There’s somewhere I envision myself. There’s somewhere we all envision ourselves. There’s a dream, a goal, a life we all want. Whether it’s the fantasies of our childhood or the compromised alternatives to reality we’ve had to settle for instead. We want to create, contribute to, or invent and most of us work our whole lives to get there. But what if, by 27, none of that mattered. When I imagine racing against a clock towards an age I’m so unsure of – and all the years before that I’m unsure of too – I’m not sure I could make something worthy of my life. So how did it feel for the members of the 27 Club? We’ll never know because before they could sing or be sung ‘Happy Birthday’ for their 28th year, they were gone.
By now, many have heard of the 27 Club, whether as fans of any of its more notable members (Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones) or because of the resurgence in popularity of the death of Amy Winehouse in 2011. If you haven’t heard of the “27 Club” (a.k.a “Club 27” and “Forever 27 Club”), it is a list of popular musicians, artists or actors that have died at age twenty seven, often as a result of drug and alcohol abuse, or violent means such as homicide, suicide, or transportation-related accidents. Within its extensive list of “members”, the majority is comprised of singers and musicians which are the main keynote that has sparked the idea of there possibly being more to these deaths than just mere coincidence.
The club is quite the popular phenomenon in the creative industry. Life is going great, you’re essentially in your prime, you’re ahead of a curve that most can’t even find themselves on but tragically life engraves a period to an unfinished sentence of what you had left to give. I first heard about the club from a friend of mine who was obsessed with Kurt Cobain. Unfortunately for him, his obsession spiraled into mimicry and these days I honestly can’t imagine him turning 28 either.
There’s something tempting about being remembered as a legend without living to see it happen. However, most of us are conditioned to expect and crave, praises with ‘likes’, ‘follows’ and ‘retweets’. Our generation wants to see the digital footprint of their life’s work and be appreciated for it.
These days there’s a wave – and I think it’s appropriate to call it as such – because we are in a generation, in a time where we now have the resources for our voices to be heard, for our crafts to be seen. We’re in a wave of young creative minds, blossoming and giving life to so many new perspectives, visionary inventions to fuel any imagination. In this age, we all at least try to give every little man a stage to stand on but what good is the stage if the lights have to go out. Who wouldn’t be afraid of such a curse that strips their life down to a predetermined end that could never change and have no guarantee of a fulfilled life by then? As with all creatives, there are those tortured souls and those who lean towards self-deprecating muses to fuel their imagination. Is having one life to live an excuse to tire me out? Will I always feel so pressed for time for the things I want to savour? Maybe 27 is not a tragic end but a necessary release.
Many have taken their swings at trying to comprehend and describe this phenomenon, from the club being a satanic pact, numerology and even astrology – claiming that when Saturn returns to the exact position it had once been at the time of your birth (usually between 27-29), it acts as a sort of catalyst for major life changes, possibly good or horrid and that being a tortured, creative soul, battling the stress of fame and drug addictions, propelled caused their deaths by the time planet had made its cycle.
The most intriguing theory, for me, is that these deaths, despite being coincidences, are of a psycho-developmental nature.
German-born psychologist Erik Erikson created the eight stages of psychosocial development, which covers age ranges from birth to 65 and older:
- Hope: trust vs. mistrust (0-2 years)
- Will: autonomy vs. shame and doubt (2-4 years)
- Purpose: initiative vs. guilt (4-5 years)
- Competence: industry vs. inferiority (5-12 years)
- Fidelity: identity vs. role confusion (13-19 years)
- Love: intimacy vs. isolation (20-39 years)
- Care: generativity vs. stagnation (40-64 years)
- Wisdom: ego integrity vs. despair (64 years – death)
According to Erikson, the psychosocial crisis of the love stage is intimacy versus isolation, and the basic questions a person in this stage asks himself or herself are “Can I Love?”, “Shall I share my life with someone or live alone?” and “Am I loved or wanted?”
For a person passing through this potentially turbulent, emotional stage who, in this case, has financial access to self-destructive lifestyles and habits, an early death from a drug overdose, alcoholism, accident, reckless living that leads to health issues, suicide, etc., is a possibility.
Creative people, including musicians, singers, artists and even comedians, often hide their dark sides. It is said that it is from their pain and depression that they are able to create beautiful works of art and music and can move an audience to tearful, and awe-inspiring bliss. These artists, as are many of us trying to leave our own unique marks, are trying to answer the question of “Who am I?”. I often ponder “Who am I to this world?”, “Who does the world see in the legacy I leave behind?” I believe we are all constantly trying to establish and maintain several identities including sexual, social and occupational. Thus, Erikson’s theory can explain that those who are unable to successfully answer the questions of identity during this stage may experience feelings of inadequacy and despair, which can eventually lead to depression. I think there are many of us who harbour an inner struggle to identify ourselves.
On 28 August 2009, Winehouse experienced her divorce being finalized, which she never wanted. In 2010, after deciding to quit drugs, she lapsed and found comfort in a bottle instead. Despite being an especially honest person in many ways, she was always shrewd about her inner life. Observing Amy as we have, there was a sense that she might’ve been sick of her career. She had become a prisoner of her image.
Kurt Cobain killed himself. Simple. He always believed he would die at an early age, stating “sometimes you just can’t save someone from themselves” and “in some ways, you kind of prepare yourself emotionally for that to be a reality”. He did it suddenly with self-inflicted violence leaving evidence of his state of mind from the note was found, addressed to his childhood imaginary friend Boddah, saying he had not “felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing […] for too many years now”.
For me, I’m more worried about if I’ll succumb to pressure of creating something great or get lost in the noise of everyone’s opinion of what I should be doing with my life instead. I have many fears and uncertainties about the words I write and the stories, constantly trying to find a place to settle into and feel a sense of belonging. My pen is my greatest weapon and I do sometimes consider it my own demise. Many creatives are now abandoning all “conventional” lifestyles to pave their own way, trying to fulfill a notion that their art is worth pursuing and worth protecting. For some, that is better said than done. For others “any means necessary” is their only hope. Whatever age that takes us to is, I believe, not entirely up to us. We’re cogs in a bigger machine and if we’ve learned anything about how everyday life evolves, we know that many things become obsolete.
Whether you think it’s bad timing or fate, Erikson’s theory trumps most theories as it gives a believable, humane perspective that lends itself to understanding the artists and possibly others around us. Our shared trait is our humanity and for many of the personalities in this “27 Club”, there were these types of issues, in addition to their other troubles in life, (as do many of us) making it plausible that people could lose themselves — even their very lives — during what Erikson’s theory considers a crucial, sensitive stage in life.