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The 27 Club: A Brief History

From Robert Johnson to Anton Yelchin, 20 stars who died at 27

Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain 27 club

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The 27 Club has become one of the most elusive and remarkably tragic coincidences in rock & roll history. The term became widely known after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, with rock fans connecting his age to that of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix – though it was notable to fans in the early 1970s when those four visionaries died within just two years of each other. When Amy Winehouse passed away at age 27 in 2011, it attracted even more attention to the significance of the age. While the club has been largely connected to musicians, it has expanded since, as many young actors and artists have lost their lives due to everything from addiction to suicide to freak accidents. Here are some of the unfortunate and untimely losses connected to the club.

From Rolling Stone US

Chris Bell

Chris Bell's career was as tragic as his demise. The talented musician (left) was the driving force behind power pop heroes Big Star, co-writing much of #1 Record with singer Alex Chilton and playing the guitar. Upon release, however – even though critics praised the music and especially Chilton, who had fronted the popular Box Tops as a teenager – the album flopped. In the six years following its release, Bell quit Big Star, slinked lower into his clinical depression and drug addiction and later had to work at his family's restaurant after more failed attempts to re-launch his career. In December 1978, Bell crashed his Triumph TR-7 sports car into a pole while he drove home from band rehearsal, killing him instantly. Much of his solo work was released posthumously, reminding many of his significance in crafting Big Star's sound.

D. Boon

With the Minutemen, singer-guitarist D. Boon (left) helped expand punk and hardcore's vernaculars to include funk, jazz and improv while playing faster than a locomotive. And along with labelmates Black Flag, the Southern California foursome helped define the scene's D.I.Y. ethos in the Eighties. They put out four full-lengths – including the monumental double-LP Double Nickels on the Dime – as well as several singles and EPs throughout the early Eighties. They attracted some famous fans along the way, notably Michael Stipe who invited them to open for R.E.M on a three-week North American tour. A few days after they returned from the tour in December 1985, Boon grew ill with a fever. He nevertheless chose to visit his girlfriend's parents in Arizona for the holidays and decided to lie down in the back of the band's van so he could rest as she drove. On the way, she fell asleep at the wheel and, as the van flipped, the frontman flew out its back door, broke his neck and died. "That was the worst," bandmate Mike Watt said in the book Our Band Could Be Your Life. "No more of him. No more Minutemen…. I miss him."

Jean-Michel Basquiat

The year Jean-Michel Basquiat turned 20, he became an art-world celebrity on the path to a pop-culture turning point. After dropping out of high school, the self-taught, Brooklyn-born, neo-expressionist artist spent the late Seventies painting graffiti around SoHo, tagged "SAMO," and in 1980, he allowed his paintings – which featured colorful, jagged renditions of people often juxtaposed with words – to be featured in a group show. In the years that followed, he collaborated with Andy Warhol on a series of paintings, dated Madonna, appeared in Blondie's "Rapture" video and cultivated the myth of the temperamental artist, destroying some paintings and pouring dried fruit and nuts on the head of an art dealer. Along the way, he developed a serious drug problem. In the months leading up to his death in 1988 of "acute mixed drug intoxication" – namely opioids and cocaine – he claimed to be shooting a hundred bags of heroin a day. He's since become one of the most celebrated artists of the past three decades, having been the subject of a biopic and uncountable references in Jay Z songs.

Mia Zapata

As the lead singer of the Gits, Mia Zapata was a punk force and the foremost female voice in Seattle’s burgeoning, male-dominated grunge scene. The band’s debut album Frenching the Bully made them local favorites, but as they prepared their sophomore release, Zapata was brutally beaten, raped and strangled to death in July of 1993. Grunge luminaries like Nirvana and Pearl Jam helped raise thousands of dollars to hire a private investigator to look for her murderer, who was not found and convicted until 2003. In the aftermath, her friends launched Home Alive, a self-defense organization, and hosted a series of benefit concerts and released compilations featuring an assortment of Seattle-based bands. Zapata’s friends in 7 Year Bitch paid tribute to her with their 1994 album ¡Viva Zapata! while Joan Jett would go on to tour with the Gits under the name Evil Stig (which is Gits Live backwards) to benefit the investigation for her murderer as well as pay tribute to their friend.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain's body was discovered by an electrician on Friday, April 8th, 1994. The answer to the question posed by the authors of Who Killed Kurt Cobain? is simple: Kurt Cobain killed himself. He did so with sudden, self-inflicted violence, leaving written evidence of his state of mind. Kurt's substance abuse counselor remembered how worried the musician had been about losing his home in a lawsuit: "Suicidal people tend to want to make a statement," Nial Stimson said. "I just kind of felt he killed himself in his house [as if to say], "You're not going to take my house, no matter what. . .'"

Kristen Pfaff

One of the mourners at Kurt's Seattle memorial was Kristen Pfaff, a member of Courtney Love's band, Hole, and a former girlfriend of fellow member Eric Erlandson. Two months after Kurt's death, in 1994, Pfaff died of a heroin overdose in the bath at her Seattle apartment, just like Jim Morrison. She was also 27, the third member of the Seattle music community to die at that age within a year.

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Randy “Stretch” Walker

At the height of his popularity, Tupac Shakur’s power was such that a person could become famous simply by existing in his direct vicinity. That may be how Randy “Stretch” Walker rose to prominence, but he possessed far too much raw talent to be written off as another hanger-on. A skilled producer and strong rapper in his own right, Stretch was a regular guest on Pac’s studio records after a run with his own group, Live Squad. Whether behind the boards or on the mic, Stretch exuded the original-gangsta authenticity that sold records during the ‘90s. That same realness eventually made him the target of a November 1995 assassination in Queens – less than a year before Tupac himself would be fatally shot. Now, they’re both clinking glasses of O.E. in the kingdom.

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Jeremy Michael Ward

When Jeremy Michael Ward was found dead of a heroin overdose in his L.A. home in May 2003, it was less than a month before the debut album of his band, the Mars Volta, was set to be released. Despite De-Loused at the Comatorium being the band’s first LP, it was one of the most hotly anticipated records of the year: At the Drive-In founding members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala had disbanded the El Paso post-hardcore outfit in 2001, just as they were cresting into mainstream fame, abandoning their place as the next Rage Against the Machine in favor of weirder pastures. They teamed up with childhood friend and longtime collaborator Ward, who, as the band’s “sound manipulator,” was able to realize their left-field ideas. De-Loused was a Rick-Rubin produced prog-punk opera set in the mind of a drug-induced coma patient, which semi-factually told the story of their friend Julio Venegas, an artist who had leapt to his death off a Texas freeway overpass in 1996. But despite Ward’s rambunctious demeanor and avant-garde talent, when performing with the band, he sat off stage, manipulating the music with an elaborate pedal setup and a Korg Kaoss pad. After his death, the band continued to release albums, though none would equal the success of the first.

Jonathan Brandis

Jonathan Brandis’ 2003 suicide is a dark reflection of the too-frequent downfall of former child stars. Brandis began acting at age six, holding down bit parts in soap operas and sitcoms before graduating to films like Stephen King’s It. But it wasn’t until 1993, at the age of 17, when he got his big break in the popular series SeaQuest DSV. He became an instant heartthrob, receiving thousands of fan letters and causing levels of public pandemonium that neared Beatlemania. But the show was cancelled in 1996, and Brandis struggled to maintain his fame and career. In 2002, he was set to appear in Hart’s War starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell – a film he saw as his opportunity for a comeback – but all of his scenes were cut. A year later, he hanged himself in his Los Angeles apartment and later died at Cedars-Sinai Hospital.

Amy Winehouse

What Amy’s state of mind was when she took her last gulps of vodka at home in London in July 2011 is impossible to know. She had said there were things she still wanted to do with her life, but she seemed unable to take action. Despite being a remarkably honest and open person in many respects, she had always been cagey about her inner life. Observing Amy as we have, there is a strong sense that she was sick of her career. Like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, she had become a prisoner of her image. And, as with Janis Joplin, her man was glaringly absent at the end. So were other people Amy had depended upon and, in many cases, exhausted.

Anton Yelchin

Anton Yelchin did a lot of work in his 27 years – from 2011 to 2015 alone, he appeared in 18 films, not including various voiceover gigs – and yet not nearly enough. A sensitive actor with a penchant for visionary auteurs such as Jim Jarmusch, Drake Doremus, and Jeremy Saulnier, his best years had barely begun when he died in a freak accident, pinned against a brick pillar by his own car. But he leaves behind a versatile, stellar filmography jumping from blockbusters (he made for an excitable Chekov in the Star Trek reboots) to horror homage (he was the spine of 2011’s Fright Night remake) to small-scale romance (he courted Felicity Jones in Like Crazy). There’s no telling what he could’ve done, but now, all we can do is be grateful for what we’ve got.Entries 2-7, 9, 14, 15 and 19 adapted from 27: A History of the 27 Club through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse by Howard Sounes. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.