If Howard Sounes’ 27: A History Of The 27 Club covers a subject that might seem uncomfortable or even a bit morbid to some, the author can at least be forgiven for doing so in a mostly even-handed, and tasteful manner.
The book title takes its cue from the mythology – and in particular the famous quote from Kurt Cobain’s mother following his 1994 suicide, about how “he’s gone and joined that stupid club” – surrounding those rock stars who died prematurely at the age of 27.
Although the “27 Club” boasts a membership numbering about 50 – you’ll find a complete list of them in the back of this book – Sounes focuses on what he calls “the big six”: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Cobain, and Amy Winehouse.
As the most recent casualty to join this fraternity of tragedy, it’s not surprising that Winehouse gets the lions share of the attention here. This book was first published as Amy, 27: Amy Winehouse and the 27 Club in Europe, and originally conceived as an unauthorized biography on the talented, but troubled singer. Of all those profiled, Winehouse is also given the most sympathetic treatment here. But in examining her story, the author also found those unique dots connecting her with the rest of rock’s tragic 27s, along with all the mystery, mythology and conspiracy surrounding them.
To his credit, Sounes treats his subjects with respect, mostly avoiding the more sensational and ghoulish stories that have already been done to death elsewhere. The common threads he finds among them in death are also the obvious ones you’d expect. The drug and alcohol abuse that factored in all six deaths was already a matter of public record anyway. In recounting their final days, Sounes neither sugarcoats or unnecessarily embellishes these basic facts.
Sounes maintains this objective approach, as he ravels through their often messy, post-mortem financial affairs. Not surprisingly, the 27s died mostly broke (despite their extravagant lifestyles), and the really big posthumous money to be made in the wake of the legends they left behind, resulted in some truly legendary legal battles.
In detailing the family history of Winehouse – the subject Sounes seems to be closest to – his account reads more fairly than some of the others. Mitch Winehouse is evenly cast as a loving and concerned father committed to preserving his daughter’s legacy, as well as the occasionally questionable businessman who has most benefited from it.
Where this otherwise straight-forward narrative falters, is when Sounes crosses over into a pop-psychology analysis that tries too hard to connect these tragic deaths to the shared trauma of a broken childhood. The argument is a convincing one in the cases of Morrison, Cobain and Joplin, all of whom either had daddy issues or displayed early signs of social alienation. Conversely, though Hendrix and Winehouse may have come from broken families, the evidence given seems to point towards a mostly supportive home environment.
Here, the author positions himself as a debunker. In deconstructing the many myths about Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Sounes correctly points out that a lot of those lingering questions can be traced back to the initial actions taken by their girlfriends. As the only eyewitnesses to the scene of the crime, each of them seemed just as concerned with protecting themselves from drug charges, as in saving their dead rock star boyfriends. Conspiracy theories surrounding Kurt Cobain’s suicide are likewise dispelled here with relative ease, and the rumors that Morrison may have faked his own death are barely addressed at all.
But in dismissing the rumors surrounding the death of Brian Jones, Sounes is far less convincing. The official verdict of Jones’ accidental drowning by misadventure has always been one of rock’s greatest mysteries. It has been the subject of numerous books and even a movie (Stoned) that all raise legitimate questions about just what really happened. At least one of these accounts includes an apparent deathbed confession that says Jones was murdered.
In making his own case, Sounes relies primarily on the original police reports, which come from the same department whose handling of the Rolling Stones infamous 1967 Redlands drug bust has historically been viewed with suspicion, if not outright complicity. Any outside possibility of another explanation, even from credible sources, is never really seriously considered.
Howard Sounes’ 27: A History Of The 27 Club is an entertaining, breezy read and an often fascinating addition to the wealth of material already out there on these famous rock star deaths. But it might have been better served if the author applied the same investigative objectivity he otherwise maintains throughout the book, to the Brian Jones story.
He might have even discovered something new.