America is intrigued by rockers who die in the crush of the hard-partying rocker lifestyle.
In particular, there’s a fascination with the infamous “27 Club” — the coincidental age of death of some of rock’s most influential and creative artists.
But that intrigue has become distorted. These musicians aren’t heroes, they never were. In fact, they never really grew up, never matured, never had to battle through the down times that so many other musicians have faced in their careers.
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When a cherished artist dies prematurely, they simply never have to face the music. To treat them as martyrs after the fact is a distortion of logic.
A Long Legacy
The 27 Club and its legend stretch well back into the 20th century: More than 75 years ago, Robert Johnson died at that age. At the time, he was considered the Godfather of American Blues. But the phenomenon is more of a modern development, especially with the easier access to powerful illegal drugs.
Brian Jones was the founding member of The Rolling Stones, but his bad habits led him to being kicked out of the band. He later drowned in his swimming pool — at age 27 — on July 3, 1969. Two years later to the day, Jim Morrison died in Paris. In between, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both died, along with “Blind Owl” Wilson, lead singer of the popular band Canned Heat.
Twenty-five years later, Kurt Cobain, the most influential musician in rock at the time, died of suicide at age 27 after struggling with addiction for years. Another 27-year-old was inducted into the club in 2011 when Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning, which was made worse by a heavy drug habit. A new documentary on Winehouse — simply titled “Amy” — is a difficult watch, a reminder of the hopelessness and inevitable doom that characterized the singer.
The pressure to succeed is inordinate and unfair for many musicians who have already achieved great success, and it hasn’t let up for years.
From the time Hendrix and Joplin were feeling the weight of never being good enough, to now, when Taylor Swift and Adele are expected to carry an entire industry, the urgency of reinventing themselves has always pushed artists to the brink. By their late 20s, young and popular musicians are often three or four major albums into a career, so it makes sense that some have folded under the pressure.
Neil Young once wrote that it’s “better to burn out than fade away,” and judging by how fans and critics view musicians, this contains a kernel of truth. While artists like U2, The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Madonna or Metallica — who tour at any time in the biggest arenas and stadiums in the world — are an exception to the rule, other bands and musicians are not so lucky.
Most bands, even major critical successes, find themselves slipping off the charts as fads and tastes change. Every midsized local amphitheater brings in a summer haul of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s tours. A band like Herman’s Hermits hits every car show in the Midwest and manages to keep steady work without feeling the pressure to reinvent themselves along the way. But they were once Beatles famous, with the screaming girls and all.
Many of these circuit groups are well paid, having surpassed the successes of 99 percent of all musical acts, but there’s snark among certain fans and media that somehow this is a failure worse than death. In the age of social media, it’s even worse: Everyone has an opinion on performers who have to return to the county-fair circuit, or play clubs again. Everyone wants to take a jab at a singer who hasn’t had a hit since the time she crushed it in 1995, even if the hit is still entertaining karaoke enthusiasts 20 years later.
Much of the ridicule is based on the erroneous myths we believe about singers who remain forever young. Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and Cobain died at their career peaks, leaving behind only their prime material. It creates a false belief that things would have only gotten better. It’s easy to romanticize the prematurely dead rock star.
We don’t know whether Hendrix would have released an awful bluegrass record, or if Cobain would have added electronic drums and an orchestra to his records when his sales started slipping. KISS, on the other hand, hung around long enough to make that disco record. So we judge.
Idol worship is a dangerous pastime. Hendrix is considered the greatest guitarist in history, but even he expressed his belief at the time that compliments were a distraction and that musicianship wasn’t a competitive event. That his legacy has attracted such a massive cult following is no small irony. The same is true for Joplin, Morrison and Cobain.
Today’s tendencies toward hero-worship are even worse. Artists who die in connection to their craft are considered martyrs. Amy is revered as a tortured soul who fought a brave battle and lost. The truth of the matter is that we just don’t know.
Scott Weiland, 48, lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots, died this week, and many fans saw it coming.
He gave us great music, and in doing so, his drug habit was accepted as a necessary evil. His example should serve as a reminder to us, though, that people change over time, and this is a part of life. Had he died at age 27, he might have been hailed as a hero, too. We wouldn’t have seen the downward spiral that he experienced over the past 20 years. It’s likely many 27 Club members would have followed the same demise.
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The effect: We’ve made the sacrifice of our young stars a cultural norm. When we as a culture worship at the altar of music, it seems natural and necessary that some of our artists eventually die there, too.
As modern artists battle technology, studios, and picky audiences that find music increasingly disposable, it’s more important than ever that levelheaded musicians step forth to restore sanity to our cultural fixation with drug-addicted musicians.
Artists like Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen and Dave Grohl all have the heft to say what needs to be said. They should speak up and help dispel the worship of the dead and the drugged.
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It would save lives and keep the creative lamp lit.