Probably from the moment the first human took their first breath, we as a race have had a morbid fascination with death. In general, we fear death, and with good reason. We have no idea what lies on the other side. Death is, as a famous sea captain once said, “the greatest adventure,” but it really is one the vast majority of us would like to procrastinate on for as long as possible. Still, we all know it is out there, waiting for us to buy a ticket and go for the final ride.
And while we don’t like to think about death (well, sometimes we like to think about it) we do it pretty often. We also look for sense in death, which is a foolish thing to do since there is no calculation that will clue you into all of this stuff. We look for connections or correlations, and when we find something, anything, that can make us feel like we understand the unknown, we feel a little better. That’s where ideas like the 27 Club come from– that an unusual amount of celebrities, mainly musicians, have died at the way too young age of 27.
The 27 Club is one of the oldest cultural memes around, creating a dramatic through-line in the early deaths of celebrities. It seems like admission to the club isn’t hard to get–be famous and die when you’re 27 years-old– and once you’re a member, you’re a member for the remaining history of mankind. Here, sadly, are fifteen members of the dreaded 27 Club…
15. Kristen Pfaff
Kristen Pfaff was always a musician. As a young girl, she studied classical piano and cello, and later in her life, she taught herself to play bass. In 1992, Pfaff was living in Minneapolis when she formed a band with friends Matt Entsminger and Joachim Breuer. The band, Janitor Joe, released a number of singles over the course of a year and gained a following.
While on a national tour with Janitor Joe, Pfaff met Courtney Love and was offered the opportunity to join Hole. Reluctant at first, Pfaff finally agreed and became the band’s bassist. Pfaff moved from Minneapolis to Seattle and joined Love and the band in recording their hit album Live Through This. Pfaff became close with Courtney and her husband, Kurt Cobain. That friendship led to Pfaff becoming addicted to heroin.
In February 1994, Pfaff realized that she had a serious problem and returned to Minneapolis to enter a detox center. After getting clean, Pfaff returned to Seattle to pack up the rest of her belongings. On June 16, 1994, Pfaff was found dead of a heroin overdose in her Seattle apartment.
14. Jim Morrison
Chances are, if you got into the Doors at any point in your life, it was when you were in middle school or your freshman year of high school. The band, which was together for just eight years, put out nine albums, three of them after the lead singer, Jim Morrison had died in France.
Morrison wasn’t just the front man for The Doors; he was the embodiment of rock and roll standing on stage shirtless with his leather pants, long hair, half closed eyes, and deep voice that made rather simple lyrics sound like the greatest poetry ever produced. The success went to Morrison’s head and he dove deep into drugs and drinking. By the release of the third Doors album, Morrison didn’t look like the rock and roll god anymore. He had grown a beard and gave up the leather pants for something more comfortable. He also started wearing shirts on stage due to a good bit of weight gain.
13. Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat first came to prominence in the 1970s when he was a part of SAMO©, a graffiti duo that worked in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1978, Basquiat got a job designing shirts for Unique Clothing and shortly after he and his SAMO© partner, Al Diaz, decided to go their separate ways. In 1981, Basquiat had his first one-man show at the Annina Nosei. His neo-expressionist paintings were a huge hit and the man who was homeless not four years earlier was suddenly making $25,000 a painting.
Basquiat became friends with another famous New York artist, Andy Warhol, and also grew to love heroin– something quite a few of the members of the 27 Club had problems with. When Warhol died in 1987, Basquiat, who used to walk the streets of New York in paint-splattered Armani suits, became more reclusive. On August 12, 1988, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at his art studio on Great Jones Street in Manhattan.
12. Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson has many claims to fame. With just 29 recorded songs, he is still one of the most important musicians ever. In 2003, Rolling Stone named him the 5th greatest guitarist of all time, and with good reason– Johnson’s music has influenced nearly every great musician that followed him, including Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, and Mick Jagger.
Johnson also had a legend that grew around him, one that he helped create with his songs “Cross Road Blues” and “Hellhound on My Tail.” As the story goes, Johnson was living on a plantation in Mississippi, wishing that he could be a great guitar player. One night, he took his guitar to a crossroad at midnight where he found the Devil waiting for him. The Devil made Johnson a great musician and in return, Johnson gave Satan his soul.
On August 16, 1938, the Devil came to collect and Robert Johnson died. As with his life, Johnson’s death is shrouded in mystery– no one is sure what caused his death, though many believe he was poisoned by a rival, and no one knows where he was buried.
11. Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain did something only a handful of people can claim: he changed music forever. Maybe the Seattle grunge sound would have become a huge thing in the 90’s without Cobain, but that isn’t how history went. With the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, seemingly overnight, what was cool in music changed. Music videos for hair metal bands quickly vanished from MTV, and in their place were dirty-looking guys with long hair, ripped jeans, and flannel shirts. The guitar riffs were messy, and the vocals were hard to understand, but the power of the music was undeniable.
Even before he became one of the biggest stars in the world, Cobain was a troubled guy. He was dealing with a serious heroin addiction and had never even considered becoming famous. The fame messed with him and, sadly, Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994, just three years after the release of Nevermind.
10. Jimi Hendrix
At Horace Mann Elementary School, the school social worker noticed that one boy liked to walk the halls carrying a broom as if it were a guitar. She watched the boy for the better part of a year, and whenever she saw him, that broom was in his hands. It was, it seemed to the social worker, a shield that the boy used to protect himself from the world around him. This was the first time anyone realized that Jimi Hendrix wanted to play guitar.
Sadly, the school couldn’t afford a guitar, and Hendrix’s father refused to buy the boy one. For years, Jimi mimed playing guitar, dreaming of the day he could actually have one. When he was 15, Jimi finally got a guitar– he bought it himself for $5, went home, and started to practice. He listened to the greats, including Robert Johnson, and soon learned his first song, the theme to the TV series Peter Gunn. This would be the start of an amazing musical career.
9. Janis Joplin
Growing up in Texas, Janis Joplin didn’t fit in with the cool kids. She found friendship with the outcasts– kids who didn’t follow the norms. Through them, Janis learned about blues artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, but it was Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, who really stood out to her.
Joplin could sing like no one else, and she used her gift to belt out the blues. The other kids at school made fun of her for her weight and her acne, giving her music more power– after all, to really sing the blues, you need to feel blue. The first chance she got, Janis left Texas for San Francisco.
In San Francisco, Janis found others like her. For the first time, she felt like she was home. She also discovered drugs, including heroin. Through the drinking and drugs, Janis would record four albums and become one of the biggest female recording stars of the 1960’s. On October 4, 1970, heroin got the better of Janis. Her fourth and final album, Pearl, was released three months later.
8. Jonathan Brandis
Jonathan Brandis started his career before most of us could read. At four, he started appearing in TV commercials, and when he was six he took on the role of Kevin Buchanan on the soap opera One Life to Live. Brandis followed up his time on the soap with guest appearances on some of the biggest TV shows of the time, including L.A. Law, Who’s the Boss?, and The Wonder Years.
When he was fourteen, Brandis starred in The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter and played the young Bill Denbrough for the TV miniseries version of Stephen King‘s It, acting alongside Tim Curry and Seth Green. When he was seventeen, Brandis joined the cast of SeaQuest DSV and became a teen idol.
After three seasons, SeaQuest DSV was canceled, and while Brandis didn’t have much trouble finding work, the work he got wasn’t very good. As the 1990’s became the 2000’s, Brandis lost his status as a teen idol and the roles started drying up. On November 11, 2003, depressed over his career, Jonathan Brandis took his own life.
7. Mia Zapata
Mia Zapata was playing guitar and piano by the time she was nine. Influenced by both the blues and punk, she was never going to be someone who just went along with the flow. In college, along with Joe Spleen, Matt Dresdner, and Steve Moriarty, Mia formed The Gits. After college, the band members moved from Ohio to Seattle where they quickly gained a following. With Mia as the singer, the Grits were seen as the female response to other bands that were gaining attention in Seattle at the time, namely Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
The first Gits album, Frenching the Bully, was critically-acclaimed, and a successful international tour set them up for serious fame as they recorded their second album, Enter: The Conquering Chicken.
On July 7, 1993, Zapata left the Comet Tavern in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle and headed home. She would never arrive. Zapata’s body was discovered in the street; she had been beaten, raped and strangled. Her ID was missing, but the medical examiner knew her– he was a fan of the Gits.
6. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan
Ron McKernan grew up in a house that loved music and taught himself blues piano, guitar, and harmonica. When he was 14, he met Jerry Garcia.
Ron and Jerry started playing together at coffee houses, and Ron, who wasn’t the cleanest guy around, picked up the nickname “Pigpen.” More friends joined in on Ron and Jerry’s music and in time they formed a band. They went through a number of names over the first few years but finally landed on the Grateful Dead. As the band moved towards the more jam-centered style that they became famous for, Ron’s role shrank.
Along with a serious drinking habit, Ron was diagnosed with biliary cirrhosis, a rare autoimmune disease. As his health deteriorated, Ron was unable to play shows. Ron played his final show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. After the show, Ron cut off all contact with the band, not wanting them to watch him slowly die from his illness. On March 8, 1973, Ron suffered a gastrointestinal hemorrhage and died in his home.
5. Brian Jones
In May of 1962, having just left a band called The Roosters and living alone in London, Brian Jones took out an ad in Jazz News looking for new people to play with. In time, he received responses from Ian Stewart and Mick Jagger. Mick asked if his childhood pal Keith Richards could join in, and the Rolling Stones were formed. Jones named the band, taking it from the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone Blues.”
Even at the start of the Rolling Stones, Jones didn’t really fit with the rest of the group. As they gained popularity and started touring, Jones traveled separately and stayed in a different hotel from everyone else. While this was his choice, Jones still felt alienated and turned to booze and drugs. In 1969, as the band prepared for a US tour, Jones was arrested on drug charges. Because of the arrest, he was unable to get a visa to enter the US. Jones was kicked out of the band.
4. Anton Yelchin
When he was just eleven, Anton Yelchin made his film debut in A Man Is Mostly Water. It was obvious from that film, which few people saw, that Yelchin was destined to be famous. Six years later, he would star in Alpha Dog alongside Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, and Amanda Seyfried. While the movie wasn’t loved by critics, Yelchin’s performance gained widespread praise. Yelchin would follow up Alpha Dog by starring in Charlie Bartlett with Robert Downey Jr. then move onto the biggest role of his career, Pavel Chekov in Star Trek.
To look at Yelchin’s filmography, you would think the man never slept. He appeared in 38 movies and TV shows from 2009 to 2017, including three Star Trek films, and the critically acclaimed Green Room.
In an event that can only be described as an immense tragedy, Anton Yelchin was found dead on June 19, 2016. His car, a Jeep Grand Cherokee had rolled down his driveway and pinned him against a brick wall. The model of his jeep had just been recalled due to a transmission error that tended to make the car’s brakes fail.
3. Leslie Harvey
Leslie Harvey may be the only member of the 27 Club who became more famous because of his death…
The Scottish musician first gained notice as a member of the Blues Council, a band that released one album before their vocalist and bassist died in a car accident. After Blues Council, Leslie joined Cartoone on a US tour where they opened for Led Zeppelin.
In 1969, Leslie and his brother Alex formed Stone the Crows. In 1972, the band was playing at Swansea Top Rank. It had rained earlier in the day, but the crowd was good to go when Stone the Crows took the stage. Leslie walked onto the stage, stepping through the little puddles of rain water that had gathered on the platform, and went to take hold of the mic. As Leslie touched the microphone, electricity shot through his body. It would later be discovered that the mic had not been earth-grounded, but it was too late for Leslie.
2. Richey Edwards
Richey Edwards wasn’t much of a musician. When he started with the Manic Street Preachers, he was just their roadie and driver, but his charisma and writing talent were too much to be denied and he became the fourth member. In early shows, he had to fake playing guitar. Edwards became a music legend when, during an interview, he took out a razor and carved “4 Real” into his arm after being asked if he was serious about his art. Edwards didn’t just lightly cut into himself, either– he needed eighteen stitches.
On February 1, 1995, Edwards was supposed to fly to the US for a promotional tour but he never arrived at the airport. Authorities would find that for two weeks leading up to the trip, Edwards had been taking $200 out of his bank account every day. In the weeks after his disappearance, he was spotted a few times by fans, and on February 14, his car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge, a popular suicide spot in Wales. While some claim that Edwards faked his death because he didn’t want to live a life of fame, he was declared dead in November 2008.
1. Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse was well on her way to becoming one of the biggest musical stars in modern history. Her first album, Frank, received rave reviews and hit number 13 on the UK Albums Chart in January 2004. Her follow-up, Back to Black, won five Grammy Awards and was certified as Triple Platinum, selling over a million copies.
On Back to Black, the singer/songwriter had a massive hit with the song “Rehab,” which seemed to be about her own struggles with alcohol and drugs. While Winehouse was able to get off drugs, the alcohol would be harder for her to kick. On 23 July 2011, Winehouse’s bodyguard tried to wake the singer at 3 PM, but she was unresponsive. Ambulances arrived and Winehouse was pronounced dead at the scene. The coroner report stated that Winehouse’s blood alcohol content was more than five times the legal drink-drive limit.
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