Live Through This

The 27 Club

A weirdly high number of musical geniuses died at the age of 27. I thought I had to do the same if I was going to make anything great.

Collage by Sonja.

Collage by Sonja.

When Kurt Cobain was found dead—from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound—on April 8, 1994, his mother, Wendy O’Connor, said something mysterious to the local paper: “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.”

The “stupid club” she was talking about doesn’t hold meetings—all its members are dead (though one can only imagine the band they could form in heaven). Known as “the 27 Club,” it’s a list of rock stars who died tragically at the age of 27. Among its most famous members are Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones guitarist who drowned in a swimming pool in 1969; Jimi Hendrix, who purportedly choked on his own vomit while under the influence of barbiturates in 1970; Janis Joplin, who died 16 days after Jimi of a heroin overdose; Jim Morrison of the Doors, 1971, cause undetermined but seemingly drug related; Chris Bell, Big Star founder and songwriter, car crash, 1978; D. Boon of the Minuteman, van accident, 1985; Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, heroin overdose, 1994; Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, who suffered from depression and disappeared without a trace in 1995; and Amy Winehouse, who was found dead on her bed, surrounded by empty vodka bottles, in 2011.

What is it about 27? Ever a huge nerd, I did some research. I already knew how Jimi, Janis, and Jim had died because I’d gone through a ’60s phase in seventh grade (before I discovered grunge), but I hadn’t realized that they’d all been the same age. Twenty-seven. Eerie. Messed-up. But legendary. I was (and still am) obsessed with myths, and here was one that was going on in the real world. The old myths I read about in books were invented to help humans explain things like why the seasons change, but that’s just another way of saying they help us make sense of the bad in the world. The 27 Club did that for me—it gave me a way to understand the climate of my own life.

Like many of Kurt’s fans, I was devastated when he died. I was a freshman in high school, and Nirvana was my favorite band. I was struggling with depression, self-injury, and being bullied, but Kurt had been an outsider like me, and if he was able to become insanely famous and adored, maybe the world was a more accepting and less cruel place than it seemed to me at the time. He was my hero, in other words. In the journal entry I wrote the day I learned the news, I was straight-up pissed. I called him “dumb” and wondered if he’d considered his wife or their daughter. I questioned why people take their own lives, asked Kurt why he did it, and said I never thought he was “like that.” Meaning suicidal. Meaning not “strong enough” to fight through his depression. But I knew why—not why he, specifically, chose suicide, but why anyone might feel like doing that. By that point in my high school career I’d been sent to the guidance counselor for writing poems that “sounded suicidal” (“I lie there, thinking, wondering / How would it be if I were gone?”—in retrospect, I understand my eighth-grade English teacher’s concern), and even though I’d sworn “I don’t want to be that girl” in my angsty poetry, there had been a couple of incidents where my best friend had to wrestle a bottle of Tylenol from my hand. Though I couldn’t explain it to her or even articulate it in my tortured poetry, sometimes it felt like I was trying to contain a thunderstorm inside of me—I had flashes of anger that burned my stomach, I often wanted to cry so hard I couldn’t breathe, and the world around me was tinged gray like I was living inside a dark cloud. Suicide would be a way of stopping those feelings. I think I was angry at Kurt for being “like that” because I was afraid that I might be “like that.” I wanted him to be stronger to assure me that I could be too.

In the days that followed his death, I read every article about Kurt’s life that I could get my hands on. I felt like knowing what was behind his torment would give me insight into my own. His mother’s quote about “that stupid club” made such an impact on me that I memorized it. I found it weirdly comforting, because if so many of these brilliant artists struggled with depression and/or addiction, that meant it might be possible to make something beautiful out of my own dark feelings. Even though they died young, they had managed to leave behind an incredible legacy, and that was inspiring.

The most fascinating story in all 27 Club lore is undoubtedly Robert Johnson’s. Johnson was a master of blues guitar whom people like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jack White count among their biggest influences. But he wasn’t a prodigy—the story goes that in the beginning, even though he loved the blues, he was terrible at playing it. Then one day he disappeared, and when he returned to his hometown of Robinson, Mississippi, a year or two later, he was scary good. Like, supernaturally good. A legend sprang up that he had had a midnight meeting with the Devil himself at a crossroads in Clarksdale, 50 miles away. Satan had offered Johnson musical genius in exchange for his immortal soul, and Johnson took the deal. Sadly, the Devil didn’t have to wait long to collect on his end of the bargain: Johnson died, apparently of strychnine poisoning, seven or eight years later, at, yes, the age of 27.

Back when I first read that story, I decided that the Devil had written Kurt’s, Janis’s, Jimi’s, Kristen’s, and the rest of the club’s deaths into the fine print of Johnson’s contract, and that metaphorically, this meant an early death was the price that Satan had decided all mortals should pay for artistic brilliance. I didn’t even believe in the Devil, but this made a good story, and even back then I thought of myself as a storyteller. I was also a depressed person looking to give her depression a purpose.

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39 Comments

  • rottedteeth August 21st, 2013 11:42 PM

    Whenever I think of 27 club or dead legendary musicians my mind always goes to Jay Reatard, who died @ 29 but still way too soon, thankfully he had made enough music to last more than a lifetime.
    I try to find music that celebrates all the feelings now so I don’t hold myself in the same one.

    http://empassant.blogspot.com/

  • Moonshoes August 22nd, 2013 1:27 AM

    so so so inspirational!! I went through something similar during freshman year of high school… not a great year for me

    http://www.oddsntrends.blogspot.com

  • China August 22nd, 2013 1:32 AM

    i found kurt cobain in the worst time of my life. I was so depressed and Kurt with his music helped me because i doesn’t felt so lonely.
    (Sorry, mi inglish is so bad)
    I need say thanks, read this makes me cry. I hope someday do something and recover me becouse break my heart see my family and friends suffering for my fault.

  • taste test August 22nd, 2013 2:42 AM

    this is just amazing. it’s funny, when I read the Beats and Hunter S. Thompson and other people like them I worry about not having any big crazy experiences. sometimes I feel like I have no right to admire these people’s art because of that, like I’m just so square and straight that I should drop it and go read/listen to/make sterile academic artsy stuff that’s more suited to people like me instead. so it’s really good to hear from someone who’s actually tried doing dark risky things for art and come out the other side. it’s not a perspective you see much.

    also thank you for including people besides kurt cobain, jimi hendrix, and jim morrison in the club because it seems like they’re the only ones I hear about. sometimes also janis joplin, but that’s it.

    http://xyzzyzzyzx.blogspot.com

    • Manda August 22nd, 2013 8:20 PM

      I completely agree! I totally feel that way too.

  • FlaG August 22nd, 2013 3:52 AM

    Stephanie, your point on Sylvia Plath and other women writers being seen as tragic figures who couldn’t handle life made me think back to the Bikini Kill song Bloody Ice Cream, which made a brief, but very excellent point that has stayed with me through the years. In full:

    “The Sylvia Plath story
    Is told to girls who write
    They want us to think
    That to be a girl poet
    Means you have to die

    Who is it that told me all the girls who write must suicide?

    I’ve another good one for you
    We are turning cursive letters into knives”

    Take your ‘darkness’, and make it your power.

    • Stephanie August 23rd, 2013 2:43 PM

      Yes, I LOVE that song! Listened to it a few times while writing this piece actually!

      • FlaG August 25th, 2013 3:04 PM

        Yay! Great minds and all that :)

  • cmclaire August 22nd, 2013 4:53 AM

    This really spoke to me – I remember being a little obsessed with this club when I was younger too. So many great people, gone too soon.

  • backyardtapir August 22nd, 2013 5:39 AM

    I didn’t go through my teenage years in the same way, but when I read your book I recognized the emotions. Thank you for your words!

  • Joyce August 22nd, 2013 7:45 AM

    i have been waiting for these article you guys have no idea.

  • Sophii August 22nd, 2013 8:38 AM

    Wow this really resonates with me as I’m sure it does with many others. I will have to read your books now as I’m sure they’re brilliant! xox

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

  • insanejane August 22nd, 2013 8:49 AM

    thank you for writing this, after have a look at so inspiring people like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin…or even Pete Doherty (who isn’t dead but who had a “destroying-himself phase”) I couldn’t stop telling myself : you’ll never create something great if you’re stuck in this “nice girl” position. I think I’ll be able to because I’ve got my imagination, haven’t I ?

    http://www.yellowintherainbow.tumblr.com

  • Ryann August 22nd, 2013 9:57 AM

    I’m really glad that this story was published. I’ve always felt like I NEED some sort of dark, sad pit of inspiration to draw ideas from…. while simultaneously knowing that that’s not true at all! For me, when I’m upset/angry about a situation in my life, my first instinct is to write it down (usually in some cryptic or metaphoric way because I don’t want people to know the full truth). I love writing, but right now I’m struggling with finding that inspiration in positive places. So thank you for making me feel less alone. Hopefully one day I can create awesome work that displays all sides of my emotional spectrum.

    • Stephanie August 23rd, 2013 2:47 PM

      I think it takes time to find that place because writing is such a release (at least it is for me and it sounds like it is for you) that it is natural to kind of go dark and purge, but I fully believe you will get in touch with that positive inspiration to. Writing about a place you really love (whether it’s a city–think of the way Francesca Lia Block captures LA–or just your favorite diner or store) can really help I’ve found. Or totally fangirling over your favorite show or band :)

  • Tiger August 22nd, 2013 11:45 AM

    I love your writing, Stephanie, and this piece in particular reaaally got to me. Wow.

    btw, I read Ballads of Suburbia a while ago and it seriously affected me so deeply. It’s one of the best books I ever read. Right now I’m reading I wanna be your Joey Ramone which is also crazy good.

    You’re so inspiring, keep up the amazing work!!

    • Stephanie August 23rd, 2013 2:44 PM

      Thank you for saying that! You have no idea how much this means to me and seriously makes my day :)

  • Simone August 22nd, 2013 1:48 PM

    I hate to be annoying, but Mia Zapata is tagged in this article and mentioned once by first name but her story isn’t actually talked about. Also, her inclusion here would feel weird because she was murdered by a stranger, as opposed to most of these other people whose deaths had something to do with depression, addiction and the excesses and difficulties of a rock’n'roll lifestyle (not to say that they are less tragic or that they had it coming or something).

    • Anaheed August 22nd, 2013 2:48 PM

      That was my mistake. At first she was mentioned, but we took her out because of the very reasons you cite.

      • Simone August 22nd, 2013 5:37 PM

        I was kind of wondering if that was why. Thanks for the clarification!

  • EchoMox August 22nd, 2013 2:05 PM

    I struggled with similar thoughts and emotions when I was a young actor. I worried that without “experiences” I couldn’t flesh out characters, etc. All of the various famous artists, actors, musicians, writers in my path seemed to reflect pain as the golden pathway to “truth in art”. I recall meeting a 50-something yo man when I was about 22 and just married, and he tried to shoot down my dreams by telling me true artists never marry – they marry their art. It scared me a little, but by that age I knew better and mostly he just managed to get a rise of anger from me. I look back on my life, my parenting and love and think what a pity that artists sometimes get wrapped up in that world of pain and miss out on the full experience of life.

  • mingxi August 22nd, 2013 2:11 PM

    “I had to remind myself that one of the most incredible things that art can do is to bring beauty to the world.”

    I needed this article.
    Thanks

  • EmmaS August 22nd, 2013 2:38 PM

    I.LOVE.THIS

  • Logan August 22nd, 2013 4:39 PM

    Beautiful and inspiring. I really needed to read this.

  • Ladymia69 August 22nd, 2013 4:44 PM

    I have a few astrological/numerological insights: In numerology, cycles of life happen in groups of 9 years each. At age 27, you are at the end of three 9-year cycles, which is a crucial point…if you get through this difficult time, you are in the clear for another 27 years. Also, when someone turns 27, Saturn returns to where it was at the time of their birth (in their birthchart)…Saturn being a difficult and challenging planet, this is also a major influence on one’s life. A really good book for girls to read is “Surviving Saturn’s Return: Overcoming the Most Tumultuous Time of Your Life”
    by Sherene Schostak. It really helped me out when my Saturn’s return came around!

    • Manda August 22nd, 2013 8:22 PM

      Thank you for this! That is really interesting.

  • Anitasseo August 22nd, 2013 9:04 PM

    probando!

  • Anitasseo August 22nd, 2013 9:09 PM

    Had a similar experience; very interesting article –though I wouldn`t call it a “stupid club” (how would I know that!?). Each one loses its life on purpouse for very personal –and different– reasons. We`ll never know.
    But yes; I think it`s harder to keep on living –and far more interesting–.
    Cheers!
    From Argentina.

    http://anitasseo.blogspot.com.ar/

  • AnimalDecay August 23rd, 2013 12:43 AM

    Oh wow I can DEFINITELY relate to a lot of what you’re saying in this article. A lot of the art I make right now comes from all of the angspretty the like that has pretty much dominated my life for the past couple years, and it’s so nice to have this reminder that it really doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks for the article!! :)

  • jessie77 August 23rd, 2013 1:34 AM

    I feel like you might have just saved my life- thank you <3

  • Kal August 23rd, 2013 3:59 AM

    I don’t even know what to say because this article sums up my life right now in too many ways to count.

    Throughout my entire high school existence I have thrived on my depression, anxiety and self-harm as a means of gaining material for my writing. I went to sketchy shit and did sketchy shit because I thought if I experienced such and such than I could write a piece on it that was honest, raw and real.

    Then after sitting in the dark for so long I begin to forget what the light looked like. Soon enough I ended up in a clinic with a suicide attempted and eventually got the help I needed. Anyway, I am sad to say these feelings are quite common among people of our generation because of the value and attention that society places on the “fucked up” image.

    I know that doesn’t sound accurate but if you look around you might realize that being depressed, having a eating disorder, a drug addiction or another mental disorder is viewed as provocative, dark, mysterious and fascinating rather than life threatening.

    Thank you so much for this.

    Kal

    zymurgyprocess.com

    Check us out, we’re looking for guest contributors!!

    • Stephanie August 23rd, 2013 2:50 PM

      I definitely see what you are saying, Kal, and it sounds like we had a pretty similar experience. I’m glad you got the help you needed and I hope remembering what the light looked has provided some inspiration.

  • Sophie ❤ August 23rd, 2013 9:49 AM

    This is just… Wow. Thank you!

    http://theneonpapaya.com

  • Stephanie August 23rd, 2013 2:52 PM

    Thanks everyone, for reading and commenting. I also want to say to everyone who related in some way, check out Marbles by Ellen Forney which is a graphic memoir that deals with these feelings. Tavi recommended it to me and it is pretty much the most amazing thing ever!

  • yagian August 24th, 2013 3:36 AM

    >I still write about sad stuff, because I think it’s important to acknowledge it, but I have a lot of fun writing about lighter things too these days. That’s the part of life that’s important for me to acknowledge.

    I really agree with you, but it takes a good amount of time to realize it.

  • Monroe August 26th, 2013 11:30 AM

    Ahh the 27 club! I should have known sooner or later it would show up on rookie.
    And speaking of Kurt Cobain, I have been reading up on him lately, and its left me feeling a bit depressed. He was maybe the most messed up celebrity I’ve ever read about. Not so much because of the life he lived, but because of his mind. I agree with little of the things he thought, but I can’t help but feel terrible for him, despite the fact that he wrecked his own life with drugs and suicide, and was richer than I’ll probably ever be. He just seemed like one of those people that weren’t meant for this world. Like his nature just was too sensitive to cope.

  • thawdar August 26th, 2013 2:41 PM

    Not very related to this article, but, before I go to bed, I always try to imagine my future if I became a famous rockstar and those fantasies always end in some kind of death at a young age. Sometimes I get really confused why all of those dreams have a similar fate and the only theory I’ve come up with is that if your life ends when it’s at your highest point, then you won’t get to face the devastation that will come with your life slowly going down the drain.

    I also used to think that suicide was beautiful and that if you committed suicide while you were young, people would remember you. Especially if you’re famous. Being so fed up with the world that you’d choose to leave was always so appealing to me and now I know how stupid i used to be wow.

    Also, this article is amazing. Thank you for this piece.

    http://neonbums.blogspot.com

  • noisybabs October 31st, 2013 11:05 AM

    it’s pretty easy to mistake coincidence for fate. Sadly, a lot of people have this illusion with “the stupid club”.

  • luviaxx November 20th, 2013 8:41 AM

    Ive been thinking about this a lot. Like, “I have to be depressed to be creative” or “I have to be suicidal to make art”. I’ve actually been thinking so much about it that I suddenly became depressed and suicidal. And it’s hard, and I hate it. But thank you for writing about the 27 club (even though it was the other stuff that pulled my attention), because I don’t feel like a crazy kid anymore. :)