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Debunking the central myths of the '27 Club'

The ’27 Club’ is a strange concept. Comprised of some of the most iconic musicians of all time, rather than being centred around life, it is centred around death.

Speaking volumes of humanity’s morbid obsession with death and iconography, it is critical to establish that those who are regarded as being members of the ’27 Club’ are not in it by choice. It is safe to say that if any of them could miraculously speak from the dead, they would say that they would much rather be alive than be part of this tragic set of icons.

Human beings have an inexplicable penchant for all things mysterious and unexplained. Given that some of the most hallowed members of the ’27 Club’ passed away in suspicious or ambiguous circumstances, has given rise to many claims that there was something more nefarious at play. It seems as if the “statistical spike” in the deaths of some of our favourite musicians at the age of 27 is no accident. 

The theory was established as a loose concept in the late ’60s and early ’70s because of the number of high-profile figures who passed away aged 27. Since then, the mythology of the ’27 Club’ has become increasingly pervasive. When you heed just who died between 1969 and 1971, it is a breathtaking coincidence. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, four major heroes of the countercultural movement, all passed away owing to various complications from drug and alcohol abuse. But the mystery of their deaths has left many questions unanswered.

It was not until the tragic suicide of Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, in 1994 that the concept of the ’27 Club’ was properly cemented. Attributed to the somewhat nihilistic outlook of Generation X and the modern perspective as a perennial spectator, the idea really caught on. The premature deaths of Amy Winehouse and actor Anton Yelchin have also added to the club’s modern legacy.

Even though a study published in the British Medical Journal in December 2011 concluded that there was no increase in the risk of death for musicians at the age of 27, it still lingers on in collective consciousness. It’s as if, as humans, we almost want there to be something more wicked at play — something we cannot control. This idea accounts for the proliferation of a wide range of conspiracy theories in the internet age. 

A fascinating but flawed concept, the ’27 Club’ is something that shows no sign of fading away. A new member, Benjamin Keough, was even added in 2020. It intermittently pops up, and will continue to do so for as long as the human interest in the macabre exists, and for as long as some things remain suspiciously unresolved. However, we’ve decided to take it upon ourselves to debunk three of the club’s most notorious myths.

Without any further ado, join us as we debunk the biggest myths of the ’27 Club’.

The 3 biggest myths of the ’27 Club’ debunked:

Brian Jones

The myth: Where else to start than with the man whose death kicked it all off? Discovered motionless in his pool at his home at Cotchford Farm, Sussex, founding Rolling Stones member Brian Jones’ death was deemed to be “death by misadventure” by the coroner. It was noted that his heart and liver were heavily enlarged by his chronic drug and alcohol abuse.

Regardless of this, murder theories soon abounded after many associates of The Rolling Stones claimed to have possessed information that showed Jones was actually murdered. In 1993, it was claimed in the media that Jones was murdered by Frank Thorogood, a builder doing construction work on the property, who also happened to be the last man to see Jones alive. It is also said that Thorogood confessed to the murder to the band’s fixer, Frank Keylock, a claim he has stringently denied.

It is claimed that Thorogood is alleged to have killed Jones over a pay dispute. The story goes that he was paid £18,000 for his work on the property but demanded an extra £6,000 from the musician, which led to Jones’ death.

Getting even more conspiratorial, the killing is alleged by parts of the internet to have been covered up by senior officers in the Sussex Police force after they discovered just how badly the local constabulary had botched the investigation into the musician’s death. It was the ’60s after all, and the Police weren’t exactly angels back then.

Debunked: The very conclusive coroners report is the most potent demystifier. Additionally, in 2009 Sussex Police opened a review on the case after “new” evidence was handed to them by investigative journalist Scott Jones (no relation), who had tracked down some of the people who were there the night of Jones’ death.

Regardless, in 2010 at the conclusion of the review, the report read: “This has been thoroughly reviewed by Sussex Police’s Crime Policy and Review Branch, but there is no new evidence to suggest that the coroner’s original verdict of ‘death by misadventure’ was incorrect.”

Brian Jones (Credit: Alamy)

Kurt Cobain

The myth: On April 8th, 1994, Kurt Cobain‘s body was found in his Seattle home by electrician Gary Smith, who had arrived to install a new security system. At first, apart from a small stream of blood coming from Cobain’s ear, Smith saw no signs of trauma, that was until he saw the shotgun pointing at the singer’s chin.

A suicide note was found, and a high concentration of heroin and diazepam were found in the Nirvana singer’s system. His death was ruled as suicide by the coroner.

Given that his body was found to have been there for three days before its discovery, at many points it has been argued that skullduggery was at play. Notoriously, many of the accusations have been fired at Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love. Rumours of foul play are so deeply embedded into this story that Seattle Police Department still receives at least one weekly request to reopen the case.

Three main points have been added to the murder theory. The first is due to the “inconsistencies” in his suicide note. The second is the sheer volume of heroin in his body. The third is the fact that on April 5th, Cobain had run away from the Exodus Recovery Centre in Marina Del Rey, California.

It was initially reported that Cobain’s mother, Wendy, had filed a missing person report after his departure from the centre, claiming that the Nirvana mastermind had a shotgun and may be suicidal. However, according to P.I. Tom Grant, who had been hired by his wife Love to track him down, it was her who had actually filed the report in Wendy’s name. How odd.

Although the reasons why a woman would want to kill the father of her newborn baby remain unclear, things were ramped up again in the late ’90s when an unsavoury character, Eldon Hoke, going by the name of ‘El Duce’ claimed that Love offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt Cobain. He was soon found out to be a struggling musician looking to promote his own career, but the damage was done.

Furthermore, Hoke was found dead after being hit by a train just days after being interviewed about the late Nirvana man in 1997. This served to only fan the flames of intrigue.

Debunked: In addition to the coroner’s report, there exists ample evidence that shows Cobain’s tragic death to be a suicide. In 2014, the Seattle Police reviewed the case. Detective Mike Cieszynski combed through all of the evidence and publicly dismissed the murder theory.

In 2019, he again dismissed the rumours of murder. He said: “Did I find any earth-shattering evidence that would change the medical examiner’s conclusion that Kurt committed suicide?” Resoundingly, he added: “No. In fact, I found evidence that strengthened that finding.”

He expanded on his comments: “I located the receipt of the purchased shotgun shells from a Seattle Gun store that matched the time and location where a Seattle cab driver said he dropped off a male matching Cobain’s description after picking him up from the Cobain residence. Also, when I had questions about the positioning of the shotgun found in Cobain’s hand and the location of the spent shell casing, I interviewed an experienced weapons armourer who explained the dynamics of what had likely occurred.”

Furthermore, Cieszynski spoke to the detective’s who investigated at the time and they said Love had been nothing but cooperative. Additionally, Cobain’s family confirmed that his suicide note was in his writing and not written by somebody else. When you combine these points with the bipolar disorder Cobain suffered, where it was said that suicide was always a factor, the rumours dissipate. Case closed, Columbo.

Kurt Cobain (Credit: Alamy)

Robert Johnson

The myth: Robert Johnson was one of the first members of the club before it even existed. Let that sink in. A man whose life is coated in mystery and featuring a deal with the devil, it can be no surprise that Johnson’s death was equally as mysterious.

He died in 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi, of unknown causes. Given he was an African-American who lived in the Deep South during the era of Jim Crow, his death was not reported publicly. He had all but disappeared from history, until 30 years later, when Gayle Dean Wardlow, a Mississippi-based musicologist researching his life, found his death certificate.

The certificate only listed the date and location. No official cause of death was recorded, and no formal autopsy was undertaken. Many medical professionals have claimed that congenital syphilis contributed to his death. But due to the lack of records on his life, many rumours abound.

One claims that Johnson was murdered by a local man who was jealous that the musician had flirted with his wife. It is said this occurred at a local dance, and that Johnson was given a bottle of alcohol containing the poison that killed him by the man’s wife. He is reported to have begun feeling ill shortly after ingesting the drink.

To add weight to the theory, local musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick once claimed to have tracked down the murderer and to have even obtained a confession from him, but he declined to reveal the man’s name.

Different types of poison have been fingered as the one that took Johnson’s life. These include naphthalene, taken from dissolved mothballs. In fact, this poison is said to have been a “common way of poisoning people in the rural South”. This is certainly the most opaque of the myths.

Debunked: Although there has never been a definitive cause established as to why Johnson died prematurely, there are plenty of accounts that dispel the myths. One is the possibility of Marfan syndrome which could have resulted in a painful aortic dissection, and another is, of course, the fact that syphilis may have played a key role.

Furthermore, a local registrar who worked for LeFlore County where Johnson died, conducted an investigation into his death many years later.

She wrote a note on the back of his birth certificate that reads: “I talked with the white man on whose place this negro died and I also talked with a negro woman on the place. The plantation owner said the negro man, seemingly about 26 years old, came from Tunica two or three weeks before he died to play the banjo at a negro dance given there on the plantation.”

It explained: “He stayed in the house with some of the negroes saying he wanted to pick cotton. The white man did not have a doctor for this negro as he had not worked for him. He was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the county. The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the man died of syphilis.”

This is certainly the most mysterious of the theories, but given the context, it is unsurprising, and it seems as if Johnson was not killed by poison after all.

Robert Johnson (Credit: Alamy)