“27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse”
Da Capo Press, $26.99
“The 27 Club” is the name given to the alleged phenomenon of the unusually high number of musical performers who have died at age 27. In “27,” Howard Sounes, the writer of acclaimed biographies on Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, presents the phenomenon as the backdrop to his interweaving stories of six musicians who all died at that age: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
Interestingly, in a survey Sounes did that charted the deaths of 3,463 music performers who died between 1908 and 2012, there was indeed a spike in the number of deaths at age 27 (50) — though there was a similar spike for age 39 as well, and no one writes about a “39 Club.”
In fact, as Sounes follows the histories of these performers, the deaths seem not unusual but inevitable. In every case, a troubled upbringing left psychological scars that were later exacerbated by the onslaught of sudden fame, which led to an overindulgence in drugs and alcohol and an irreversible downward spiral.
Sounes’ clear-eyed view of his subjects’ behavior is welcome in a rock biography. As one of Morrison’s friends observes of his decline, “Tragedy is so romantic when people write about it, but it is horrible to see. There’s nothing pretty about a person destroying themselves.” It would be easy to sensationalize the adherence of performers in this book to the creed of “sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” but Sounes takes an even-handed approach to their exploits.
He’s also dismissive of the conspiracy theories that have arisen regarding each death. “For every question about Brian’s death, there is a simple and convincing explanation,” he writes. “Yet [conspiracy theorists] tend to turn a blind eye to the facts, focusing instead on discrepancies in the story, or introducing new ‘evidence,’ which is actually speculation or make-belief.”
He’s equally forthright regarding Cobain’s death, writing, “The answer to the question by the authors of [the book] ‘Who Killed Kurt Cobain?’ is simple: Kurt Cobain killed himself.”
Though it’s clear from the outset that Winehouse’s story is, in Sounes’ own words, his “primary interest,” he states that her career was too short to merit a full-length biography; hence he added other performers to his story. It’s an interesting device, but not a totally successful one, in large part because there’s little new information served up about the other performers.
Sounes is clearly more drawn to Winehouse than his other subjects, writing so movingly about her unhappy, short life, that you wish he had focused on her exclusively. He’s especially thorough in sorting through contradictory accounts of her story (offering alternative versions of stories that Winehouse’s father presented in his own book, “Amy: My Daughter,” for example).
It’s Winehouse’s story that provides the meat of the book — which is why it will ultimately be of most interest to people who are interested in Amy Winehouse themselves.