Thursday, July 9, 2020

The 27s

Brian Jones was one of the 27 Club, that ominous list of rock musicians who died at the wrong moment. Indeed, so many hugely successful and talented musicians have died at age 27 that it almost seems reasonable to believe the number represents some mystical coefficient of talent and tragedy.  Most famous of the group is the trilogy of deaths in the early 70s, Janis, Jimi and Jim Morrison, who died exactly two years from the death of Brian Jones. Jones, though, wasn't the first; that distinction goes to Robert Johnson.

Johnson, as you recall, sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads in Rosedale, Mississippi so he could attain his virtuosity with the guitar. After several gigs as a young guitarist, Johnson, disgusted with his inabilities and the audience abuse, consistently being booed off the state, disappeared, only to return to the Delta the most influential guitarist of all time (just ask Keith or Eric). Johnson recorded 29 songs - many of them classics - during a short, storied career, including “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and, of course, “Crossroad Blues,” famously covered by the rock group Cream on their double album set Wheels of Fire. It is generally accepted that Johnson was poisoned – perhaps given some tainted rye moonshine - by a jealous husband or girlfriend while playing at a juke joint near Greenwood, Mississippi. Johnson took days to die and was buried in an unmarked grave. He passed on August 16, 1938.


We don't often acknowledge “Blind Owl” Wilson, one of the seminal members of Canned Heat, a Sixties blues-revival band. Wilson was a rhythm guitarist, songwriter, vocalist and virtuoso harmonica player. Blues legend John Lee Hooker called Wilson the best harmonica player he had ever seen. Wilson sang the lead on two of Canned Heat's greatest hits, well, their only hits, "Going Up the Country" and "On the Road Again." Wilson had emotional problems and attempted suicide numerous times. He died of a drug overdose - widely considered a suicide - on September 3, 1970.

Pigpen McKernan, keyboardist, singer and harmonica player,was one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead. McKernan was known for his thick, weathered vocals on such tunes as “Midnight Hour” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” McKernan once had a fling with fellow boozer Janis Joplin and sang with her at some gigs. (According to singer Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, McKernan introduced Joplin to Southern Comfort.) When McKernan's health began deteriorating, he left the Grateful Dead in 1972. On March 8, 1973 Pigpen was found dead of a stomach hemorrhage brought on by years of heavy drinking.


I don't really recall any of the deaths as listed, but will never forget that day when Kurt Cobain died. Led by Cobain's songwriting, singing and lead guitar, Nirvana’s second album Nevermind hit the top of the charts in 199, but Cobain, a quiet, recluse, never enjoyed the limelight of celebrity. Nirvana’s mega hit single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," is considered one of the greatest rock tunes of all time. As Nirvana gained popularity, Cobain started using heroin in the early 1990s. He may have started taking heroin to relieve pain from chronic back and stomach trouble. Cobain said his stomach pain was so bad at times that he sometimes considered committing suicide. In March of 1994 Cobain attempted suicide by gobbling painkillers washed down with champagne. But on April 5, 1994 Kurt Cobain succeeded in ending his life with a shotgun blast to the head. 


There are 20+ others who meet the somber criteria (Amy Winehouse, the most recent), one among them, of course, the biggest hoax in rock history, the death of Paul, most famously addressed by the VW license plate on the cover of Abbey Road that says, "28 IF" (28 if he had lived). The Paul is dead theory remains an excellent example of how a group of dedicated conspirists can gather surprisingly compelling evidence for a theory — even if that theory is utterly ridiculous. There is so much from which to glean information, but let's stick to the two most famous visual sources and leave it up to you to find the backmasking and the rest if you're so inclined.

Sgt. Pepper is, of course, a famously busy album cover, a rich source of conspiracy leads. There's an open palm over McCartney’s head, which fans interpreted as being akin to a priest blessing the dead. In the corner, next to a doll wearing a "Welcome the Rolling Stones romper, is a driving glove symbolizing McCartney’s bloody death. A bass guitar made of flowers in the foreground only has three strings, symbolizing a dead McCartney as the missing string. The Beatles wanted a psychedelic way to communicate to fans that their mop-topped collarless suit days were over, and no conspiracy is complete with the dower look of the Madame Tassauds' wax sculptures peering over Paul's grave.

Although it has since become a rock icon, the cover for Abbey Road remains a triumph of lazy album artwork. The Beatles simply walked out of the studio in whatever they were wearing and posed on an adjacent crosswalk (here's the live came feed). McCartney, notably, didn't even bother to put on shoes. But fans interpreted the four as representing a funeral procession: A gravedigger (Harrison), a corpse (Paul), an undertaker (John) and a priest (Ringo). According to theorists, McCartney’s shoelessness was a nod to the practice of interring corpses without shoes, which of course in itself is a myth.

Cool Tel-Aviv Graffiti