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Before I Get Old: 'The 27s' Made Early Exits

Eric Segalstad has spent the past few years researching a group of musicians who have been dubbed "The 27s" — rockers who died at that age, either through tragedy, misadventure or excess. The club includes Kurt Cobain, who took his own life 15 years ago Sunday.

The king of grunge is just one of the more than 20 musicians featured in Segalstad's book, The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll. It includes artists across all genres — from Jim Morrison to Robert Johnson.

So, what is it about the number 27?

"It's a strange number," Segalstad tells NPR's Robert Smith. "It also happens right around that time in your life where most people go from the stage of youth to the stage of maturity."

Some of the subjects of The 27s — like Hole's Kristen Pfaff — didn't make that leap, turning instead to the cliché of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that led to early deaths.

Janis Joplin said that, whether people know it or not, they like their blues singers miserable. We need these musicians to be out there for us, to feel what we feel and to be what we want to be and can't.
Eric Segalstad, author of 'The 27s'

"But they weren't all victims of rock 'n' roll stardom ... living life fast and furious," he says. "There were also quite a few accidents and other tragic events that cut their lives short." Take, for example, the case of punk singer Mia Zapata, who was murdered in Seattle in 1993.

Others, says Segalstad, were victims of the business side of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle — like Pete Ham of Badfinger.

"I found him compelling because he did live life pretty purely," says Segalstad. "He didn't have any strong drug addictions, and he didn't live life any harder than you or I did at the time. But he was victim to crooked managers and record label quarrels that rendered him penniless and frustrated, and he ended his life by hanging himself in his studio garage."

In a way, the early deaths of so many of these stars have changed the way we look at performers.

"Janis Joplin said that, whether people know it or not, they like their blues singers miserable. And I think that's part of it," says Segalstad. "We need these musicians to be out there for us, to feel what we feel and to be what we want to be and can't. It is a dangerous profession."

But Segalstad says that, overall, The 27s is not a depressing book.

"It celebrates the lives and legacies of all these musicians," he says. "We want people to remember who they were and the music they created while they were here."

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Transcript

Mr. ERIC SEGALSTAD (Author, "The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll"): Mankind has always been fascinated by young death.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

That's Eric Segalstad. His fascination with young death compelled him to spend years researching a ghoulish list known as the 27s. The list includes Kurt Cobain who died 15 years ago today at age 27.

(Soundbite of television)

Mr. KURT LODER (Actor): Hi, I'm Kurt Loder with an MTV News special report. The body of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain was found in a house in Seattle on Friday morning, dead of an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.

SMITH: Before Kurt Cobain, there were others.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of song, "Remember")

Mr. JIMI HENDRIX (Musician): (Singing) Hey, pretty baby. Come on back to me, make everybody happy as can be.

(Soundbite of song, "Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)")

Mr. JIM MORRISON (Singer): (Singing) For if we don't find the next whiskey bar, I tell you we must die. I tell you we must die.

SMITH: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, blues pioneer Robert Johnson, none of them lived to see their 28th birthday. Eric Segalstad tells the stories of these artists and others in the book he co-wrote, "The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll."

Mr. SEGALSTAD: It's a strange number. It also happens right around that time in your life where most people go from the stage of youth to the stage of maturity.

SMITH: Well, you profile more than 20 of the 27s, but whose story did you find most compelling?

Mr. SEGALSTAD: I guess Pete Ham from Badfinger is a pretty compelling story because he did live his life pretty purely. He didn't have any strong drug addictions, yet he was victim to crooked managers and record label quarrels that rendered him penniless and frustrated. And he ended his life by hanging himself in his studio garage.

SMITH: And the interesting thing about Pete Ham is that a lot of his music really did live on. That's what we see about a lot of these 27s, that they continue to have an impact today.

Mr. SEGALSTAD: It's true. He's penned some incredible pop classics.

SMITH: Pop classics such as the song "Without You."

(Soundbite of song, "Without You")

Mr. PETE HAM (Singer): (Singing) I can't live if living is without you. I can't live. I can't give any more.

SMITH: And, you know, as you've said, he wasn't necessarily involved in the, sort of, reckless lifestyle of some of these people like Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin, but he did have a sense of being lost there at the end. They all seemed to have - to share that in their 27th year that they didn't quite know where they were going.

Mr. SEGALSTAD: It's probably difficult once you hit that age, if you've been part of this game for a little while, and you either feel invincible or you feel frustrated or maybe even both, how do you top yourself? In Jimi Hendrix' case, how do you top yourself? You've already changed the sound of guitar and the sound of rock 'n roll forever, and where do you go from there without becoming idiosyncratic?

(Soundbite of song, "Highway Chile")

Mr. HENDRIX: (Singing) Yeah, his guitar slung across his back. His dusty boots is his Cadillac. Flamin' hair just a blowin' in the wind. Ain't seen a bed in so long, it's a sin.

SMITH: You know, the deaths of these rock stars at the age of 27 really changed the way we look at rock music. I mean, in the early part of the century, you never probably thought that musician was one of the most dangerous professions. And yet you write in your book: We now expect rock stars to die before we do. So what do you mean by that?

Mr. SEGALSTAD: Janis Joplin once said, people, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers miserable. And I think that's part of it. We need the rock 'n roll musicians to be out there for us, to feel what we feel and to be what we want to be that we can't be.

(Soundbite of song, "Bye, Bye Baby")

Ms. JANIS JOPLIN (Musician): (Singing) Bye, bye, baby, bye-bye. I guess you know you're on your own. It seems you just got lost somewhere out in the world, and you left me here to face it alone. You left me here to face it all alone.

Mr. SEGALSTAD: It's an emotional book but at the same time, it's a book that celebrates the lives and legacies of all these musicians. And we want people to remember who they were and what wonderful music they created while they were here.

(Soundbite of song, "Bye, Bye Baby")

Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) You left me here to face it all alone. Bye, bye baby, baby bye-bye.

SMITH: Eric Segalstad is the co-creator of "The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll." He joins us from Vermont Public Radio. Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. SEGALSTAD: Thank you, it's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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