Rock and roll music is fertile ground for urban legends, going all the way back to the early 20th century and Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil for his vaunted guitar skills. The decades since are overloaded with tales of excess and intrigue, with enough murky truths underneath to give the conspiracy theorists material for books, movies and poorly proofread internet diatribes.
One of the most pervasive legends in rock music is the 27 Club--the coincidence of a number of famed musicians who rocketed to stardom before dying at 27 years old. There are dozens of lesser-known members of this club, but Howard Sounes book, 27: A History of the 27 Club, focuses on the six biggest names: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
Each of these celebrated musicians has been the subject of (often salacious) retellings of their lives and demises. Sounesís even-handed approach is that of a crime reporter searching for the truth and insight into what connected these individuals in life and in death. He touches on the conspiracies but treats them with a respectful disdain.
Sounes explores the psychological makeup and uncovers the circumstances each of the big six shared: troubled family lives, mental illness and the concept of too much too soon. His approach lays out the evidence without making many judgment calls on the individuals or the hangers-on who often had a hand in the artistís final days. Many of those individuals--think Courtney Love, Jim Morrisonís girlfriend or Amy Winehouseís father--were publicly vilified, but Sounes approaches them cautiously, giving more credence to law enforcement reports and the artistís own actions than anything else.
Itís a compelling read unless you are looking for the dirt--but there are many other places you can go to find that. Sounes's book is a respectful, even-handed research into the lives of a few remarkable artists. He uncovers what made them successful and how that success was ultimately their ruin.