British singer Amy Winehouse poses for photographs after being interviewed by The Associated Press at a studio in north London on Feb. 16, 2007. (AP Photo, Matt Dunham)
When Amy Winehouse was found dead in her home in 2011, surrounded by three empty bottles of vodka, she became the latest inductee into the 27 Club, the macabre nickname given to famous musicians who died at age 27.
In his new book, 27: A History of the 27 Club (Da Capo Press, out Friday), author Howard Sounes, who wrote Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney biographies, delves into the lives of the "Big Six" - Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones - sewing the common threads they share in life and death. Conspiracy theories and mystical explanations have been floated for years: Wife Courtney Love hired someone to kill Cobain, the Mafia murdered Jones, astrological influences ordained that they'd all die at 27. But Sounes dismisses such hypotheses as "rubbish."
What Sounes depicts is a darker reality that weds the "Big Six." "That all of them die at 27 is pure coincidence," says Sounes, whose book identifies 50 musicians who died at that age. "But you'll find that all six had strikingly difficult childhoods. They'd all been doing drugs since they were teens, and most of them showed signs of personality disorders from when they were very young. When fame came, it came fast."
While Cobain was the only member of the six to literally pull the trigger and end his life, the rest of them had been playing Russian roulette for years. "They all had a death wish. Jones suffered from bipolar disorder, as did Joplin. They'd overdosed, been warned that they were putting their lives in danger, but they kept going," Sounes says. "Both Morrison and Cobain were obsessed with suicide, and Winehouse was into self-harming, which is closely linked to suicide and self-destruction."
None had supportive romantic partners. "Not only were their partners weak, but dishonest. The artists were surrounded by the worst kind of people, usually other drug users," Sounes says. "Morrison's girlfriend Pamela Courson lied to the police to cover up her own drug abuse."
Improbable schemes offer fans a more palatable explanation for the deaths of the six. "When you give your money for an artist's music, or go to support them at concerts, it's an act of love," says Sounes. "When that artist dies, that contract is broken. It's hard to accept that tougher truth."