When I heard about the death of pop singer Amy Winehouse, age 27, I immediately had two reactions. The first was great sadness. You can see the train wreck coming, but that doesn’t make the resulting smashup any less tragic or senseless. It is always sobering to witness great talent and the waste of great talent.
The second was a sigh of resignation. She was 27; the magic age when rock ‘n roll heroes die. Of course. It had to be. And here it comes.
And sure enough, it came. Within an hour of the singer’s death the articles were already popping up on the Internet. Amy had joined the 27 Club, the ever-growing list of prematurely dead rock stars that includes Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain.
Tweak the club membership rules a bit and you can add Robert Johnson and Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Gram Parsons, and four fifths of the people who have ever played keyboards for The Grateful Dead. I’ll stop there. The list could go on for pages.
But come on in, there’s always room for one more.
The facts are incontrovertible; there is a long laundry list of rock ’n roll stars who have checked out of Hotel Earth at the age of 27.
But I’ve seen what happens in these scenarios far too often, and there’s something about the 27 Club that remains deeply disturbing.
Maybe it was the sight of poor, lost Matt, my daughter’s ex-boyfriend, who wanted desperately to be Jim Morrison, to be a rock ‘n roll poet, man, and who checked out of the hotel a little early, a guitar by his bedside and a needle in his arm, dead at 22.
Or maybe it was Julia, another bright, beautiful suburban kid who had everything going for her except that she idolized Kurt Cobain, and wanted to grow up to be just like him. She got her wish, and was hooked on heroin at the ripe old age of 17.
These are tragedies, every one of them, famous or unknown, and I don’t mean to diminish the loss of the unique individuals and the pain experienced by their friends and family members.
But I cordially hate the 27 Club and the message it sends. Matt heard the message loud and clear, and so did Julia: it’s cool to live the dark romance. Death is the ultimate career boost. There’s nothing like youth and suffering and a dissolute end to win the critical acclaim and lasting importance we all so desperately seek.
Before her death Amy Winehouse was known musically for a couple hit singles and a best-selling album. Now she’s a member of the 27 Club.
Within half a day of Amy Winehouse’s death it was clear that the canonization was already well underway. Amy had joined the pantheon of Musical Greats Taken Far Too Soon.
And it was equally clear to me that there was idolatry at work, both within the artist who bought into the lie and the culture that celebrates the grisly notion that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. No, not really. Here’s the deal: it’s better to live to a ripe old age, and to hold your children and grandchildren.
My friend Jon Trott put it best: “To live a life of dissipation and self-destruction is not an art form,” he wrote. “It is a tragedy. Using one’s own depression and addictions as impetus to one’s art is a singularly frightening form of idolatry, one in which the worshipper immolates herself upon the altar of her own talent.”
Artists are a special lot, often fragile and vulnerable, and it is difficult to disentangle the highly combustible elements that lead to the creation of their art: great sensitivity and awareness of beauty, but also depression, mental illness, pain, suffering, and the ever-present desire to numb it all away or see it disappear in a dizzying euphoria.
It is a convoluted mixture that the great songwriter Joe Henry has probed many times in his songs, perhaps nowhere more successfully than in his song “Parker’s Mood,” which examines the life of the jazz icon Charlie Parker. Henry begins with black humor, envisioning a dissolute Parker searching for his missing socks and shoes, but he quickly moves to the heart of the conundrum:
I came home this morning
I was dead on my feet
Drunk on the victory
Of my own defeat
There it is. There’s the twisted logic that leads artists to aspire to the 27 Club.
It is surely a sickness of our society that we have come to view prematurely dead rock stars as heroes. I understand addiction in deep, personal, and painful ways, so I’m hardly casting stones here. Been there, done that, and got the NA key chains to prove it.
But I’ve also got those key chains, and I’m grateful to watch them mark the days and months and years of sobriety. Addiction is something to be fought, to be overcome with the help of others, to be mourned and ideally conquered, either through miraculous, immediate intervention or through the equally miraculous long, slow process of waking up and living one day at a time. It is all of those things. But it is not something to be celebrated.
There are certain numbers that the media has failed to mention in the ensuing video montages and hand wringing following the death of Amy Winehouse. The human body can only take so much abuse. If you spend a decade or so swallowing, smoking, snorting, shooting or otherwise ingesting opiates and stimulants, long about day 3,500-4,000 the heart stops working.
Those are the true magic numbers in this scenario, and they are played out in suburban bedrooms and derelict flophouses every day. You start in adolescence, and unless something radically changes, you die at 27. You can take that to the bank, or the mortuary, as the case may be.
And now a young, talented woman is dead because she could not stop destroying herself, and this ridiculous, supremely destructive myth is perpetuated once again. Mourn the young woman who could not escape the grip of addiction. That is always tragic.
But I don’t want to hear about the 27 Club. There is no glory there, and the dues are a bitch.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Andy Whitman