I was at San Diego Comicon this past weekend, and was awakened by a text on Saturday morning from an East Coast friend that read just "Amy Winehouse, dead at 27." That's how I found out initially, but over the course of the day I got a pretty constant stream of texts, tweets and Facebook postings with the news. If you're new to this blog, then let me explain that I'm the author of a book about the long-standing rock and roll legend that certain brilliant, troubled musicians and artists die at age twenty-seven. It's called 27, and it tells the story of a fictional guitarist named William Garland, who has to beat his own "27 Club" curse and live to see twenty-eight. You can check it out here, if you're interested, but that's not really what I want this post to be about. Instead, I thought I might write a little about the 27 Club - the real one, the too-long list of people who died young, usually at the peak of their fame. The main five are Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones, but I always add in the incredible 1930s blues guitarist Robert Johnson, and I assume that Amy Winehouse will now be considered in that top tier. So what do I think about the 27 Club?
I think that when you become truly, insanely famous, you have to evolve into a new type of person. Let's call it homo insignis, just to be fancy. In that process of evolution, the normal social interactions we're all raised with and depend on become somewhat meaningless. Fame means you don't ever really have to think about money anymore, for one thing. You don't have to do many of the things that non-famous people do, because there are people who will do them for you. (When was the last time David Bowie mowed the lawn, I wonder?) The consequences to your actions are limited, because you're a money-generating asset that others will spend their money and time protecting/bailing out when you do something wrong. (Hello, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, etc. etc. etc.) You can go many places non-famous people can't, and if you like, you can surround yourself day in and day out by people telling you that everything you do is fantastic. (The guy who comes to mind here is a certain bearded filmmaker with an unexplainable affinity for floppy-eared aliens with annoying voices.)
But those are all "good" things, on some level. Along with those, though, come new challenges - and these are the things I think can make even a strong person crack. A homo insignis doesn't have to strive to prove themselves in the same way they did when no one cared about them or their art. That means that in order to keep their work at the same level, they have to find some other motivation - they aren't lean and hungry anymore. They have to find a new reason to dig deep and do their best. I mean, if someone told you that you could only work three days a week, but you'd be paid for the whole week, would you go in Monday to Friday? Neither would I - and it takes a unique mindset to put in that extra 40% when you don't have to anymore.
It gets worse: every move of a super-famous person is scrutinized to an incredible degree (especially in this age of TMZ and the like - buying a candy bar at the corner deli can give rise to a hundred catty, sniping blog posts.) They have to mistrust new relationships and friendships, because there's every chance that the new person is only interested in the h.i. because of their fame, wealth and power. There's a constant fear of losing all of that, too. It's lonely, and isolating, because you can't go back, and even if you could, you wouldn't ever want to. You are simply not part of the regular world any more, and the more famous you get, the more remote the "real" world becomes.
I could go on, but my point is that this mythical homo insignis has to work under an entirely different set of social rules than the rest of the human race, and it's no surprise to me at all that many people can't handle the transition from being an ordinary person with big dreams and big talent to something else. Humans are social creatures - we need that real world to keep us grounded, able to trust and love and empathize. And when that disappears... drugs, and booze, and craziness, and in too many sad cases, death.
I think that's what happened with Amy Winehouse and most of the other members of the 27 Club. I don't want to excuse the fact that some of these people could have made different choices - and perhaps they just didn't want to make them, preferring to lose themselves in one vice or another rather than deal with the changes they were being forced to make.
Life is hard, and getting through it is harder for some than others.