Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Legacy of the 27 Club

"A broom is drearily sweeping up
The broken pieces of yesterday's life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary."

Jimi Hendrix
The Wind Cries Mary

I guess you could say next month will be the 40th anniversary of the birth of the "27 Club."

What's that? You don't know what the "27 Club" — or, as it is also known, the "Forever 27 Club" — is?

Well, it isn't really a club. To put it as succinctly as possible, it's a somewhat informal grouping of famous musicians who died at the tender age of 27.

It has been observed, when the subject of the "27 Club" has come up, that people can and do die at every possible age, but it is unusual, to say the least, for so many well–known people in any profession to die at such a young age.

I suppose the "club" began on July 3, 1969. On that day, I guess, much of the world was anticipating the historic flight of Apollo 11 that was only a few weeks away. But Brian Jones, one of the charter members of the Rolling Stones, drowned in his swimming pool on that occasion. He was 27 years old.

One isn't enough to form a club, though, which brings me to September 18, the 40th anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix in London.

Hendrix also was 27 years old when, on Sept. 18, 1970, he consumed alcohol and sleeping pills — and then choked on his own vomit. Over the years, I heard a lot of things. I heard it was suicide. I heard it was accidental, that Hendrix was unfamiliar with the medication's dosages in foreign countries.

Last year, a "roadie" for the 1960s pop group the Animals published a book in which he claimed that Hendrix's manager admitted killing Hendrix. But the plausibility of that claim came into question when it was revealed that his manager wasn't even in London on the day Hendrix died. Apparently, he was in Spain.

Well, whatever the truth was, Jimi Hendrix died on Sept. 18, 1970. And two famous popular musicians were dead at the age of 27 within 18 months.

I vaguely remember hearing news reports of Hendrix's death at the time. But I really have no memory of any mention of the "27 Club."

Perhaps people didn't really start talking about the "27 Club" until a couple of weeks later, when Janis Joplin died at the age of 27 of what was deemed to have been a "probable" heroin overdose.

If there wasn't talk of a "27 Club" after Joplin died, it may have begun in earnest following the death on July 3, 1971, of the 27–year–old lead singer of the Doors, Jim Morrison. Morrison, too, may have been a victim of heroin, but he died in France, where medical examiners were not compelled at that time (French law may have changed in 39 years) to require autopsies if they found no evidence of foul play.

And, in fact, the medical examiner claimed that no such evidence was found at Morrison's death scene so no autopsy was performed. And the actual cause of his death has remained shrouded in mystery ever since.

(Ironically, following Jones' death, Morrison published a poem that was written for Jones, and Hendrix dedicated a song to him on American TV. Another of his contemporaries, Pete Townshend of the Who — who is still living — also wrote a poem for Jones.)

But, by that time — or, certainly, a short time later — people began speaking of the "27 Club." It has been reported that the sister of Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain, has said that her brother spoke, when he was a child, of wanting to join the "27 Club."

Cobain would have been a child in the 1970s. And, in April 1994, he did join the club, committing suicide a little more than a month after his 27th birthday.

Some people have resisted including Cobain since he deliberately took his own life, but the fact is that he died at the age of 27 and he was the lead singer of what may have been the most popular band in America at the time of his death. I have never heard any conditional circumstances mentioned for being included in the club other than the fact that a person must be a musician and must die while he/she is 27.

Actually, if we're going to be technical about this, the so–called "27 Club" appears to have begun more than three–quarters of a century before Jones and Hendrix died.

In 1892, a pioneering Brazilian composer named Alexandre Levy died at the age of 27. He merged classical music with Brazilian folk music. The cause of his death remains unknown.

And many other musicians — all, to a certain extent, famous although none as well known as the first five I mentioned — have died at the age of 27 since that time. Bluesman Robert Johnson, for example, died at 27 more than three decades before Brian Jones did.

Unofficially, I guess Johnson really was the first member of the club. He was a performer, after all, and there are recordings of his performances that still exist. Maybe he was overlooked because of the segregated world in which he lived.

"Pigpen" McKiernan, one of the founders of the Grateful Dead, was 27 when he died. So were Peter Ham, the leader of the group Badfinger; Gary Thain, Uriah Heep's ex–bassist; and many others.

It's a bigger club than you might have thought.

A much smaller club, however, is made up of those who, while they may have died young, left something significant behind (besides compositions and recordings) through which they could continue to influence future generations.

Less than a month before he died, Hendrix opened such a place that could mold and promote the performers of the future. As Ben Sisario reported today in the New York Times, Electric Lady Studios, which was founded by Hendrix on Aug. 26, 1970, still exists, even though most of New York's big–name studios have closed their doors for one reason or another.

And Sisario points out that, in addition to housing tapes from Hendrix's studio sessions there, Electric Lady has had many famous performers record there, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder.

I'm inclined to believe that no one — and I suspect that includes Hendrix himself — thought Hendrix would be dead less than four weeks after Electric Lady opened.

But I think he would be pleased to know it has existed longer than he did.

It's a kind of immortality.