Entertainment

The 27 Club theory debunked as death dates of musos studied more deeply


For music fans, the second half of September 1970 was a bastard of a time. First came the news that Jimi Hendrix had died, then, barely a fortnight later, the young queen of blues, Janis Joplin, followed suit.

A similar sense of despair suffused the air these past few weeks, during which at least five famous musos have met their end. Scott Weiland, from Stone Temple Pilots, John Bradbury from The Specials, Australia's own Stevie Wright, Lemmy from Motorhead, and singer Natalie Cole (daughter of Nat King Cole), whether through illness or misadventure, all passed away.

In September 1970, the news came that Jimi Hendrix had died. Barely a fortnight later, the young queen of blues, Janis ...
In September 1970, the news came that Jimi Hendrix had died. Barely a fortnight later, the young queen of blues, Janis Joplin, followed suit. Photo: Supplied

The loss of any talented artist brings an emotional wrench, because that person embodies aspects of each mourner's cultural experience. A musician's death, however, seems to evoke a particularly strong response.

"I think it has something to do with the passing of great talent," said Dianna Kenny, professor of psychology and music at the University of Sydney. "I think it's generally true across most cultures that we do have a lot of respect for those with talent," Kenny said.

Amy Winehouse was 27 when she died in 2011.
Amy Winehouse was 27 when she died in 2011.  Photo: Tom Oxley

"Musical talent actually speaks to the populace – unlike someone who is a gifted philosopher or a gifted mathematician, who speaks mainly to a particular audience. Music appeals to everybody. I think the outpouring of grief is commensurate with the sense of loss of identity."

Of the most recent batch of deaths, the oldest was hard rocker Lemmy, who had just turned 70 and was, technically at least, a pensioner. The youngest was Weiland at 48. Is there any truth to the idea that musos, more than the rest of us, are apt to die before their time?

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Kenny is pretty much the world's leading authority on the demographics of death among musicians, and the answer, it turns out, is yes.

Mind you, it's an answer that depends to a certain extent on the type of music involved. Rap and hiphop performers tend to die violently far more often than the general population.

Singer Natalie Cole died on New Year's Eve, according to her publicist Maureen O'Connor. She was 65.
Singer Natalie Cole died on New Year's Eve, according to her publicist Maureen O'Connor. She was 65.  Photo: Martial Trezzini

Jazz players, on the other hand, are far less likely to be murdered than the rest of us. (Your reporter used to run The Basement jazz club in Sydney. He finds this statistic surprising.)

Last year Kenny published the results of a long and detailed analysis which looked at 13,000 US musicians who died between 1950 and 2014, and compared their ages and cause and death to the broader American population.

She found that overall musicians were significantly more likely to die young – or at least, younger - than the rest of us. She discovered too that, perhaps unsurprisingly, young pop stars were more likely to die than older ones, and that death stalked the newly famous more successfully than it did seasoned veterans.

Correlating causes of death to musical genre produced results that in some cases seem almost predictable.

Punk and metal musicians, for instance, both record deaths through accidents at a rate well above the population average. This seems to accord well with the popular image of raucous rock stars rampaging around doing risky things while off their brains on a mixture of substances.

Perhaps surprisingly though, Kenny found that heavy metal musicians had a suicide rate of 36 per cent -- well above their performing colleagues, and three times higher than the present 12 per cent US average. At the other end of the scale, the suicide rate for gospel singers was less than one per cent.

Blues and jazz players, at least since their genres lost the rebellious counter-cultural appeal they enjoyed in the middle of the last century, are generally not well known for trashing hotel rooms and driving cars into swimming pools.

It is not altogether unexpected, therefore, to discover that players in both genres enjoy rates of accidental death well below that of the general population. The relationship between music and fatality is a complex thing, however, and being risk averse does not predispose the 12-bar guitarists and abstract sax-honkers to lives of nonagenarian grace.

Along with their folkie confederates, blues and jazz players fall prey to life-ending non-communicable diseases, particularly cancer and heart problems, at rates much higher than other musicians.

In part this is because they tend to hang around long enough to develop such late-onset problems, in sharp distinction to, say, hiphop performers. An astounding 50 per cent of the about 150 hiphop performers included in Kenny's study were murdered.

However, making it as far as the second half of life's game isn't the only reason why roots musicians fall ill. The cliched depiction of performers as fond of chemical assistance, late night booze and even later night burgers turns out not to be too far from the reality.

"The musicians who die younger don't live long enough to contract the diseases of old age," she said. "So these [jazz and blues] musicians survive into relative old age. But it is relative. Lemmy dying at 70 would still be considered today a premature death. Other aspects may have something to do with lifestyle.

"People are often given causes of death that are proximal to the time of death. So if you drop dead of a heart attack, the cause of death will be cardiac arrest – but that may well have been due to chronic substance abuse, chronic alcoholism, obesity, all of those things."

Mysteries remain in the fine details of Kenny's research. Why for instance do country musicians, who spend their time performing in rural and regional venues full of drunk men carrying revolvers, experience the lowest murder rate of all genres?

Over all, however, the study's findings are unambiguous. "Results showed that popular musicians have shortened life expectancy compared with comparable general populations," Kenny's report concluded. "Overall mortality rates were twice as high compared with the population when averaged over the whole age range."

The findings throw up a raft of tricky questions, not the least of which concerns whether parents have a responsibility to encourage their children away from a life on the stage and towards something a lot safer, if a hell of lot more boring, such as accountancy, or bus driving.

"Questions like that assume that parents have ultimate control over the decisions that their offspring make," said Kenny.

"Obviously one would prefer one's children to do certain things and not to do others. But I think it would be a big mistake to say that everyone who enters the popular music culture is going to die a horrible early death.

"However, I think parents, and the community at large, and the entertainment industry do need to be aware that being a member of the popular music community is a risk factor for high morbidity and early mortality."

The "27 Club" is bunkum

One of the most enduring myths about music and death concerns the idea that the age of 27 is especially hazardous for performers.

Amy Winehouse was 27 when she died in 2011. So were Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison. Indeed, if you start the count in 1892 with the death of pianist Alexandre Levy, 50 recording artists have died at that age.

The apparent spooky coincidence, however, starts to disintegrate when you discover that, at least according to Wikipedia, since the passing of Ms Winehouse, only three more 27-year-old musos have added to the tally, none of them (with due respect) household names.

Professor Kenny's rigorous analysis of age and death of 13,000 musicians revealed that keeling over at 27 isn't anything special at all.

"I found that in terms of sheer numbers there were equal numbers who died at 26 and 28, and slightly more who died at 32," she said.

"The median age of death was 56. Form a statistical perspective, 27 is no more probable for the age of early death of musicians than almost any other number."

The concept of the "27 Club", she said, grew out of the star status of Hendrix, Winehouse and the rest of what she termed the "big six". After all, if the best known dead 27-year-old musicians were instead Mia Zapata, lead singer of a band called The Gits, who died in 1993, and Slada Guduras, the Bosnian pop singer who died in 2014, it would still be a club with 50 members, but very few fans.