When Kurt Cobain committed suicide in a Seattle suburb 20 years ago, the idea of the 27 Club entered the public consciousness. "I told him not to join that stupid club," his mother said at the time of death, and the quote was subsequently picked up and distributed worldwide by the Associated Press. Writers and music fans started drawing the link between Cobain and a long line of equally talented artists and performers — ranging from Brian Jones, to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and more — who died at the same age. In 2011, Amy Winehouse followed in Cobain's wake. Her death immediately launched broad speculation about whether 27 was actually a cursed age. It started to seem like there was more to the club than mere coincidence. Now, two decades after we started mythologizing "the club," science has shown that there's more truth to the myth than anyone expected.
In 2011, British researchers surveyed 1,500 performers over a 40-year period. They compared the rock stars' average lifespans to non-rock stars from the same periods. So, Elvis' life span would be compared to the average lifespan of other men who were 21 when he released "Hound Dog" in 1955. The researchers found, "North American pop stars were 87.6% as likely to be alive as [non-rock stars] of the same age and ethnicity — the lowest survival rate of any group identified in the study." Although less likely to die prematurely than their North American counterparts, Euro rockers were, on average, more likely to die young than non-rocking Europeans. That, of course, completely fails to explain Keith Richards.
Drug and alcohol overdoses were among the most common causes of death, which comes as no surprise given that the average rock star has access to an illicit pharmacy whenever he or she seeks it out. Author Howard Sounes lists 50 "unofficial" members in his book The 27 Club, the majority of whom had serious substance abuse problems. That culture, coupled with the emotional lives that inspire many musicians to write and perform, provide the perfect set of circumstances for an early death. Additionally, Sounes pointed out that most members of the club had "strikingly difficult childhoods," producing emotional wounds that would inspire artists like Cobain and Hendrix to look to drugs, alcohol and music as a means of self-medication.
There's a strange trend in the club members' relationships, too. Pain attracts pain, and drug abusing musicians often attract, either willfully or not, other drug users into their lives. Most members of the 27 Club were romantically involved with other drug users at the time of their death. Jim Morrison's girlfriend lied to police when her boyfriend died as a means of covering up her own drug abuse, adding to already-intense speculation surrounding the demise of the Doors frontman.
But while it's clear that rock stars are more likely to die young than, for example, their average fan of the same age, the 27 Club is really more "The 20's and 30's Club." There is a long list of rockers who have died prematurely, both younger and older than 27. But the members of the 27 Club get the most attention both because the term is marketable and because the deaths of those involved have sparked the most rumors. Plane crashes, for example, have killed a surprisingly high number of talented artists (Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, etc.) but a plane crash can't compete with the intrigue of a drug overdose. Reports of Morrison's demise in a Paris bathtub have inspired four decades of rumours. Speculation on Cobain's death is endlessly fascinating. Reports of Redding's crash landing in a Wisconsin lake were equally tragic (he'd just recorded "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay"), but not nearly as mysterious. So, the club's mystique has only grown.
Whatever you want to call it, though, there is a scientific basis for the 27 Club that goes well beyond mythology. While rock n' roll might not "kill," per se, the rock n' roll lifestyle does, and those most drawn to the rock lifestyle are most likely to push it too far.
There is some good news in all of this, however: The authors of the 2011 study indicated that today the rock lifestyle claims fewer casualties than it did in the debauched days of the '60s and '70s. Mark Bellis, an expert on substance abuse and one of the study's authors, speculates that "professionalization" might be one reason. Increasingly, the music business is perceived as exactly that — a business — and a "valid career choice," as opposed to a means of escape for troubled young people. But even when science seems to have explained it away and our musicians begin living longer, the mystique of that number will remain.