Eros and Thanatos. The life instinct and the death instinct. A key characteristic (the great characteristic) of Rock and roll is that vitality – the energy, libido, that detached whiskey-driven copulation behind a recycling bin which you respect yourself too much or too little to regret. But, just as with psychoanalytical dualism, Rock and Roll is, at times, quite intimately tied up with death. Whether carking it in a bizarre gardening accident or misadventure with a raw croque monsieur, more than a few R&R gunslingers have crossed the clearing at the end of the path before their time.
The grim reaper was particularly prolific (and tasteful) during 3rd July 1969 and 3rd July 1971 – this two year period cost the world Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Mr. Mojo Risin’ himself, Jim Morrison. One thing these giants had in common when they passed the audition for the choir invisible was their age – they would help compose what would eventually become known as the 27 Club.
The idea of the 27 Club as a genuine statistical spike was debunked somewhat by the British Medical Journal in 2011, and an article in The Independent in 2015 suggested, as a rock star, you should be far more worried when blowing out the candles at your 56th.But the Club isn’t simply going to go away – that romantic admixture of vitality and death (Eros and Thanatos?) is too intoxicating, and those carried away by it often luminaries of their genre.
There’s one sizeable problem with the 27 Club, though – It’s been done to death. What of the road not taken? What of the Club’s poor neighbours – the Flanders, the Rubbles, the Kramers of the R&R gone-too-soon pack?
Then shalt thou count to twenty-six (and twenty-eight). Twenty-nine is right out.
The following is a select run-down of artists who managed to dodge the 27 Club, either by getting their wooden coats on early at 26, or kicking the spit bucket at the ripe old age of 28.
Tim Buckley (28)
Buckley’s self-titled debut album was released in 1966 – its folky jangle pop arguably unremarkable for the time, were it not for the presence of Buckley’s inimitable and versatile delivery. By the time of Buckley’s final album, Look at the Fool (1974), the Washingtonian’s career had taken forays into psychedelia, jazz-rock, and funk/soul. His work had become challenging, dense and generally less accessible, and Buckley’s use of drink and drugs spiked. Rumoured work on a live comeback album came to an abrupt halt on June 29th 1975 when Buckley died of a heroin overdose. His son Jeff would make it all the way to 30 before his own accidental drowning in 1997.
Gram Parsons (26)
Recruited to post-David Crosby Byrds, Parsons contributed guitar, piano and vocals to the influential Sweetheart of the Rodeo album (1968). A rather toxic and often inequitable relationship with the other Byrds quickly led to Parsons’ departure from the group, and he spent the immediate period after this as a house guest of Keith Richards (which he survived). Parsons subsequently formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, before embarking on a solo career that saw him support the Rolling Stones (Parsons took up with the band during the infamous recording sessions for Exile on Main St.). Work with Emmylou Harris followed, as did Parson’s first solo album GP (1973), which garnered some critical praise with particular emphasis on Parsons’ vocals. By the time Parsons’ second solo album, Grievous Angel, was released in 1974 he had already been dead for four months – a lethal morphine and alcohol overdose ensuring he would not join the 27 Club. In a bizarre post-mortem twist, producer Phil Kaufman and another friend of Parsons subsequently abducted the latter’s corpse in order to fulfil Parsons’ wish of being cremated at a symbolic location in Joshua Tree, California. The incident was depicted in the 2003 film Grand Theft Parsons.
The Big Bopper (28)
I think we need a break from drugs. Never heard that one before.
26th August 2002 was a black day for music – it was the day Coldplay’s second album was released. Unbelievably, however, there was in fact an even darker day in the annals of music history – February 3rd 1959. The Day the Music Died claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens (17), Buddy Holly (22), and 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson. The other victim of the crash was J. P. Richardson Jr. – better known as The Big Bopper. Initially a radio DJ and hit-maker for other artists, Richardson released the Rock and Roll classic “Chantilly Lace” in 1958. A follow up record in November of 1958 also charted well, and in January the following year TBB joined Holly and Valens on the fatal tour. On the evening of February 2nd, the musicians ditched their unreliable tour bus in favour of a chartered flight to their next gig in Minnesota. Singer-songwriter Waylon Jennings was originally allocated a seat on the doomed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, but gave this up to Richardson, who was suffering with flu. Shortly after take-off in the early hours of 3rd February, in conditions of poor visibility, the plane crashed at high speed into a cornfield just outside Mason City, Iowa, killing all four on board. Twelve years later somebody wrote a song about the incident, but we won’t go in to that. No we won’t.
Nick Drake (26)
I think back with exquisite horror to a time when a former colleague asked me if I’d heard of Nick Drake, and I replied “Oh, yeah – Nick Drake and the Bad Seeds, isn’t it?” It wasn’t. The passage of time has not healed that embarrassment, but twelve years down the line I struggle to express how much I love Nick Drake. Three breathtakingly beautiful albums then over-and-out – shouldn’t that be the blueprint?
Drake released his first album, Five Leaves Left, in 1968, and shortly afterwards abandoned his studies at Cambridge. The album was met with a mixed critical reception and limited interest upon its release. The more accessible and buoyant Bryter Layter was released in 1971, packaging wistful melancholy, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) lyrics, rich strings, and Drake’s unusual array of guitar tunings. Unfortunately the album received the same limited attention, and Drake, a sensitive soul at the best of times, sank into a deep depression. A third album, Pink Moon, was released in 1972, its songs much sparser than earlier releases, featuring only vocals, guitar, and piano. The album met the same reception as its forbears, not helped by Drake’s reclusive nature and seeming unwillingness to promote his material. His depression worsened, and Drake drifted for a while, subsisting on his slim retainer fee from Island Records, before again retreating to his parents’ home, where he was found dead on 25th November 1974. Toxicology reports revealed an overdose of the anti-depressant amitriptyline, with Drake’s friends and family expressing different opinions around the intentionality of the fatal act.
Just over three decades later, the popular tome 1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die included all three of Drake’s albums. I agree with that sentiment.
Otis Redding (26)
[No, there is no embarrassing back-history to this one – I did not confuse Otis Redding with Otis Rush, nor Otis Day and the Knights for that matter.]
I think every pub jukebox in the world has (Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay on it. Good on them – I’ve probably put it on more than my fair share of times. Along with other hits like “Hard to Handle”, “Can’t Turn You Loose”, and “Try a Little Tenderness”, Redding’s ballsy, soulful preaching peppered the mid-60s with some truly great songs.
Beechcraft aeroplane? Bad weather conditions? What could possibly go wrong?
On 9th December 1967, en route to Madison, Wisconsin, Redding’s plane crashed into Lake Monona, just a few miles shy of the intended destination. His body was recovered from Monona the next day.
So there we have it. We’ve temporarily turned a blind eye to the 27 Club to look at these handful of souls who lived (or rather died) on the outskirts. Inevitably the list is not exhaustive (“What about Jimmy McCulloch?” “What about Steve Gaines?” I hear you cry). Well, recent research has proven that colobus monkeys get really disoriented when asked to remember more than five dead rock stars. I had to respect that. But it’s perhaps fitting that we instead return to, and end on a question bigger even than the 27 Club – is it better to burn out than to fade away?
James Lowery, April 2018
Post-mortem # 6: I’d like to thank the lovely Tilsworth for the opportunity to contribute to OTR. Whilst this directionless ramble may appear a little pointless, I generally try to transpose the assertion, attributed to William Morris, that nothing useless can be truly beautiful. Just need to work on the beautiful now…