White Lighter: The History and Myth of the 27 Club

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Sex, drugs, and rock and roll define the romanticism of life as a rock star. Sleep all day and party all night, live this wild lifestyle captured by media as the public watches the lives of their favorite artists in awe as their music provides the soundtrack to thousands of lives. But all too often, this reckless lifestyle leads to a premature death. They’ve come to be known as The 27 Club: the group of influential musicians who all lost their lives at the age of 27, right at the peak of their career.

“Members” of the club can be traced back all the way to 1892 with the sudden death of Alexandre Levy, a pianist and composer. Yet the myth of the club began to gain public attention in the span of 1969-1971 when the four, arguably most popular members of the club, all lost their lives at the ill-fated age.

 

Brian Jones

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In 1969, Jones marked the first of the more prominent deaths of the group. Jones’ claim to fame came from his accreditation with the founding of The Rolling Stones, only to later be overshadowed by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Despite growing popularity, Jones became more and more estranged from the band as he became increasingly unreliable. At the time of his death, Jones’ life was in significant upheaval; his dismissal from the Stones only contributed to his increasing drug abuse. On July 3, 1969, Jones was found drowned in his home’s swimming pool which courts ruled was due to a mix of drugs and alcohol.

 

Jimi Hendrix

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On September 18, 1970, American musician Jimi Hendrix was found dead in his hotel in London. Reports claim that cause of death was “asphyxia due to aspiration of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication.”  The coroner left the cause of death as an “open verdict” while recognizing that Hendrix took 18% of the recommended dosage of sleeping pills, as well as ingested large amounts of red wine. Yet the inconclusive reports have left room for the numerous murder conspiracies that surround the guitarist's death, ranging from his wanted elimination by the FBI to his own manager. Despite only having 5 albums produced, Hendrix is credited with being one of the best and most influential electric guitarists ever, and his legacy is still tangible in the world of music. Janis Joplin

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Fans knew her as “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul” – Janis Joplin rose to fame in the 1960’s not only for her singing, but also for her electric performance ability. Yet at the peak of her career, and only three weeks after the death of fellow Woodstock performer Jimi Hendrix, Joplin was found dead in her hotel room. After a long battle with drugs, Joplin died from an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. In her will, the singer left $2,500 to go towards a wake party to celebrate her life, an appropriate request from a woman known for her unconventional lifestyle. Jim Morrison

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Known for his rebellious attitude and bohemian lifestyle, The Doors frontman Jim Morrison is not a surprising addition to the list of 27 Club members. While the band climbed to fame, Morrison’s personal life spiraled out of control. As his drug and alcohol addictions worsened, he began having violent outbursts on stage that provoked unwanted attention from both club owners and police. In an attempt to quell the turmoil in his personal life, Morrison took some time off from The Doors and moved to Paris with his longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson. Yet just a few months after the move on July 3, 1971, Courson found Morrison dead in their bathtub. While no official autopsy was conducted, Morrison’s cause of death is attributed to heart failure although friends of the singer claim that he overdosed on a bad string of heroin. Ron McKernan

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Often overlooked in the list of 27 club members is Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, founding member and original frontman of the Grateful Dead. While Mckernan avoided the drugs and psychedelics commonly used by his fellow bandmates, he instead took to enjoying whiskey and wine. In 1971, the effects of alcoholism were already apparent on the musician's health, as he showed symptoms of liver damage and was advised by doctors to stop touring. Despite the warnings he continued to play with the band live for numerous performances, until he finally had his last performance and broke off ties with family and friends saying: “I don’t want you around when I die.” On March 3, 1973 McKernan was found dead by his landlady in his home. The cause of death was determined as gastrointestinal hemorrhage.

 

Newer Members

The 27 Club became recognized as an all too frequent concern in the music world as it became evident that its toll would not only include the musicians of the seventies. Rather, the numbers have collected consistently throughout the years albeit quietly. Yet two more modern musicians have become some of the more recognized faces of this infamous tally:

 

Kurt Cobain

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Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain penned most of the songs which drove the band to its increasingly popularity. Yet he grew increasingly frustrated with what he called the public’s misinterpretation of his artistic vision. During the last years of his life, Cobain increasingly struggled with heroin abuse, as his depression grew worse. After taking a brief break from touring to treat bronchitis, Cobain was found passed out on March 4, 1994 by his wife, Courtney Love, who rushed him to the hospital where large quantities of champagne and rohypnol were found in his system. Love claims that this was her husband’s first suicide attempt. On March 18, police were called to their house when Love claimed that Cobain had locked himself in a room with a shotgun. Upon police questioning, Cobain stated that he was not a danger to himself and Love had retracted her statement. Knowing the severity of the situation, Love called an intervention later that same month in which Cobain agreed to enroll in a detox program. He arrived at the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles, California on March 30, 1994. The next night as he went out to smoke a cigarette, he climbed over the six-foot wall and flew back to Seattle. Despite a missing person's report filed by Courtney Love, an electrician found Cobain’s body in his home on April 8, 1994. The official autopsy claimed that Cobain had killed himself with a shotgun a few days earlier on April 5. However, there is still much speculation around the singer’s death complete with weekly demands for the Seattle police department to officially reopen the case.

Amy Winehouse

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Singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse predicted her own membership in the 27 Club saying to friends, “I don’t think I’m gonna get past this age.” Winehouse lived a tumultuous life riddled with drug and alcohol addiction and quickly gained a reputation for being a party girl who all too often was unable to finish her live sets. Her abuse of hard drugs and alcohol led her original management company to suggest that the singer spend some time in rehab. She quickly dropped the company and produced her hit song Rehab. However in 2007 the songstress’s habits became too hard to ignore anymore. On August 8, 2007 Winehouse was taken to the hospital under claims of exhaustion, however soon after she admitted to a concoction of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine, whiskey, and vodka which intensified concerns for the musician’s health. Over the next few years Winehouse battled with addiction, stints in rehab, and brief sobriety only to continue the cycle over again. On July 23, 2011, Winehouse was declared dead from accidental alcohol poisoning after being discovered by her live-in bodyguard in her Camden apartment.

Conspiracies and Myths

When such a coincidence as the 27 Club arises, it is evident that it will be surrounded with suspicions and conspiracies around the individual deaths and the group as a whole. Some of these include the musicians being killed as part of an Illuminati ritual, that the pull of Saturn in the 27th year of life causes stress on creative souls, a scientific explanation that at the age of 27 the body can no longer handle the effects of drugs, that these musicians sold their soul to the devil for fame, the list is endless.

Superstition also stems from these deaths. Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, and Cobain were all carrying white disposable Bic lighters in their pockets that were reported by each of their official autopsies. They also all happen to be left-handed. This has lead to the urban myth of white lighters being bad luck with smokers refusing to use them at all.

The 27 Club has become a spectacle of the romanticism of the rock and roll lifestyle but it acts as an all too solemn reminder of the pressures that often come with fame.

Paige Banfield