of all this. But if I had a musician in the family, I’d be relieved when he or she turned 28.

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