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Musical Martyrs and the 27 Club

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Sometime in the mid-1930s, Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads in rural Mississippi and sold his soul to master the guitar. Or so the legend goes. In 1936 he would record a landmark album that would inspire other guitar virtuosos like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. Two years after that he was dead at the age of twenty-seven. The jury is still out in regards to Johnson selling his soul, but since death, he has become an early example of the now-infamous "27 Club." Consisting of musicians who all eerily have died at the age of twenty-seven, the club has gained many notable members over the years, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse. It's a star-studded list, but too often the stories of its members are viewed in a similar light to the legend of Robert Johnson; troubled artists who sacrificed themselves to obtain musical genius.

The 27 Club feels supernatural, as if all of its members were destined to join it. However, there is no evidence that celebrities are more likely to die at 27. Plenty of other celebrities have died in similar clusters of age: Princess Diana, Bob Marley, and Marilyn Monroe all died at 36 for example, but we never talk about the 36 Club. The 27 Club feels unusual because we're focused on it as a cultural phenomenon. You may point to the fact that all of the members had a white lighter on them, but that's actually not true either. BIC didn't start making white lighters until the mid-70s, after Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison died. White also wasn't a common color for lighters at the time, and crime scene photos of Kurt Cobain's possessions show that neither of his lighters was white. But even if they all had white lighters, coincidences are a far more common thing than most people realize, and it would be hard to say that the color of a lighter indicates some kind of divine intervention. Part of the reason for the myths surrounding the 27 Club is that fans of these artists, rightfully, have a hard time reckoning with the fact that their favorite musician died young as a result of mental health issues. Fans want to believe that their hero’s death had a higher meaning, or was a result of an otherworldly conspiracy, rather than come to terms with the fact that these were all deeply troubled artists who had personal demons. These conspiracies aren't unique to the 27 Club. Elvis has probably been sighted more times since he died than when he was alive, and plenty of people think Tupac could've faked his death. It's easier to shake your fists at the Universe and wonder how they could be gone than it is to realize the pain that afflicted these artists, and fueled much of their work, got the better of them in the end.

Kurt Cobain by Lauren Corrado

"Art comes from pain" is an expression often heard around art schools and coffee shops full of would-be screenwriters, and there is some truth to it. Amy Winehouse would likely have never written "Rehab" had she not been battling addiction, Kurt Cobain wouldn't have written "Something in the Way" if he hadn't lived under a bridge when he found himself homeless, and Jimi Hendrix wouldn't have written "Manic Depression" if he wasn’t struggling with mental illness. Pain can be used to make incredible art, and doing so can be a safe, powerful way to express and work through that trauma, but you don't have to be traumatized to make great art. Too often the conversation around music made by members of the 27 Club centers around their personal struggles, which is often conflated to imply those struggles made the music possible. The problem with that line of thinking is it devalues the talent and genius these artists possessed. Simply look at Jimi Hendrix as an example, he was technically proficient, every part he plays is note-perfect. He could turn a simple rhythm part into a complicated array of flourishes and embellishments. He was also inventive, heavily using feedback to provide a dirty, grunge sound that would change the way people viewed electric guitars in general. He could also play with his teeth. It took more than a struggle with depression for him to get to that level of mastery, the dude could play, he had talent. It's easy to point to his psychedelic lyrics and music and chalk it up to his heavy drug use, but it's pretty hard to play a song like "Purple Haze" while on a trip. The drug use and depression didn't make Jimi Hendrix the musician he was, his talent and creativity did, and we lost that when he died so young.

Jimi Hendrix by Lauren Corrado

When a musician dies at a young age there is an obvious tragedy in losing the person, but there's also the more selfish loss of their future work. The world will never know where Kurt Cobain would've taken Nirvana after In Utero, all we can do is speculate. One of the most incredible things about Nirvana is the relevancy they still have today, despite their limited catalog of music. During their seven years of making music as a group, Nirvana only released three studio albums. Taylor Swift has released almost that many in the past six months. For a band to be that influential, while producing such a limited number of songs, one can't help but wonder what they could have achieved if Kurt were still around. Jimi Hendrix would be younger than Paul McCartney and very well could still be shredding to this day, while Amy Winehouse would only be thirty-eight and in the prime of her musical career. When they died, we lost not only talent, but their unique view of the world, and their specific emotions. That type of perspective can't be replicated by anyone. No one else could've written "Smells Like Teen Spirit" because no one else had the experience to inspire it, only Kurt Cobain. We may have talented musicians in the music industry today, and they may even be musical geniuses, but we don't have Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, or Jimi Hendrix, and that's a monumental loss. It's also an important, if not sappy, message to take away from the 27 Club, we all have talents and a one-in-eight billion set of experiences that make us each unique and irreplaceable. In the time since their deaths, the legends of the club's members have grown, they've all become larger than life, but at the end of the day they were all people, deeply troubled, but deeply talented people.

We often put members of the 27 Club on a pedestal, deify them in a sense. They exist in our minds and our culture, frozen in time, forever young. Their premature deaths mean their views and mental states never got the chance to change or evolve. We never got the chance to see if they went full Morrissey, or became wise, elder statesmen like Lou Reed. Instead, we're left with the catalogs they left behind and the best we can do is appreciate what they were able to achieve in their short lifetimes. Anyone who’s struggled with their mental health knows how hard it can be on bad days to get even the most basic tasks done, let alone create culture-defining albums. The inspiring thing about people like Amy Winehouse isn't that they channeled their pain into art --- any pretentious art student can do that. It’s that they managed to overcome their pain and illness and create the art they did. For Amy Winehouse to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, which was being fed by underlying mental health problems, which were, in turn, being fed by an unrelenting and brutal press, and still make two landmark records and leave the legacy she did is incredibly impressive. Even more so when you consider her unwillingness to accept help for those struggles. After all, she did sing, "They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no." Obviously, Amy Winehouse would’ve been better off if she had gotten help with her substance abuse issues. She might have still been here today, but she also could have made more music, and continued to add to the already impressive impact she left. Learning to focus on your mental health, taking care of yourself in whatever way is most beneficial to you and your situation is so important both to your own physical well-being, but also in allowing you to continue to do what you're passionate about. It's a takeaway that is amplified by the example of the 27 Club. Those artists may be gone, but their life, failures and successes, ups and downs, can continue to make an impact. We can mourn their loss, but heed the warning of their demise and reach out, seek help, rather than only channeling the pain into our creative expressions.

Amy Winehouse by Lauren Corrado

Little is known about Robert Johnson, especially to the average music fan, but the devil legend lives on. Perhaps it's a collective fascination with the macabre, or maybe just people trying to fill in the gaps, but the fact that Johnson is most associated with selling his soul speaks to the inherent issue of boiling someone down to their darkest moment. The romanticizing of the 27 Club and an early death turns the focus from the talented, complex, beautifully twisted people we all are, and instead turns the attention to our flaws and illnesses. Rather than celebrating flight, we celebrate the albatross around our neck. We all have problems, whether they be mental health or not, but they don't define us, and we certainly don't want to be remembered for them, not when we all have so much more to offer. Perhaps we shouldn't view these artists as having made a deal with the devil, perhaps we should acknowledge that all of us have a devil inside of us, and history has shown it's better to exorcise those demons than to sell them your soul.

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