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Unlucky number

Amy Winehouse bio puts singer in impressive, though doomed, company

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British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse enjoyed a meteoric rise to pop stardom before her death two years ago this month at age 27.

In doing so, she joined what has become known as "the 27 Club" -- a group of rock and pop stars who have died, usually by overdose, suicide or other misadventure, at the same tender age.

Winehouse's conflicted life serves as the centrepiece of British music biographer Howard Sounes' comprehensive new book, which places the singer in impressive company.

Besides Winehouse, Sounes focuses on the five other most notable members of "the Club:" Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.

Sounes devotes attention to each of the six in order of the dates of their deaths, framing his investigation around a definitive look at the life and career of Winehouse.

Amy, 27 is certainly well-written and easy to read. It has both the whiff of tabloid sensationalism and the stature of academic seriousness.

Sounes began his career as an investigative journalist in London before emerging as a prolific celebrity biographer. He has penned respected biographies of Bob Dylan (Down the Highway), Paul McCartney (Fab) and Charles Bukowski (Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life), among others, filled with academic-calibre research and relentless attention to detail.

In the prologue to Amy, 27, Sounes quickly identifies and dismisses the mythology of the 27 Club as "essentially a media construct based on a coincidence."

That said, he does uncover sociological and psychological circumstances that seem common to each of his subjects. All came from broken families and all were tormented by emotional or mental problems that spilled into their relationships in their professional and personal lives.

Each was an intelligent and talented artist who achieved early success but soon tired of musical fame. And, most serious and damaging, all were in the thrall of alcohol and drugs. All died overnight, usually alone.

Winehouse clearly occupies a special place in Sounes' heart. The green-eyed, white-skinned soul singer with the dishevelled look and the big brassy voice evoked comparisons to Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughn.

She saw her career take off in 2003 with the album Frank, followed by full-blown stardom in 2006 with Back to Black, a stunning album of original songs that earned her five Grammy awards and worldwide critical acclaim with its jazzy amalgam of soul and blues.

Even so, it was Winehouse's messy life, as much as her unique talent, that kept her constantly in the tabloid press and on Internet gossip sites. She was a stoned, drunken, brawling, heavily tattooed, diminutive Jewish babe hounded by personal demons and seemingly predestined to destroy her career.

While most of the available Winehouse biographies (including 2012's Amy, My Daughter (written by her father Mitch) are quickies, authoritative biographies exist of each of the other five musicians, but there is no denying the lives and deaths of these iconic legends make for gripping reading as told by Sounes.

He finds British guitarist Jones a needy individual anxious for fame and a ladies' man who fathered four children without marrying. Jones was the most proficient musician of the early Rolling Stones, but also a weak character fired from with the band because of his uncontrolled addictions.

He was found floating dead in his swimming pool in the summer of 1969 after a night of drinking and drugs. The coroner's verdict: death by misadventure.

American blues-rock singer Joplin died in a Los Angeles hotel room a year later of a heroin overdose. She had become a hedonistic star even before feminism took hold, espousing a commitment to sex, drugs and rock SSRqnSSRq roll.

Like Winehouse's musical output, Joplin's was short and thin, and it is unlikely, should she have lived longer, her career would have continued on an upward trajectory.

The 1971 death of Morrison, the rock poet and lead singer of the Doors, followed a riotous career in which he had assumed Dionysian star status only to turn his back on his bandmates and move to Paris.

While living in France, the now dissolute and drifting Morrison died of what was recorded as a heart attack while taking a bath in his Paris apartment. Sounes finds it likely Morrison was using heroin as well as alcohol and succumbed to a massive overdose.

Two decades would pass before American grunge rocker Cobain revived speculation about the 27 Club by becoming the only member of "the big six" to die as an outright suicide in 1994.

The Nirvana frontman, a longtime user of injectable drugs, administered a lethal dose of heroin and ended his life with a shotgun.

Amy, 27 isn't the first book to examine this unusual coincidence. The 27s, by Josh Hunter and Eric Segalstad in 2009, examined 34 musicians who died at age 27. The unusual coincidence has also been the subject of learned papers.

The retrospective cohort study Is 27 Really a Dangerous Age for Famous Musicians? was published in 2011 in the British Medical Journal by Adrian Barnett.

It concluded there was no statistical peak in the risk of death at 27, but found musicians in their 20s and 30s were two to three times more likely to die prematurely than the general population.

While Sounes has uncovered insights into these early deaths far more convincing than any tie to the chronological age of 27, he's astute enough to re-bundle the idea in a way that will attract a new generation of readers interested in this sidebar to rock-music history.

Certainly this is the most comprehensive debunking of the 27 Club to date. It's a worthy addition to any rock-music library for that reason alone.

Jim Millican is a Winnipeg freelance writer and music fanatic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 A1

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