It was very romantic. In March of 1971, infamously hard-drinking and hard-drugging frontman for The Doors, Jim Morrison, went to live with his girlfriend in her Paris apartment. He took long walks by himself in the most romantic city on Earth. He surveyed the haunts that Arthur Rimbaud, his poetic idol, had frequented, and went to see the poet’s grave. He gazed out at the Seine and thought about what it would be like to be no one. But then, three months after his arrival in the city, his girlfriend found him dead in the bathtub. She said it was a heroin overdose. The official cause of death was apparently heart failure.
Morrison is one of the members of The 27 Club. Doubtless you’ve heard of it? These are the famous musicians who died at age 27. Among others, they include Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones’ guitarist), Amy Winehouse, and the great bluesman Robert Johnson. Why did they die at age 27? One acquaintance I was talking to recently said both Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix were carrying white lighters. Somehow I don’t think that has anything to do with it. Whatever your conspiracy theory or superstition is, when it comes to The 27 Club, there’s one obvious thread connecting all of the members. They all used and abused drugs and alcohol. The abuse led to their death.
Musicians as addicts
There’s something insidiously self-fulfilling about being a musician who drinks and does drugs. The image of the messed-up rocker is a stereotype. Many kids get into music knowing this full well. Yet they end up being an alcoholic or drug addict or both, safely stepping in to the role. If you’re a musician, it’s cool to be a rebel, and rebels don’t care if society says you’re not supposed to be dependent on substances. Drugs and alcohol are a part of the image. They’re like the cool haircut and the leather jacket. How could you be a rocker without them?
Of course, as Hilde Spille points out, the real reason why musicians abuse drugs is not because we want to be stereotypical or look cool. Social isolation and experimentalism play a huge role. Our culture of young, indpendent, artistic people perpetuates substance abuse. If you want to be a part of the culture, there’s not a lot more to do than go to the bars, hang out and get stoned with your friends. If you’re not abusing substances, the people you’re around are, so either you kick it by yourself or you hang out with them and do what they do.
One way to avoid becoming part of The 27 Club is to be aware. Be aware that drugs and alcohol are a crutch. They’re a way to avoid awkwardness, a way to fit in. They’re something to do instead of having to constantly be creative. And if you’re aware you have an addictive personality, you can head it off at the pass. Instead of succumbing to the habit, you can live outside of it. This doesn’t stop you from being around people who are doing drugs. It just means you rule out drugs from the get-go.
Friends and hobbies
Seek out people you can spend time with who aren’t judgemental about your sober decision. Find those one or two or three interesting people who don’t use. Do your best to be friends with them. Look for things to do besides music, another art form, a sport, things that don’t involve the bars.
You don’t have to abstain completely. Alcohol is legal, and weed is legal (to a certain extent) in 28 states. The musician who can drink and smoke responsibly, and legally, without doing too much is admirable. There are even health benefits to reasonable amounts of alcohol and marijuana.
Not being part of the 27 club means being smart about how you interact with the inevitable presence of alcohol and drugs. Keep your wits about you, be aware, and you can be agreat musician who lives a long and healthy life.