Howard Sounes' '27' Has That Train Wreck Kind of Appeal

This is an exhaustive, if exhausting analysis of the debauchery and bad decisions that link the most famous members of the "27 Club".

27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse

Publisher: Da Capo
Length: 360 pages
Author: Howard Sounes
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11

“You’re drinking with number three,” Jim Morrison allegedly declared, equal parts sardonic and prescient, following the successive deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in 1970. As it happened, he was correct. In less than a year these superstars were gone, all at the age of 27.

For his new book, 27, Howard Sounes researched the number of musicians who’ve actually died at 27 and discovered the total was 50. But the list of famous, or infamous cases comprising the so-called “27 Club” is much shorter, six to be exact. They are, in chronological order, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

What ties these six artists together, aside from their obvious ages and occupations, is the fact that some measure of controversy dogs each death, and Sounes sets out to examine the various coincidences and conflicting stories, seeing what they all add up to.

Conclusion: not much. Despite the considerable talent, promise and tragedy we can attribute to each of these artists, they all serve as cautionary tales of excess, poor judgment and wasted potential. In the cases of Morrison and Hendrix, enough material was recorded to ensure a definitive legacy; with Cobain and Winehouse we are left wondering how many years, even decades, of genius they forfeited.

In the cases of Jones and, to a lesser extent Joplin, they seemed hell-bent on self-destruction, and might well have viewed death as a refuge of sorts. And while Joplin arguably did her best work at the end, Jones had ceased to contribute much of anything, and was a bloated, neurotic mess long before his ill-advised midnight swim.

Sounes constructs mini-biographies of each musician, making Winehouse, who receives quite a bit more attention and time, the centerpiece. The author admits that he has more personal interest in Winehouse, particularly as a fellow Londoner, and it was presumably much easier to find family and friends to speak with. For the four who died between 1969 and 1971, he relies on myriad sources, and his bibliography is impressive, if intimidating. Make no mistake, Sounes did heavy lifting to make this book as authoritative as possible.

If you are already familiar with these musicians, there are not a ton of new or especially interesting insights to be found. On the other hand, if you want exhaustive, at times exhausting detail regarding their collective debauchery, 27 may have that kind of perverse train wreck appeal.

Interestingly, or not, while Winehouse gets more than twice as much ink as the others, much of it is spent in the service of depressingly redundant recollections of her binges and outbursts. Not unlike with Joplin, Jones and Morrison, one comes away wondering not why they died so young, but how they managed to live as long as they did.

Indeed, Sounes betrays a soft spot for Winehouse, at times acting like a priest or psychiatrist, where he is mostly content to dismiss Morrison and Jones as burned out buffoons. In the latter’s case, there weren’t too many people willing to say many nice things: Jones comes off as a petulant, abusive bully, a man-child who might have ended up in jail or in a ditch if not for his musical skills and fortuitous association with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Morrison, on the other hand, warrants more nuance and empathy than Sounes is capable of conjuring. True, the Lizard King was, by most accounts, all too often a braying, inebriated ass. On the other hand, there are plenty of friends and acquaintances who describe him as the proverbial Jekyll and Hyde: when not drunk, he was capable of humor, kindness and generosity. And he was also capable of ethereal brilliance; lost on Sounes are the ways Morrison channeled his vices into unique and affecting visions. A simple assessment of his material dealing with alcohol reveals a trifecta of masterful songs that also work as poetry: “Roadhouse Blues”, “End of the Night” and especially what might rank as rock music’s finest meditation on the irresistible pull of drink, “The Crystal Ship”.

Like Hendrix, Joplin simply seemed to get caught up in the chaos that accompanies life in the spotlight; unlike Hendrix, she had deep-rooted insecurities and a profound self-loathing (like Cobain and Winehouse) that led her to seek solace from miscellaneous chemicals. Hendrix is the only one who seems relatively well-adjusted and mostly in control of his faculties throughout. He enjoyed the party because he could, but he took his life, and his music, very seriously. More, he harbored no apparent desire to harm or annihilate himself, so his death still seems a genuine misadventure, a freak incident that still stings to this day.

Sounes helpfully demolishes any/all conspiracy theories, ranging from the familiar (Morrison lives!) to the far-fetched (Hendrix was murdered), and while we’ll never know exactly what happened to Jones and Joplin, the drugs found in their systems combined with the backstory of their final months in this earthly form leave little to the imagination.

27 also serves as a corrective of sorts for the half-assed mythologizing, particularly of Morrison and Cobain, both of whom have, for a variety of understandable if facile reasons, been posthumously anointed as voices of their generation. Both Cobain and Morrison had upbringings that left them ill-prepared for adulthood, much less celebrity. But there was no shortage of self-indulgence as well, and while anyone with a heart can feel genuine empathy, the record leaves no question these men were surrounded by concerned support systems, and wealth, that might have made a difference.

In a fascinating twist, just about all the maligned parents obtain an odd, non-rock and roll vindication, courtesy of their offspring. In the cases of Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison, all were estranged from their parents, all of whom ended up wealthy beneficiaries of careers they never approved of, but perhaps unintentionally did much to inspire.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.