Some of the reporting on the death of English jazz and soul singer Amy Winehouse noted that in dying, she became a member of the “27 Club.” That is, like fellow musicians Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Ms. Winehouse died at age 27, apparently due in part to the excesses of the popular music lifestyle.
While Ms. Winehouse and the others may have died at the tender age of 27, there is nothing magical about that number. Sadly, thousands upon thousands have died in their 20s or early 30s from substance abuse or accidents related to being under the influence.
A more appropriate way to classify such deaths is to place that early exit in the context of life expectancy. Dying at 27 means missing roughly two-thirds of the years a healthy person living in the Western Hemisphere can expect. Dying young because of an unavoidable car crash or disease is tragic enough. Bringing on that death by abusing drugs is tragic and wasteful.
Ms. Winehouse’s mother said she was not surprised her daughter died young. As a parent, she suffered seeing her daughter achieve musical success, yet only dull its joys and mask her talent beneath a haze of drugs and alcohol.
The excesses of the 1960s, among musicians and others, was puzzling to parents not familiar with that era’s drugs of choice — both their allure and their danger. But in recent decades, people are better able to identify substance abuse and addiction.
And there are so many options for ending addiction not available when Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison succumbed. Whether the victim is a creative person, those who care about them would do well to intervene.
And it is a myth that creativity and substance abuse go hand in hand. The hard-drinking writing giants of the mid-20th century such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac died before their time, while more temperate writers, such as John Updike and Saul Bellow, lived to old age and continued writing.
Just think what guitar innovator Jimi Hendrix might have done in his 30s and 40s. Or the songs Kurt Cobain would have written when he outgrew the limits of Nirvana’s distortion-wracked sound. Some survivors, such as Bob Dylan, have had creative renaissances in their 60s. And those who have not surpassed early success, such as Pete Townsend of The Who, have reinvented their peak creations for the stage.
The old saying, “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” may ensure a public immortality, but it misses the two-thirds of life that are arguably the sweetest.