Amy Winehouse, the 27-year-old British singer-songwriter, died Saturday.
It’s a good age for it, and automatically grants her provisional membership to the 27 Club, of which Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones are established members, having all died at that age between 1969 and 1971.
Retroactively, the legendary blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson got added in, then Kurt Cobain of the ’90s grunge band Nirvana made it, yet another popular and talented artist cut down in his prime by his own self-destructive behavior.
Whether she’ll get the full membership, who knows? In 10 years, people may look back on her as just a fairly talented person who had two albums, one of them really fantastic, before squandering it all in drink, drug and crazy.
But of course that isn’t the way things work.
Winehouse’s one massively successful album was “Back to Black,” and the biggest song off of that was “Rehab.” It’s a good song, but people loved the image Winehouse brought with her as much as the music; that she mirrored the lyrics, “They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no.”
People love the art that comes out of wild excess, out of boundless depravity, out of the deeply troubled personal problems everyone has but only a few have the ability to express in the useful, universal way to touch everyone.
As long as they’re producing good work, we like artists to be nuts to the point we even expect it. But no one can do that forever, and most people can’t just stop overnight.
We can’t all be William S. Burroughs, the Beat generation writer who was a true heroin-and-everything-else junky for years and years, but finally successfully kicked all that and lived to 83.
We can’t all be George Carlin, who, known as wild and crazy and a huge pot smoker, in his more mature years said he didn’t really do anything anymore, and smoked maybe once a month, if that.
The real trouble with drugs, Carlin said, is that with all of them (including heavy alcohol use), you start out and it’s all pleasure and very little pain, which makes it easy to be productive, and a genius is going to be even more of a genius to start out with. But over time, the pleasure lessens and the pain goes up until there’s a point where it’s all pain and no pleasure, or at least the only pleasure is in being able to get rid of the pain of not having the drug.
A normal, rational person reaching that point decides it’s time to quit. But addicts are not rational people, and we prefer our famous people not to be rational people, either.
Whatever Winehouse died of, and for all we know at this point, it could have been an undiagnosed heart condition, leaving the earth at 27 really was the best thing for her. She couldn’t come up with an album as good as “Back to Black” again, but then few people have ever been able to make an album as good as Winehouse did at 23, so that’s no knock to her.
We won’t remember her that way, though. We’ll think about everything great she’d have done if she’d got clean and had a comeback, the same way we imagine the great things guitar-playing Jimmy Hendrix would have done at 50 (and don’t think about the amazing things a dead-at-27 Michael Jackson would have done at 50).
It’s a shame she died at 27. But at least she had something to show for it, and that’s why, unlike most people, she gets to join the club.