“I want my rockstars DEAD!” screamed the late comedian and social satirist Bill Hicks in a particularly memorable segment of his stand-up show Relentless in 1991.
Similarly, U2’s Bono, at the height of the Irish mega band’s early ’90s ironic phase, quipped that: “if you give a pop star a shit pile of dough and he refuses to self-destruct, I think it is a bit wet. I think it’s part of the deal. If they don’t die on a cross by 33, I’d ask for your money back.”
Though both statements – particularly the latter from Bono – appear to have been said for effect, and are heavily dipped in humour and/or irony, they both seem to touch on something that is much more concrete and truthful.
Put simply, dead rockstars are cooler, more exotic and more interesting to many of us than those that are still alive and growing old gracefully (or ungracefully). Human beings, it seems, are a morbidly curious species whom are fascinated by tales of death, destruction, debauchery or just plain tragedy. Of course, it is true of political, artistic and Hollywood figures, but nowhere is it more resonant than in the realm of rock music.
‘Live fast, die young’
The mantra ‘Live fast, die young’, though first popularly linked to the life of Hollywood actor James Dean, has become much more synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, and of excess leading to an early grave.
The list of rock casualties is near endless, with some very high profiles ones and many more besides, and they have been listed endlessly elsewhere. But what Bono was hinting at sarcastically in 1993 has somewhat sadly become true: we almost expect our rockstars to fall into an early grave; as a sign of authenticity of what many of us have come to expect them to be, and to do.
Even more specifically, there has been a particularly ghoulish obsession with the so-called ’27 club’- well regarded musicians who all eerily passed at the age of 27. This dubious club includes, amongst others, blues legend Robert Johnson, Jim Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, D. Boon, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain.
Cobain’s mother Wendy Fradenburg Cobain O’Connor commented in the Aberdeen, Washington newspaper The Daily World at the time of his 1994 death that her son had “gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.” The comments were widely interpreted to have been made in reference to the 27 club, but there is a possibility she was referring to the suicides of Cobain’s uncles.
So notorious has the 27 club become in rock history that many cynics have suggested not only Cobain but British jazz singer Amy Whitehouse almost deliberately self-destructed and died at the age of 27, presumably in the hope of being compared to and remembered as fervently as the famous alumni. This contention seems not only far fetched, but cruel and disrespectful to the complex and increasingly traumatic lives both stars found themselves leading.