Satan, Saturn, and Rock’n’Roll: The Mythology of the 27 Club

Sandra Canosa

 

When Kurt Cobain put a bullet to his head – 20 years ago, as of this past April – he scrawled a now-infamous lyric from the Neil Young song “Hey Hey, My My” in the suicide note he left behind: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” In rock music, at least, it certainly seems that way. Legends of grandeur gravitate heavily around the many famous musicians and artists who died well before their time – some from accidents on planes, cars, or motorcycles; others from the excesses of the rock-‘n’-roll-all-night-and-party-everyday lifestyle; others, like Cobain, taking their own lives, likely in a state of poor mental health.

When Kurt’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, learned of her son’s death at the age of 27 through radio news, she reportedly said, “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.” What club she meant, she didn’t exactly say; Cobain’s family had a long history of mental illness, including two great-uncles and a great-grandfather who all committed suicide. But, according to the Rolling Stone investigative report published just seven weeks after Cobain’s body was found in his Seattle home, she was referring to the club including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison – all musicians who also died at the ripe young age of 27.

The list doesn’t stop there. Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, Pete Ham of Badfinger, Pigpen McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Kristen Pfaff of Hole, Chris Bell of Big Star, and Amy Winehouse have all passed in the midst of their prime, at age 27. Some comprehensive lists span 50 names or more. It is an uncanny fact that more musicians seem to die at age 27 than at any other age – one that, since Cobain’s death in 1994, have sent conspiracy theorists reeling.

 

Of the more than 100 musicians listed under Wikipedia’s timeline of deaths in rock music who died aged 30 or younger, nearly a quarter occurred at age 27. Rates of death from drug overdose or suicide – two of the 27 Club’s leading causal factors – are, among the general population, much higher in the 45-54 year-old demographics than any other age, including teens and 20- or 30-somethings. Yet the chance of premature death, of any kind, is two to three times higher for popular musicians than it is for the general population, according to the British Medical Journal – a correlation that might be explained by the requirements of the job itself, which includes lots of travel and erratic schedules, as well as the kind of people drawn to it as a profession: the highly creative, emotional, rebellious, and young.

 

Still, other types of artists and celebrity, including actors, writers, painters, and athletes may have their share of live-fast-and-die-young tragedies, but the frequency of the 27 pattern seems to be unique to music alone. The coincidence is so eerie, and yet so compelling, that the curse of the 27 Club has become one of rock music’s best-known mythologies.

Rock ‘n’ Roll is, after all, a genre driven by obsession with the supernatural and the occult. Castigated since its earliest days as “the devil’s music” for the way it seemed to infuse teenagers with carnal lust and rebelliousness, the origins of the music are often traced back to the Mississippi Delta Blues, and to one performer in particular, Robert Johnson. Very little is known about the actual life of Johnson, an African-American singer/songwriter/guitarist whose entire discography comprises only 29 songs, but his style of playing was monumentally influential to early British blues-based rock guitarists, including Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. But for most fans, Johnson’s legend is far more important than his recordings: at a crossroads in rural Mississippi, Johnson purportedly made a Faustian pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for a tremendous talent in playing guitar. He died in 1938 under mysterious circumstances – possibly poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he’d been seeing – at age 27.

 

Is the 27 Club a curse of secular rock music, part of the crossroads bargain laid down by one of its founding members? The deaths of many of its most prominent victims have not only been sudden and tragic, but often shrouded in some kind of sinister mystery. Brian Jones drowned in his own swimming pool just a month after he’d been kicked out of the Rolling Stones; rumors of foul play have often circulated ever since. Jim Morrison was found dead in a Paris hotel bathtub, but the details of his demise are murky; 10 years later, Morrison biographer Jerry Hopkins continued to receive letters and phone calls from people who claimed to have seen Jim alive since, or who even claimed to be Jim. The controversy and speculation surrounding Cobain’s death is endless; even today, the Seattle Police Department gets requests from fans and skeptics to reopen the case. Most recently, some theorists have even tried to contend that Amy Winehouse’s fatal alcohol poisoning in 2011 was orchestrated by the secret Illuminati society.

The amount of mysterious intrigue surrounding these deaths in particular only amplifies the case for the supposed curse of 27. Yet Vedic astrologers see it a different way: our lives and personalities are, according to astrology, influenced by our physical position within the universe and by the alignment of the planets from the time we are born. Not only do the celestial spheres affect our lives at the time of our birth, but they can predict phases and patterns for decades to come. Saturn, for instance, “is connected with the educational value of pain,” according to psychological astrologer Liz Greene. “He is usually considered to be the bringer of limitation, frustration, hard work, and self-denial… By his sign and house position Saturn denotes those areas of life in which the individual is likely to feel thwarted in his self-expression, where he is most likely to be frustrated or meet with difficulties.” The presence of Saturn is most keenly felt as it nears the same position it was in when we were born, particularly as it moves through the signs of the zodiac preceding, during, and directly after a person’s birth. It takes two-and-a-half years for Saturn to move through each house, for a full cyclical orbit of 29.5 years – meaning the strength of its influence begins directly at age 27.

The internal struggles associated with these years are well-documented in astrological theory and literature, known in Sanskrit as sade-sati, or simply the Saturn Return. Could the deaths of the 50 or more artists in the 27 Club – many of them at the height of their fame and likely only just beginning to enter the peak of their creative years – be explained, at least in part, by the gas giant’s astrological pull? No doubt 27 can be a tumultuous year in anyone’s life – famous rock star or not – but such a specific and curious phenomenon of death doesn’t seem to plague the general population. Then again, most rock stars are not typical of the general population, either.

Coincidence or conspiracy, the 27 Club is surely one of pop music’s greatest and most mysterious mythologies. But whether the “club” actually exists or not is itself debatable. Instead of trying to explain this supernatural trend, we may be fulfilling the prophecy of its creation ourselves: because of the folklore and legend surrounding it, any music-affiliated person, however big or small, who dies at age 27 is much more likely to receive attention than others who die at any other age. By actively looking for examples, we create a body of evidence that suits the case itself. Call it fate, call it karma, or call it just a plain statistical error of coincidence: the 27 Club, in music and in legend, lives on.

 

 

Author Bio:
 

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s chief music critic.

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Comments

I should also like to point out that there is evidence by Tom Grant (Courtney Love's private investigator who actually has gathered a mountain of evidence of foul play) that just before his death, Kurt Cobain was about to divorce Courtney, write her out of his will and fight for the custody of Frances. His close friend and member of Hole, Kristen Pfaff, died hardly less than three months after him, and she was also about to leave Courtney and the band. Her U-Haul truck was literally packed outside and she was going to announce her departure from the band the next day, but instead she OD'd after being 6 months clean. She wasn't suicidal, and neither was Kurt, despite what Courtney says. I just thought it was interesting that just before they were about to take control and be free, they died at 27.

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