Hey Jimi – An Irishman’s Diary on Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix: died 50 years ago this week
Fifty years ago this week Jimi Hendrix joined the 27 Club – that melancholy list of rock stars who died at that age.
It wasn’t known as that when Hendrix died, purportedly from an accidental overdose on September 18th, 1970, in the apartment of his girlfriend Monika Dannemann in Notting Hill, London.
Then the 27 Club had only two members, Hendrix and the former Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. Hendrix’s death had been preceded by that of Jones, who drowned in a swimming pool at Cotchford Farm in Sussex in July 1969.
The exact circumstances of both deaths remain uncertain.
Jones had been fired from The Rolling Stones the previous month. It was a high bar to be expelled from The Rolling Stones, but Jones vaulted it, alienating everybody in the band. In his autobiography published nearly 40 years after the event, Keith Richards called him a “whining son of a bitch”, and Jones’s inability to contribute as a songwriter to the band meant he was finished as a star.
Not so with Hendrix. Barely three years had elapsed from the release of his debut album, Are You Experienced, in June 1967 to his death in September 1970.
In that short time, he became an icon of the 1960s, a global superstar, all on the basis of three studio albums and a couple of unforgettable live shows which were fortunately recorded for posterity.
“His playing was effortless. There’s not one minute of his recorded career that feels like he’s working hard at it – it feels like it’s all flowing through him,” Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello concluded in Rolling Stones magazine, which listed Hendrix as the best rock guitar player of all time.
It makes his death all the more tragic. In September 1970, Hendrix was assailed by problems. His European tour had finished disastrously. He told an audience in Aarhus, Denmark, that he had “been dead a long time” and he refused to take to the stage in Germany for fear of being electrocuted in a thunderstorm.
Dannemann’s account states that she and Hendrix had gone to bed at around 6am after a party. She took one of her sleeping pills and woke around 11am. Hendrix was sleeping soundly, or so she thought. When she returned to the apartment, he was unconscious and his mouth was covered with vomit. She called an ambulance, but it was too late.
The coroner concluded that Hendrix had choked on his own vomit having overdosed on sleeping pills. There was no evidence of foul play or suicide.
Dannemann told a German newspaper that he had taken nine of her sleeping pills. Why would Hendrix do that?
Over the years Dannemann told different stories to different people, but took her secrets to the grave when she took her own life in 1996.
Hendrix’s death was followed just 16 days later by the singer Janis Joplin who died of a heroin overdose.
Jim Morrison of The Doors became the fourth member of the 27 Club when he died in mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1971.
It was two years to the day after Brian Jones died.
The notion of a macabre 27 club resurfaced when Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994. Chillingly, he had said some months before that he was never going to make 30. “You know what life is like after 30. I don’t want that.”
“He’s gone to the join the stupid club,” his mother Wendy said. It was interpreted as being about the 27 Club, but instead she was referring to the tragic history of suicide and mental illness in her own family.
The most recent member of the 27 Club is Amy Winehouse. She died after imbibing huge quantities of alcohol at her flat in London in 2011.
There are others too not commonly thought of as being part of the club, but who died at 27. The blues guitarist Robert Johnson died in 1938 before the era of rock and roll. He influenced generations of guitarists, not least Hendrix. The Manic Street Preachers singer Richey Edwards disappeared in 1995 aged 27, but was not declared dead until 2008.
Why do so many musicians die at 27? A comprehensive analysis of musicians’ deaths published in 2014 by the University of Sydney found that they don’t die at that age particularly, but there is a cluster in the late 20s. Troubled souls are attracted to music and the very pain they seek to ameliorate through music consumes them. Musicians in their late 20s, who have enjoyed success in their early 20s, often struggle for inspiration, with other people’s expectations and with relentless touring.
Athletes peak physically at 27. “Maybe that’s the point in your life [aged 27] when you’re going as hard as you can, maybe you’ve been caning it for a few years and that’s when it falls asunder,” the Irish singer Jack L once told The Irish Times.
The University of Sydney study found the median age (the most common age) of musicians who died was 53 and their life expectancy was 20 years less than the general population.
Being a musician is a vocation. It should also carry a health warning.