Amy Winehouse was a phenomenally talented woman. Her music was dark and beautiful, pulling back the shutters of her soul for all who listened to look inside. The songs she shared with the world were haunting and full of emotion that seemed far beyond her young age.
Amy Winehouse was also a profoundly troubled soul – the closest thing our generation had to Billie Holiday. While I would like to say that I’m shocked at the news of her passing – and I am in a general sense – anyone familiar with Amy’s life and struggles can’t be entirely surprised. Addiction is a brutal monster. It’s easy to pass judgment sitting behind a computer with your fingers on the keyboard, though. I won’t be doing so.
I’ve been considering writing an article about helping someone struggling with addiction for quite some time now, but in all honesty, it doesn’t seem appropriate right now. Amy Winehouse was far more than a drug addict. Both of her albums, Frank and Back to Blackare two of my favorite albums. As I write this, no cause of death has been announced and I refuse to speculate on what that cause will be.
With Amy’s passing, she has joined the Forever 27 Club; a group of musicians who have passed away at only 27 years old of various causes. Legends, all of them and without question, in my mind at least, Amy is a legend as well. Her music earned her that legend status – not her addiction and not her death. Those who dies of drug-related causes could have been saved had their close friends or family contacted people who run drug rehab programs and sought help.
The list of those in the Forever 27 Club is surprisingly long, but there are ten musicians that will always stand out for me – talented, groundbreaking and rule breaking, these musicians made an impact on the world of music before their tragic passing; an impact that can still be felt today. Let’s remember them now.
Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson (Canned Heat)
As the singer and primary songwriter for Canned Heat, Blind Owl Wilson performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and later at Woodstock in 1969. The band’s Going Up the Countryhas long been considered Woodstock’s unofficial theme song and it was Blind Owl who performed lead vocals on the track. With a love for books on botany and ecology, Wilson was a tried and true conservationist who was never shy about sharing his opinions on the subject and often slept outside to be closer to nature. He passed away at 27 of a drug overdose. Although some say it was suicide, this has never been confirmed despite two previous suicide attempts. Regardless, Blind Owl’s contribution to music can still be felt today even though his name may not be quite as well known as some of the other names on this list.
Les Harvey (Blues Council, Cartoone, Stone the Crows)
The story of Les Harvey is especially sad when you consider his history. Asked to join seminal British band The Animals in the 60s, he chose to stay with his brother’s band The Alex Harvey Blues Band. When that band broke up, Les went on to join Blues Council; a band which met a tragic end following the 1965 tour van crash that claimed the lives of bassist James Giffen and vocalist Fraser Calder. After joining and eventually leaving Cartoone, Harvey co-founded his most successful music venture in 1969, blues outfit Stone the Crows. While performing with Stone the Crowsin 1972 at Swansea Top Rank, Les was electrocuted when he touched a live microphone with his wet hands. The microphone was not properly grounded and Harvey was killed.
Mia Zapata (The Gits)
Mia was really on her way to big things in the music industry. As vocalist for Seattle’s punk band, The Gits, Mia released two albums; 1992’s Frenching the Bully and 1993’s follow-up Enter: The Conquering Chicken (two of my favorite albums from that era in music). Mia started playing guitar at nine years old and took her inspiration from a variety of genres including jazz, blues and punk. It’s hard to imagine what the future would’ve held for Mia had she not tragically joined the Forever 27 Club at the hands of Jesus Mezquia; the Florida man who raped, brutally beat and then strangled the promising young musician as she walked from a friend’s house. Her legacy remains intact today with a movie about her life, The Gits Movie, release in 2005 and a compilation album of The Gits greatest hits (Best of The Gits) released the same year.
Kristen Pfaff (Janitor Joe, Hole)
Kristen Pfaff was a far more accomplished musician than many would believe. A classically trained pianist and cellist, Kristen taught herself to play bass after graduating university. She co-founded Minneapolis based rock band, Janitor Joe but reluctantly decided to leave the band to move to Seattle following an invitation to join Hole. While in Seattle, Pfaff joined Hole to record their legendary sophomore album Live Through This but left the band following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 to return home to Minneapolis and rejoin Janitor Joe on a permanent basis. The day she was due to leave Seattle, she passed away from an accidental opiate overdose.
Dennes ‘D. Boon’ Boon (The Reactionaries, Minutemen)
From the distinctive sound of his guitar to his penchant for writing punk anthems, D. Boon remains to this day one of the most influential punk guitarists of all time. Forming Minutemen in 1980 with childhood friend and The Reactionaries band mate Mike Watt, Boon not only contributed musically to the legacy of Minutemen but also artistically; drawing and painting artwork for Minutemen releases 3-Way Tie (For Last), Joy, Project: Mersh, The Politics of Time and The Punch Line. Boon died in 1985 as the result of a van accident in the Arizona desert. Since his death, Watt has dedicated every album he’s released, solo or otherwise, to his departed friend.
Pete Ham (The Iveys, Badfinger)
Remembered not just as a part of seminal power pop band Badfinger, Pete Ham is also remembered as the man behind the enduring power ballad, Without You which has been covered by countless bands around the world; most recently by American Idol season 10 contestant James Durbin. Often considered a pioneer in the power pop genre, Pete’s influence can still be felt in the music scene today. Committing suicide by hanging only a few days short of his 28th birthday, Ham left a note expressing frustration and anger over infighting with his band and most of the people in his life. As a tragic side note, Badfinger band mate Tom Evans also committed suicide by hanging on November 19th, 1983 at age 36.
Often considered one of the greatest guitarists music has ever seen, Robert Johnson is also believed to be the very first member of the Forever 27 Club. His influence on music is absolutely undeniable with many, many world renowned contemporary musicians citing him as an influence including (but not limited to) Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. It is often said that Keith was introduced to the music of Robert Johnson by none other than Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones who is now himself a member of the Forever 27 Club.
Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones)
Brian Jones’ influence on music is felt nowhere more strongly than in the influence he had on The Rolling Stones’ sound. His use of slide guitar and instruments such as the sitar and the marimba changed the sound of the band and changed the way many people felt about rock and roll. Although he left The Rolling Stonesin 1969, just a few short months before his death, Jones influence can still be felt in music today. His death was ruled a ‘death by misadventure’ after he was found unresponsive at the bottom of his pool by his girlfriend, but in recent years, questions have arisen about the accuracy of the ruling with some claiming Jones was murdered by a builder named Frank Thorogood (now also deceased).
What can a person even say about Jimi Hendrix. A visionary, a poet and a true legend in rock and roll. His guitar was as extension of his self. He is considered by most to be the single greatest guitarist in music and for good reason. His electrifying stage performances and his truly innovative style ensured not just his place among the greats of his time but among the greats of all time. His influence can still be felt in music today and its hard to imagine there will ever be a time when that isn’t so.
Jim Morrison (The Doors)
A singer, a poet, a film maker and a legend, Jim Morrison is remembered as one of the most charismatic frontmen in the history of music. With an IQ of a reported 149, Morrison could’ve done many things with his life, but he chose music – or perhaps music chose him. Founding The Doors in 1965 with keyboardist Ray Manzarek, it’s hard to believe that Morrison was once so crippled by stage fright he had to perform with his back to the audience. The circumstances surrounding Morrison’s death – including the actual cause of death – have long been the stuff of myth and legend with many believing he isn’t dead at all. The truth is probably much simpler than many would like to believe – The Lizard King was not a mythical creature in human form. He was a human being who passed away in Paris.
Influencing generations of female musicians from Stevie Nicks, Leonard Cohen, Jerry Garcia, Beth Hart, Pink and Florence Welch (of Florence + the Machine), Janis Joplin was a pioneer in the world of women in rock. She was tough but vulnerable with a bluesy, soulful voice few women (or men for that matter) could ever dream of replicating. Her life was tragically short, but the work she produced will carry her name for generations to come.
Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
Painfully honest with his songwriting, Kurt Cobain helped bring a whole new style of rock to the mainstream. Sloppy and angry, Nirvana changed the way a whole generation of teenagers felt about music. His influence is still obvious in mainstream music and his death continues to inspire heated debate among fans; some believing he committed suicide and some believing he was murdered. The truth may never be known.
The Forever 27 Club extends far beyond the people I’ve written about in this article. Some other notable musicians who passed away at 27 years old include:
- Alexander Bashlachev (poet, songwriter, musician)
- Bryan Ottoson (guitarist, American Head Charge)
- Cecelia (singer)
- Chris Bell (singer/songwriter, guitarist, Big Star)
- Dave Alexander (bassist, The Stooges)
- Dickie Pride (singer)
- Freaky Tah (rap artist, The Lost Boyz)
- Gary Thain (bassist, Uriah Heap and The Keef Hartley Band)
- Jacob Miller (singer, Inner Circle)
- Jeremy Michael Ward (sound manipulator/multi-instrumentalist, De Facto, The Mars Volta)
- Jesse Belvin (singer/songwriter)
- Linda Jones (singer)
- Nat Jaffe (blues musician)
- Orish Grinstead (singer, 702)
- Pete de Freitas (drummer, Echo and the Bunnymen)
- Richey James Edwards (guitarist/lyricist, Manic Street Preachers)
- Rodrigo Bueno (singer)
- Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (keyboardist/vocalist, The Grateful Dead)
- Rudy Lewis (vocalist, The Drifters)
- Sean McCabe (vocalist, Ink & Dagger)
- Stretch (rap artist)
- Valentín Elizalde (singer)
Finally, I want to take a moment to address any of you suffering from addiction or depression, whether directly or indirectly. Seek help. Many of the talented and respected musicians on this list suffered from addiction or depression. There is no shame in asking for help. It could save your life.
Some resources to help you get started:
- Addiction Help Line
- Al-Anon for Teens
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- American Council for Drug Education
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- Mental Health America
- Narcotics Anonymous
- The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse
Thank you Amy for the incredible music. It’s a horrible shame to lose a talent like yours so tragically early. Your phenomenal talent was matched only by your tragic and deep seeded demons and I hope that you have finally found the peace you were unable to find in life. You are among the company of some incredible talent and you’ve earned your place among music royalty. Rest in Peace.