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The 27 Club

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From Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain, Stylist investigates the live fast, die young stars who have all succumbed to rock's mysterious 27th birthday curse...

September 2010 marked 40 years since rock star Jimi Hendrix left a chilling message on a friend's answering machine. "I need help bad, man" he gasped. But by the time this distress signal was picked up hours later, Hendrix was dead.

The extraordinarily talented musician famed for hits like Purple Haze and Hey Jo, who reinvented the electric guitar was played, was found dead in his girlfriend's west London flat, having chocked on his own vomit (the doctor at the scene later said he had "drowned in a massive amount of red wine"). IN doing so, Hendrix unwittingly became a member of the '27 Club' - a cabal of influential musicians who all tragically passed away at the same untimely age.

The roll call of this infamous club read like a morbid rock 'n' roll Hall Of Fame. Hard-living blues singer Janis Joplin - the lone female of the pack - died in Los Angeles of a heroin overdose just weeks after Hendrix. Rewind and one of the inaugural members of the 27 Club was Thirties bluesman Robert Johnson - who dies after drinking poisoned whiskey.

The there was Rolling Stones rebel guitarist Brian Jones, who drowned in his swimming pool in July 1969, and The Doors singer Jim Morrison, who was found dead in the bath in 1971. Twenty-five years later, on 5 April 1994, famously troubled Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain committed suicide at his home in Seattle. Twenty-seven years young, each and every one.

"I told him not to join that stupid club," said Cobain's distraught mother, Wendy O'Connor at the time of her son's death. But, by now, that 'stupid club' was gaining notoriety.

On 1 February 1995, Richey Edwards, 27-year-old guitarist with Welsh band Manic Street Preachers and a known self harmer, walked out of London's Embassy Club at 7am, never to be seen again. His Vauxhall Cavalier was found at a service station near to notorious suicide spot, the Severn Bridge, three weeks later. So is this spate of deaths at the age of 27 just a dark coincidence or is there something more sinister at play?

There is some scientific evidence to suggest that turning 27 can mark a turbulent time for people, with the brain going through some bizarre transformations at that age. "The prefrontal cortex of the brain [the part involved with judgement] does not finish developing until people are 25-27," say neuroscientist and psychiatrist Dr Daniel G Amen, author of the book Magnificent Mind At Any Age. "In your 20s, a process called 'myelination' occurs, where nerve cells become wrapped by myelin to provide insulation. If you disrupt this process, with drink or drugs, you're going to be more vulnerable to depression and compulsive actions."

"Rock stars spend a lot of time inside as they can't go out and be recognised," adds Amen. "This causes low vitamin D levels, which makes them more vulnerable to depression. If you have a confluence of all this, combined with drink/drugs, then trouble can brew."

You don't have to be a hedonistic musician to appreciate that 27 is a strange age. You're teetering on the edge of a weird, no-(wo)man's land between responsibility-free youth and scary adulthood. Your metabolism slows, hangovers start to viciously kick-in and, all around you, friends are settling down, getting mortgages, creeping up the career ladder and having babies.

All of which has given rise to the modern malaise that is the 'quarter-life crisis'. Damian Barr, author of Get It Together: A Guide To Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis, says, "Your mid to late 20s are competitive. You've got to get certain goals on top of each other - a job, house, marriage. With rock stars, they can have all this, but still be unsure about what it all means. They're just as susceptible to quarter-life crisis as everybody else."

Dr Amen agrees: "When we think of Hendrix or Cobain, they'd both had a lot of fame and excitement by the time they were 27. But after a while, everyday pleasures such as holding your partner's hand, or playing with the dog, don't work anymore because their brains have been over-stimulated and pleasure centres have burnt out. Therefore, they need increasingly high levels of pleasure in order to feel anything at all, such as drugs." Or, as Barr puts it, "a hedonism escalator".

There have been plenty of celebrities that have only just missed out on joining the 27 Club too. White Stripes' frontman, Jack White was relieved at "making it through the year of rock 'n' roll death" after suffering a car crash with then-girlfriend Renée Zellweger on his 28th birthday in 2003. Russell Brand, the most hedonistic of comedians, hit the pits of drug despair in his 27th year in 2002, and hasn't touched them since.

Even stars from the more traditionally clean world of pop have had personal crises at 27. It was the age when Cliff Richard found Christianity, Kylie started warbling murder ballads with fellow Australian singer Nick Cave, and when Britney finally cleaned up her act. According to her unofficial biographer Ian Halperin, she "feared dying at 27."

Could the 27 Club be nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy? Kurt Cobain (who signed off his suicide note saying "it's better to burn out than to fade away") always predicted he would die young, having bragged in high school, "I want to be rich and famous and kill myself like Jimi Hendrix." Indeed, various studies have sown that suicides increase with media attention - it's the reason why London Underground refrains from revealing information about people killing themselves on the network.

"The mythology of these self-destructive icons resonates with younger people," says occupational psychologist Kate Keenan.

There is a theory - admittedly a little out there - that the 27 Club has little to do with quarter-life angst or copying others, but has actually been written in the stars all along... "I believe many rock deaths happen at 27 because this is the Saturn Return age," says Marion Williamson, editor of astrology magazine Prediction. "It takes Saturn 27 to 39 years to return to the same part of your birth chart it occupied when you were born. It's when you question whether you're in the right job or relationship. It can bring on feelings of isolation, heavy burdens and stress. For creative types, Saturn can be seen as a wet blanket - you get writer's block, find it hard to communicate, feel flat. It's not an inspiring time for artists." Faced with this turmoil, artists may chose to lose themselves in hard living.

Of course, the 27 Club myth could be just that - a myth. After all, there have been plenty of stars that have perished tragically young, but not at 27 - James Dean (24), River Phoenix (23), Sid Vicious (21) and Tupac (25). Furthermore, a 2007 Liverpool John Moors University study found the average age rock stars meet their maker is 42.

It's worth noting that had Cobain et al dies in a more mundane fashion, they wouldn't be mythologised in the same way - we like our rock stars to be as outlandish in death as they were in life. Keenan provides a voice of reason: "Many rock stars find they can't keep living life on the edge at this transitional age. It's just a weird coincidence - nothing more." Here's hoping the waiting list for 27 Club membership is now closed.

Update, 24 July 2011: Sadly, that was not the case, and Amy Winehouse became the latest member of the 27 Club when she died in 2011. See our tribute to the singer with her life in pictures here.

Words: Christian Koch. Pictures credits (1-4: Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix): Rex Features.

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