Amy Winehouse predicted that she would join the ghostly ranks of the 27 Club
Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain… and then Amy: all dead before their 28th birthday
It was just after 6pm on a summer’s evening when Amy Winehouse’s doctor visited the star at home in London.
This was a routine house call, routine in as much as Amy’s life had become so troubled in recent years that her doctor visited her at home almost as often as the postman delivered the mail.
Dr Christina Romete saw at once that after two weeks of sobriety Amy had been drinking. She’d started again on Wednesday. It was now Friday, July 22, 2011.
Dr Romete reminded Amy how serious this was.
Only two months before, after Amy had drunk herself into a coma, Dr Romete had warned her in writing that her habit of binge drinking was putting her in ‘immediate danger of death’.
Again the doctor tried to persuade Amy to consider therapy, but, as before, she resisted.
For the rest of the evening, with the exception of Andrew Morris – her live-in bodyguard – Amy was on her own at home.
When she was alone, she’d reach out to friends by phone and online, looking for distraction. She spoke to her boyfriend Reg Traviss on the phone on the last evening of her life and tried to contact others.
‘Everyone had missed calls from her,’ says her friend Doug Charles-Ridler. ‘She hated being alone.’
At around 11.30pm, film director Reg called Amy to say that he had finally finished work and was ready to come to see her, but she didn’t answer her phone.
This wasn’t unusual, but Reg had a sense of foreboding. He considered heading over anyway, but took a cab to his flat in central London instead, at one point redirecting it to Amy’s house before changing his mind again, because he didn’t want to show up at Amy’s when she was asleep.
Amy spent a few hours watching YouTube with Morris at home, including looking at pictures of herself online.
Andrew later said that this was the only unusual aspect of Amy’s behaviour at the end, remarking: ‘Amy was pretty normal – for Amy.’
Earlier in the week, her father Mitch had found her looking at family photographs. Her behaviour at the end might be interpreted as if she was assessing her life. Doors’ singer Jim Morrison had behaved in a similarly introspective way the night before he died – aged 27.
Finally, Andrew left Amy to her own devices. At 3:30am, she texted a friend. Interestingly, she didn’t reply to Reg’s texts. She’d now been drinking all day and every day since Wednesday.
At some point in the early hours of Saturday, she went into her bathroom and vomited. As a bulimic, she may have made herself sick deliberately.
The following day, Andrew found her lying dead, still dressed, on her bed with three empty vodka bottles around her. The alcohol in her blood – five times the drink-drive limit – was more than enough to stop her breathing.
That Amy had died at 27 made her the latest in a series of iconic music stars whose short, gaudy lives had ended at that particular age, from Brian Jones’s death in 1969, to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1970, to Jim Morrison in 1971 and through to Kurt Cobain in 1994.
While the 27 Club is essentially founded on coincidence, all six principal members can be said to have killed themselves, though they didn’t all do so as directly as Kurt Cobain when he shot himself in the head.
For the drug addict and the chronic alcoholic, the decision to be or not to be is drawn out over years – years during which life becomes more tenuous to the point where death becomes likely, if not inevitable.
Like the other principal members of the 27 Club, Amy suffered personality disorders including low self-esteem, the roots of which are often found in childhood.
Amy adored her father Mitch and he doted on her, but when she was nine, Mitch left the family home to move in with girlfriend Jane.
As with Kurt Cobain, who cited his parents’ divorce when he was nine as the point when his life went wrong, this trauma could be said to have been the event that shaped her character more than any other, including her attitude towards men.
While Mitch was ever-present in Amy’s life once her career took off, and he kept a room for her wherever he was living after he left home, during her childhood friends say that he was often absent.
‘Let me tell you, Mitch wasn’t around until his daughter became famous. . . but she loved him,’ says Amy’s primary school friend Lauren Franklin.
Her mother Janis, meanwhile, struggled as a single parent. To outsiders Janis could seem ineffectual.
‘She’s never been able to stand up to Amy,’ says Franklin. ‘I remember her saying: “Oh, Amy, don’t say that,” and Amy was going: “Ah, I hate you, you f****** bitch!” And this was, like, when we were very young.’
Lauren noticed that Amy ‘became really naughty’ after her parents’ separation. Moving to secondary school, Amy, who’d been ‘so well spoken’ as a child growing up in suburban north London, now adopted the faux cockney accent that she maintained for the rest of her life.
‘None of us speak like that,’ says Lauren.
Amy became disruptive in class and began to play truant, as had Kurt Cobain.
She pierced her upper lip and her mother was horrified when, aged 15, she had her first tattoo done.
Amy later said, ‘My parents pretty much realised (at that stage) that I would do whatever I wanted.’
But even before she had left school and entered the music business she had begun taking antidepressants, with Janis suggesting that she might be bipolar.
Later she would begin self-harming, cutting herself to get attention.
Success arrived quickly after that troubled childhood and, as with the six other principal members of the 27 Club, it proved overwhelming.
Her surgeon cousin Jonathan Winehouse became concerned early on after seeing her perform and meeting her backstage: ‘She was very distant… and really sort of out of it.’
He told her manager that she needed psychological support, but the manager simply said that Amy would go her own way.
After her first album, Frank, was released in 2003, when she was still only 20, Amy began to drink to excess. A nervous performer, she drank to calm down before a show, but then, like Janis Joplin, another troubled and insecure female singing star who lined up glasses of tequila during concerts, she began drinking during the show.
And when she wasn’t performing, Amy went to the pub, the Good Mixer in Camden becoming her second home.
She’d arrive shortly after it opened and usually drank doubles of Jack Daniel’s, sambuca, vodka or tequila. After a while, she was drinking everything mixed together in a pint glass.
After watching a concert where she left the stage after just three songs, Jonathan Winehouse tried to talk to Mitch about his concerns, but he says Mitch ‘just wasn’t receptive to hearing it’.
Then, like Kurt Cobain’s relationship with Courtney Love, Amy fell for someone who shared her weaknesses and exacerbated them.
She was a drinker with a fondness for marijuana. Blake Fielder-Civil used heroin and cocaine and he introduced her to hard drugs, for which many people can’t forgive him.
Yet Blake was the love of Amy’s life. Sarah Hurley, landlady of the Good Mixer, noticed that ‘even though (Amy) went out onstage and did what she had to do on her own as a woman, at the end of the day she wanted to be his woman’.
.While Mitch was ever-present in Amy’s life once her career took off, and he kept a room for her wherever he was living after he left home, during her childhood friends say that he was often absent
Stefan Skarbek, a producer who worked with Amy, identified a fundamental conflict between her craving for normality and her need to express herself.
Despite her career, ‘she wanted to make everything homely… making cups of tea all day long, being mum… (but) the two things don’t mesh.’
While her on-off relationship with Blake left her in despair, it inspired the brilliant and poetic songs on her Back To Black album, which made her an international star.
And apart from the drugs, there was always the bottle.
‘I would have liked to have seen someone not give her a drink,’ says Jay Phelps, who played trumpet with Amy’s band.
But, says her stylist Lou Winwood, ‘people found it very hard to stand up to her when she wanted a drink.’
Even Mitch appeared to be unable to stop her drinking. Though he later made strenuous efforts to help his daughter beat the booze, at times during the early days Jay Phelps observed that, along with the others, Mitch ‘was just letting it happen’.
People’s unwillingness to act went deeper than just avoiding confrontation, believes Jonathan Winehouse.
‘There’s a lot of denial, both with Amy and the people around her, and that’s half the problem with alcoholic people.’
When, in the months before Amy’s death, Dr Romete explained that Amy was in danger of killing herself, it still came as a shock to Mitch and Reg, who admits: ‘Even I, to a degree, must be guilty. I said to her several times: “Look, darling, if you want to have a drink, just have a drink. It’s no problem. You can just curb it.”’ This was a dangerous delusion.
Of Amy’s important relationship with her father, her saxophonist Aaron Liddard says that there was ‘a lot of love and buddiness’, but he isn’t sure how much respect she had for Mitch.
Maurice Bernstein, Amy’s U.S. publicist, feels the music industry bears some responsibility for the 27 Club.
‘I don’t think that the music industry always, with their hands on their hearts, can say they acted in the best interests of getting these artists healthy.’
When, in 2007, Amy suffered the first of a series of drug-induced seizures, she told her mother: ‘I don’t think I am going to survive that long.’
Janis then commented publicly: ‘It’s almost as though she’s created her own ending.’
According to Alex Haines and another of her friends, Amy predicted that she would join the ghostly ranks of the 27 Club.
Blake, meanwhile, took perverse pride in scoring drugs for him and his wife.
‘Mad as it sounds’, he explains, ‘it’s the only thing I was bringing to the table for a while, because I couldn’t match her financially.’
As Amy became dependent on drugs and on Blake as her supplier, she lost interest in her career.
And when Blake was arrested for conspiring to bribe a man he’d allegedly assaulted, Amy’s performances became eccentric.
Some people went to her shows just to see what crazy thing she’d do next, as fans had once gone to gawp at Jim Morrison.
‘She looked like a concentration-camp inmate,’ says her musician friend John Altman of her appearance at a concert in late summer of 2008.
Altman, who’d jammed with Hendrix in the 1960s, doubted that she’d even live to see Christmas.
In fact, she managed to kick crack and heroin, but only by turning to alcohol, becoming a hopeless drunkard in her last years.
The worldwide success of Back To Black seems to have inhibited Amy, who came to dislike singing the songs that had made her famous and lost confidence in herself as a performer.
Yet she was still a superb and powerful vocalist, whose sad life story was present in her voice.
Of her last significant recording, a duet with Tony Bennett, producer Gordon Williams noted how different she sounded from when he’d worked with her on Frank.
‘I heard how tired she was… it actually made me cry.’
At her final concert in Belgrade, it wasn’t clear to her band if she even knew where she was. Amy was unable or unwilling to sing. The audience booed and she hung her head and cried.
There’s a sense that by the summer of 2011, when she was 27, Amy was sick of her career and to some extent herself.
Like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, she’d become a prisoner of her image. She didn’t want to sing the Back To Black songs about Blake any more. She wanted a family, but she’d wanted that family with Blake. Reg remained a semi-detached boyfriend, who never moved in with her, and he was absent at the end. So were other people Amy had depended upon and, in many cases, simply exhausted.
Like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, a difficult childhood seemed to have created problems for Amy that poisoned her whole life.
She virtually threw that life away. She may not have meant to die when she did – two years ago this month – but she’d been living dangerously for a long time, and seemed weary at the end.
‘I didn’t want all this,’ she said backstage in 2008 to John Altman. ‘I just wanted to make music with my friends.’
‘Amy, 27’ by Howard Sounes, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20.
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Kurt Cobain In later life Cobain harked back to his parents’ divorce, when he was nine, as the point at which his life had gone wrong. He became withdrawn and suicide became a preoccupation.
From the outset, his relationship with Courtney Love was a love affair steeped in heroin abuse. Within a year, Cobain had overdosed, as he would time and again Then while Love was asleep in their Rome hotel room, he overdosed on Rohypnol, the socalled ‘date-rape drug’.
He had left a suicide note saying his wife didn’t love him and that he’d rather die than go through a divorce like his parents.
Love saved him, but back in the U.S. he wrote a further suicide note, injected heroin and shot himself.
His mother, Wendy, said: ‘Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to.’
Finding the pressure of being in The Doors intense, Jim Morrison feared he was having a nervous breakdown. His performances became crazed. He later walked off stage mid-concert and a tour was cancelled
Born into a strict naval home (his father later became an admiral), Jim Morrison severed contact with his family when he was on the brink of fame and told his publicist that they were dead. Like his mother, he was a heavy drinker.
Finding the pressure of being in The Doors intense, he feared he was having a nervous breakdown. His performances became crazed. He later walked off stage mid-concert and a tour was cancelled. Escaping the attention, he moved to Paris with his girlfriend Pam Courson, but continued to drink heavily.
After he overdosed from snorting heroin, Pam put him in a bath to recover, but found him dead there the following morning.
Born into a poor Seattle family, Hendrix was the son of two drinkers. His parents divorced when he was nine and Jimi lived rather tensely with his father. When he was 15, his mother died from a ruptured spleen.
Hendrix believed that he had to be stoned to perform well and would use drugs and alcohol to perk up and wind down. He was tiring of constant touring and performing his hits, and his final concerts were booed.
On the night he died, he mixed up to nine sleeping pills (half of one is a normal dose) with a great deal of wine. In his sleep, he choked on his vomit.
.Even in the early days Brian Jones’ drug-taking caused him to miss gigs
The first of the six principal members of the 27 Club, Brian Jones was from a conservative, middle-class home, but his teenage years saw him coming into repeated conflict with his parents.
By the time he was 19 he was the father of three illegitimate children by different women, had disappointed his parents in not finding work and was thrown out.
However, he was an accomplished musician and founded The Rolling Stones, leading the group until the songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards emerged as the dominant force. He was prone to sometimes violent mood swings, and even in the early days his drug-taking caused him to miss gigs. Neurotic and weepy, he was ostracised within his own band and in June 1969 was fired from the group.
Depressed, drinking heavily and using cocaine as well as prescription drugs to excess, he drowned in his swimming pool.
Joplin came from a stable, middle-class Texan home (although her father was a drinker), but later claimed that her childhood had been a humiliation, with an adolescence blighted by severe acne. At college, she experimented with drink and drugs in a beatnik spirit of wanting to ‘imbibe experience’.
Drugs came to dominate her life. She overdosed six times in 1969 and knew several friends who’d died from drugs. An insecure, larger-than-life personality who thrived on attention and was lonely without it, her drinking began to spoil her performances.
Although she was clean of heroin for a couple of months, she started using again and died alone in an LA hotel room from an overdose.
Damned lies, statistics and the 27 Club
To see what, if anything, the 27 Club means, statistically, I collated 3,463 music industry deaths from 1908 to 2012. The youngest artist died at 15, the oldest at 105, writes Howard Sounes.
While it wasn’t odd to find artists dying in their 20s, my doubts about what Cobain’s mother called the 27 Club were rocked when I saw a big spike to 50 deaths at 27, with only 30 dead at 26, for example.
Deaths don’t exceed 50 again until middle age. Then the graph rises smoothly with age peaking in the 60s.
The figures seem to support the theory that something strange occurs with musicians at 27, but this may be a hasty conclusion.
A graph created from the survey shows a smaller spike at 21, while 49 die at 37, 50 at 39, and there’s a big spike at 50.
Looking for members of the 27 Club, you’re likely to find people who fit. So Australian academic Professor Adrian Barnett, rather than focusing on stars by age of death, instead looked at musicians who’d had a number one album in the UK between 1956 and 2007.
While this excludes Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, the result showed the death rate at 27 was virtually identical with ages 25 to 32.
Prof Barnett and colleagues concluded that the 27 Club ‘has been created by chance and cherry-picking’.
But six of the biggest stars in popular music died at 27, together with 44 lesser names.
In writing this book I discovered many of these – including Jones, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Cobain and Winehouse – were remarkably similar people with troubled childhoods and personality flaws that helped make them fatally self-destructive.
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