What do Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse have in common? They were all celebrated, genre-defining musicians, and they all kicked the bucket early at age 27. But as Mr. Cobain sang in 1993’s Rape Me, they’re not the only ones. In fact, so many musicians have died at this age that fans and critics refer to it as joining “The 27 Club”. What killed them? Drugs, car accidents, depression, Mexican drug cartels — you name it. The rock n’ roll lifestyle is a notoriously risky one, but if you can just make it to age 28, you may be in the clear.
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The pioneering guitar virtuoso was found unresponsive in his girlfriend’s apartment and rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The coroner determined Hendrix asphyxiated on his own vomit (a fate later suffered by Led Zeppelin drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham) after overdosing on barbiturates. He was 27 years old at the time of his death.
Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones)
What exactly is “death by misadventure“? That’s what troubled so many people about the death of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones. He was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool, and an autopsy revealed years of drug and alcohol abuse had severely enlarged his heart and liver. The coroner’s report called it a “death by misadventure”, meaning death caused by engaging in a dangerous activity. A controversy soon erupted, as many found Jones’ death suspicious and theorized that he was murdered. One investigative journalist, Scott Jones, went so far as to accuse local police of covering up the crime. However, Sussex Police reexamined the case in 2009 and concluded “there is no new evidence to suggest that the coroner’s original verdict of ‘death by misadventure’ was incorrect.”
Mia Zapata (The Gits)
The Gits were an influential punk band active in the Seattle music scene in the early 90’s. Frontwoman Mia Zapata’s poignant lyrics and fiery vocals earned the band a dedicated cult following. Among their fans were members of Seattle’s musical elite: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Heart to name a few. On July 7th, 1993, Zapata was walking the streets of Seattle when Jesus Mezquia, a repeat offender with a history of violence against women, beat and sexually assaulted her before strangling her to death. Though it took authorities a decade to do it, they finally identified Mezquia as her killer in 2003. The following year, he was sentenced to 37 years in prison.
Janis Joplin epitomized the free spirit of the 60’s. But like so many of her contemporaries, the line between harmless fun and dangerous addiction proved too difficult to walk. Just sixteen days after the death of Jimi Hendrix, she overdosed on heroin in a Hollywood hotel room. Her body was discovered by John Cooke, the manager for Joplin’s back-up band. Cooke speculated Joplin’s dealer sold her unusually potent heroin, as several of his clients also died that same week.
Jim Morrison (The Doors)
The iconic frontman for The Doors was found dead in the bathtub of the Paris apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Pamela Courson. No autopsy was performed, leading many to question the circumstances surrounding his death. Courson reportedly claimed Morrison snorted heroin, believing it was cocaine (a tragic mistake immortalized in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction).
Some say wandering bluesman Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil. In exchange for his soul, Johnson would be gifted a breathtaking mastery of the blues. So far, the Prince of Darkness has neither confirmed nor denied this theory. Where Johnson learned to pluck, stomp, and sing with seemingly supernatural skill may never be known. A few grainy photographs and secondhand accounts are the only materials we have to reconstruct the legendary musician’s life. We do know that he died on August 16th, 1938. Speculation about the circumstances of his death abound, with several accounts claiming Johnson was deliberately poisoned.
Pete Ham (Badfinger)
Pete Ham was a founding member of British power pop band Badfinger. In 1975, the band hit a rough patch and Ham became severely despondent. He began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness, such as burning his hands and arms with cigarette butts. He hung himself in his garage on the morning of April 24th, effectively dissolving Badfinger.
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (The Grateful Dead)
McKernan was the founding member of The Grateful Dead, but much like Brian Jones, took a backseat to the band’s other members. His talents always shone through, however, and he is remembered by Dead Heads for his numerous contributions to the band. In 1973, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, which may have been the result of chronic alcohol abuse.