Amy Winehouse released only two albums in her life, one of which sold more than a million copies, won five Grammys and sparked a retro soul movement that hasn’t yet stopped.
The small output, in inverse relation to her outsized talent, made her death Saturday in London all the more tragic. Fans will only be able to imagine the unrecorded singles, the never-to-be concerts and the comeback album that didn’t come.
It’s a sadly familiar script in pop music, the history of which is checkered with greats and would-be greats snuffed out too early in life.
Almost as soon as news of Winehouse’s death broke and spread across social media, fans were inducting her into the unfortunate pantheon of music talents gone too soon. Many noted that Winehouse, 27, shared the same age at death as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison.
The British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, though, realized that a meaningful commonality was being mistaken for coincidence.
“It’s not age that Hendrix, Jones, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain & Amy have in common,” wrote Bragg on Twitter. “It’s drug abuse, sadly.”
Those names were touted on the Web as the 27 Club, a ghoulish glamorizing of rock star death that makes it sound as though even in death VIPs remain behind a seductive velvet rope.
It’s a term, sometimes called the Forever 27 Club, that has spawned a Wikipedia entry, an independent 2008 movie (“The 27 Club”), numerous websites and at least one book (“The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll”).
The causes of death vary. Jones, the Rolling Stones guitarist, was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool in 1969 and was ruled dead “by misadventure.” Hendrix, having mixed sleeping pills and wine, died in 1970 in a London hotel room. Joplin, also in 1970, died in her Porsche in Los Angeles, with heroin suspected as the culprit. Morrison died of heart failure in 1971 in the bathtub of his Paris apartment. Cobain killed himself in 1994.
Some have claimed Cobain was aware of the so-called 27 Club. After his death, his mother, Wendy O’Connor, was understandably fed up with the concept, saying: “I told him not to join that stupid club.”
The cause of Winehouse’s death is not yet known. She long struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Last month, she canceled her European comeback tour after she swayed and slurred her way through barely recognizable songs in her first show in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. She flew home, and her management said she would take time off to recover.
What’s particular about Winehouse’s style of rock ‘n’ roll excess is that it was chronicled thoroughly by the tabloids and news media and was eagerly consumed by readers.
High-quality photographs captured her poor health, the scabs on her face and marks on her arms. Videos of her landed on the Internet, like one that showed her and Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty playing with newborn mice. Another showed her singing a racist ditty to the tune of a children’s song. One, published by a tabloid newspaper, appeared to show her smoking crack cocaine.
Her run-ins with the law — she was cautioned by the police in 2008 for assault and in 2010 pleaded guilty to assaulting a theater manager who asked her to leave a family Christmas show because she’d had too much to drink — found headlines. So did her romances, such as her brief marriage in 2007 to music industry hanger-on Blake Fielder-Civil.
Rarely, though, were Winehouse’s troubles romantic or appealing. Though a thoroughly captivating presence — all beehive and tattoos and candor — Winehouse always cut a desperate figure. Her struggles with substances and bipolar disorder (she said she declined to take medication for it) were painfully evident.
In death, her famous boast of “no, no, no” to rehab only sounds empty. The hard truths of addiction don’t fit neatly into pop tunes — or morbid 27 Clubs — but play out over years of toil.
Early death typically mythologizes pop stars, inflating their reputation. Pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman, in his book “Killing Yourself to Live,” wondered why “the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing.”
The posthumous releases from Winehouse will surely follow, and her legacy will grow. But hopefully mythologizing will be resisted.
Winehouse’s death, an unfortunate but unsurprising end to a long, public decline, might be best remembered not just as another tragic loss but as a modern portrait of how untrue those rock myths really are.