Between 1969-1971, the world lost four unrivaled musicians when Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix all died either by the hand of heroin or another substance. This coincidental phenomenon generated the name 27 Club, which chronicles the untimely death of musicians like Kurt Cobain and Robert Johnson who died at the apex of their nascent careers. These harrowing tales spotlight lives taken too soon, but the legacies they leave behind will burn forever.
Suicide (April 5, 1994)
Nirvana frontman Cobain rallied a generation with his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ anthem and ushered in a new wave of rebellious teens during the Seattle grunge era in the early ’90s. With sophomore record ‘Nevermind’ in 1991, Cobain changed the shape of the music industry and left an indelible mark on music history. His tumultuous relationships with fame, wife Courtney Love and heroin addiction culminated in his shocking suicide by self-inflicted gun wound, but over a decade later, Cobain’s still revered as one of the most gifted voices of the 20th century.
Timeless Track: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Overdose (October 4, 1970)
Hippie Joplin grew up in Texas but moved to San Francisco and joined the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in the ’60s. Despite her truncated life, she managed to record classics ‘Me and Bobby McGee‘, ‘Mercedes Benz‘, ‘Piece of My Heart‘ and four albums with her backing bands. Heavily into drugs, she went through periods of getting clean but inevitably succumbed to heroin addiction when she died at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles of a heroin overdose. Joplin paved the way for women in rock music and leaves behind her distinct blues/psychedelic rock vocals.
Timeless Track: ‘Mercedes Benz’
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Overdose (September 18, 1970)
Considered to be one of the greatest guitarists of all time, in seven years Hendrix birthed ‘Purple Haze‘, ‘Foxy Lady‘, a headlining performance at Woodstock, a cover of Dylan‘s ‘All Along the Watchtower‘, the wah-wah pedal, started the trend of rock stars smashing guitars onstage and released three albums while alive (there’s been several posthumous releases). Hendrix died a couple of weeks before Joplin in 1970 at his girlfriend’s flat in London of an alleged sleeping pill overdose, asphyxiated on vomit. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Are You Experienced‘ remains a seminal display of bluesy, distorted guitar riffs that’s been emulated by infinite musicians.
Timeless Track: ‘Foxy Lady’
Murder (August 16, 1938)
Considered to be one of the best guitarists of all time and an early purveyor of rock ‘n’ roll, Delta bluesman Johnson influenced everyone from Eric Clapton to the Stones. The details of his biography are fuzzy, but according to myth he made a deal with the devil at a crossroad in Mississippi in exchange for learning how to deftly play guitar. Known to be a ladies man, one night Johnson flirted with a married woman at a dance and allegedly the jealous husband slipped poison into a bottle of whiskey that Johnson drank. He leaves behind blues staples ‘Love in Vain‘ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’
Timeless Track: ‘Love in Vain’
Uncertain (July 3, 1971)
Through six records, iconic photographs and singles like ‘Light My Fire‘ and ‘People Are Strange,‘ the L.A-based Jim Morrison made his band the Doors a household name. A heavy drug abuser, the poet broke on through to the other side when he died in a bathtub at his apartment in Paris, but others speculate he overdosed at a Parisian club prior and then was dumped into his tub. Other theories state he died of heart failure or as his death certificate reads, “natural causes.” Since an autopsy wasn’t performed, his death remains a bit of a mystery. Ironically, three years later his girlfriend would also die of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.
Timeless Track: ‘Light My Fire’
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Car accident (December 23, 1985)
Dennes Boon formed the influential punk band Minutemen with Mike Watt in 1980. Unlike a lot of punk bands during that time, Boon didn’t employ distortion with his guitar but instead pumped up the treble. While riding in the back of a van in Arizona, the van ran off the road and the seatbeltless Boon was thrown out of the back door and killed. Through four records, Boon exemplified a new breed of punk rock and would influence paeans of punksters for decades to come. After Boon’s demise, Minutemen disbanded but Watt has since dedicated every project he’s worked on to his friend Boon.
Timeless Track: ‘Corona’
Gastrointestinal hemorrhage (March 8, 1973)
Ronald “Pigpen” McKernan was a founding member of celebrated jam band the Grateful Dead playing everything from the organ to the harmonica. Despite the druggy nature of the band, Pigpen eschewed drugs for his vice of alcohol. Years of imbibing led him to experience symptoms of biliary cirrhosis (liver disease). Shackled with the ailment, Pigpen quit touring and made his final appearance with the Dead at the Hollywood Bowl in ’72. A few months later, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California. His tombstone reads, “Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead.”
Pfaff moved from Minneapolis to Seattle when she joined Hole to record ‘Live Through This.’ Since heroin was the drug of choice in the city, it was soon after moving there that she became hooked. She entered rehab for addiction in 1993, then took a hiatus from Hole a year later to tour with her other band, Janitor Joe. The night before she was suppose to move back to Minneapolis to focus on Joe, she relapsed and died of a heroin overdose in her bathroom — two months after her close friend Cobain had died.
Zapata formed her punk group the Gits at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1986 then moved the band to Seattle in 1989 to capitalize on the fledging music scene there. Later heralded as a pioneer in female punk, Zapata and the band released one album and were on the verge of breaking out with a sophomore record when the unspeakable happened. While heading home from a bar one night, she was ambushed by an unknown man who raped and killed her. Several years after her death, the police finally caught her assailant, Jesus Mezquia. Zapata’s legacy continued when admirer Joan Jett reformed the Gits under the name Evil Stig (the Gits backwards) and held benefit concerts to raise money for her murder investigation.
Timeless Track: ‘Spear and Magic Helmet’
Drowning (July 3, 1969)
One of the founders of the most acclaimed groups of all time, Brian Jones considered himself to be the lead member of the Rolling Stones but was really a multi-instrumentalist who lent his mastering of the slide guitar, marimba and sitar to many of the group’s hit songs. Battling health issues and alienation, Jones left the band in 1969 and was replaced by Mick Taylor. An avid LSD and alcohol user, Jones had been arrested a couple of times for drug possession. Jones was found in his swimming pool having supposedly drowned because he was under the influence. The coroner pronounced it “death by misadventure,” but other reports suggest his builder murdered him.
The lead singer of Welsh group Badfinger, Pete Ham, had an early predilection for the power ballad in the early ’70s. The band generated several hits when they signed to the Beatles‘ Apple label, but eventually financial and management issues overtook Ham leaving him broke and panicked. After attempting to communicate with his “soulless bastard” of a manager, Stan Polley, to no avail, Ham hanged himself in his England home three days before his 28th birthday and abandoned a pregnant girlfriend who he couldn’t support anymore. Ham’s girlfriend gave birth to their daughter three months later.
Inspired by his own battles with depression, drug and alcohol abuse and self-mutilation, Maniac Street Preachers guitarist and songwriter Edwards wrote tortured lyrics about his life. On the day he was supposed to fly with a bandmate to the U.S., Edwards disappeared and was never seen nor heard from again (some speculate he jumped off a bridge). Not wanting to accept he was truly gone, it took Edwards’ family until 2008 to declare him deceased. MSP continued on as a trio and released the 2009 album ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ containing songs Edwards had written.
Ward started out in the band De Facto with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, both of whom would form the experimental group Mars Volta. Ward acted as a sound technician, guitarist and vocal operator and contributed many of the sounds on Volta’s first and best-selling record, ‘De-Loused in the Comatorium.’ Like other members of the group, Ward had a penchant for heroin. While touring in support of the album with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ward died of an overdose in his Los Angeles home. Ward’s death shook his bandmates so much that they all quit doing drugs.
Chris Bell contributed songwriting and guitar skills to Memphis act Big Star‘s debut record, #1 Record in 1972 before splitting with the group and going solo with his ‘I Am the Cosmos’ album. Friends with lead singer Alex Chilton, it was Bell who recruited Chilton to join the quartet that went on to release some of the most iconic songs of the ’70s. Bell was plagued with depression, used heroin and felt surpassed by Chilton, but it was an accidental car crash that claimed Bell’s life. One night when driving home from his father’s restaurant in Memphis, Bell lost control of his car, hit a pole and died instantly. His funeral was held the next day on Chilton’s birthday.
Michiganians Iggy Pop and the Stooges guided the wave of punk rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s with their self-titled debut and subsequent Fun House and Raw Power albums. The Stooges bassist, David Alexander, wrote a lot of the Stooges seminal tracks including ‘Little Doll‘ and ‘Dirt‘ but was fired from the group in 1970 because he was too drunk to play the Goose Lake International Music Fest in Michigan. Zander’s excessive drinking resulted in pancreatitis and pulmonary edema, where heavy fluid accumulated in his lungs.