When Kurt Cobain died at 27 from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, his mother, Wendy O’Connor, told reporters, “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.” She was referring, in particular, to suicide—two of Cobain’s uncles and a great uncle had killed themselves—but “the club” for some fans and rock ’n’ roll enthusiasts took on a different meaning in the context of rock history. It meant the “The 27s Club.”
Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose. Jimi Hendrix choked on drug-induced vomit. The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones drowned. Jim Morrison died under mysterious circumstances in a Paris bathtub. Robert Johnson was poisoned with strychnine. All of them died at the age of 27. The mythological status of the 27s is the subject of a new book, The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll, written and illustrated by ex-Missoulians Eric Segalstad and Josh Hunter. It’s a winding, somewhat linear history of young musicians from the late 19th century to present all told from the vantage of their deaths.
“At first we thought we would [structure it as] a single illustration and bio,” says Hunter, the illustrator. “But this larger concept loomed and that single idea unfurled to produce these layers within the story: numerology, philosophy, astrology and the many facets of music history.”
Segalstad’s storytelling shows how the paths of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and Jones intertwined. Jones, for instance, ended up with Morrison’s girlfriend at one point, creating tension. The musicians saw each other perform in small clubs, rise to the top of their fame and fall apart. Segalstad also maps out the landscape of blues’ influence on later rock ’n’ roll. Johnson didn’t overlap with Joplin’s or the Rolling Stones’ era, but certainly he made an impact on their style and, as such, Segalstad connects the 27s to each other over time.
Hunter designed the graphic novel-styled illustrations to swirl around the stories—drawings of musicians, colorfully stylized quotes and sidebars, maps, silhouettes, images of the roads and pills that killed the 27s, scraps of the suicide notes.
“The art needed to echo the writing style,” Hunter says. “The book then became this blended collage of ideas, drawings and photos that would sometimes directly illustrate Eric’s words or would tell another part of the story with iconography or symbology.”
The 27s phenomenon seems mystical, but the collaborators found something to it. While researching the book, Segalstad came across a study out of Liverpool, England that looked at Virgin Records’ top 2,000 albums of all time to discern if musicians do in fact die younger than the general population.
“And of course to anybody and everybody it’s like, ‘Yeah, duh, of course they do,’” says Segalstad. “And they did find that. But I also knew that in order to reach that conclusion they had to have a number of 27s in there.”
Segalstad tracked down the researcher, Mark Bellis, and confirmed that 27 stuck out in their data pool more than any other age for musician deaths. If you think about it, Segalstad says, there’s some sense to it. That age is about the time that many musicians have settled into a life of fame, have become reckless with drugs and perhaps think they’re immortal. But an exact number is still a little strange.
“I’m a realist, I’m not someone who really believes in kind of wishy-washy things,” says Segalstad. “It is really eerie. The number itself I find kind of eerie; it’s just one of those numbers. But of course once you start paying attention to anything you can find patterns in it.”
Segalstad and Hunter met at the Missoula People’s Market years ago, where Hunter was selling some of his art, including illustrations of some 27s. They talked about doing a 27s project but it didn’t gel until Hunter left to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. Segalstad came to visit him and, while sitting at a bar one night just blocks away from the old Chess Recording studio where many 27s recorded, they formed the idea for a book. They self-published the finished product in October under Samadhi Creations, a design company striving to integrate “art, words, design and apparel.”
Some of the 27s’ stories have had an impact on Segalstad. He talks about the tragedy of Pete Ham, the singer and songwriter for Badfinger who hung himself after bad contracts and shady management destroyed his happiness. He was 27, and years later one of his bandmates, still struck by Ham’s death, also killed himself.
But what the two really learned through creating The 27s was that 27 wasn’t even necessarily the point of the book. They found 27s who represented all rock genres, who gave perspective to their respective eras.
“Yeah, they all died at the age of 27,” says Segalstad, “but they’re all very different as artists in terms of how they handled fame, their musical style and instruments. I was thinking there has to be an arc somewhere, they have to be connected in more than just the number of years that they lived and the fact that they were musicians. It appeared to me after some research that they all really do tell the history of rock ’n’ roll.”