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27, a number that kills?

Published on Tuesday 15 may 2012 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink

Are there places acting like magnets, which attract artists under the curse of a fatal number?

The Barney’s Beanery is located on the legendary Route 66 in front of Holloway Motel, where I spent ten days during my recent trip to Los Angeles.

The historic roadhouse in West Hollywood hosts today a commemorative plaque on the point where Jim Morrison (1943-1971) used to sit (the Lonely Planet guide adds that, on that point, Morrison peed on the floor). Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) was a regular visitor of the Beanery, where you can still eat huge burgers for a few dollars. On October 4, 1970 Janis Joplin (1943-1970) took her last drink here before dying of an overdose in a nearby motel.

Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin are all part of “Club 27” — an ideal group of popular musicians who all died at the age of 27. Conceived in 1971 after the death of the three customers of Barney’s Beanery (and of Brian Jones, Rolling Stones guitarist), the club now includes many other artists, most famous of which is Kurt Cobain. The last “accursed artist” to enter the club was Amy Winehouse.

A movie and a book have been devoted to the “number that kills”, but also a statistical study in the British Journal of Medicine: “Is 27 really a dangerous age for famous musicians? Retrospective cohort study”. The group of scholars led by Martin Wolkewitz considered 1046 singers and musicians who had a number one album in the UK between 1956 and 2007. From Frank Sinatra (who climbed the charts in 1956 with Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!) to Leona Lewis (who in 2007 topped the UK chart with Spirit), the artists were included in a chart that keeps track of life of each.

Every gray diagonal line corresponds to a life, and the dots mark 71 deaths (for example, the highest line shows Perry Como, who had a #1 in 1974 aged 61, and who died aged 88 in 2001).

The red horizontal line, at 27 years, crosses only 3 deaths, and the statistical analysis does not identify any significant peak in that age.

The numbers reveal, rather, a peculiar cluster of deaths between 20 and 40 years, concentrated in the 70s and early 80s. This phenomenon stops abruptly, and according to the authors:

This difference may be due to better treatments for heroin overdose, or the change in the music scene from the hard rock 1970s to the pop dominated 1980s.

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