COMMENT: The perils of living an intense life

Amy Winehouse. Photo: Fionn Kidney/Filckr
Wednesday, 27 July, 2011
Rob Brooks*

Amy Winehouse's tragic demise on Saturday reanimates so many well-worn stories: about the perils of monumental talent and the pressure of public expectations; about drug addiction and a hell of personal problems; about unscrupulous management pushing their golden goose out onto the road woefully unprepared; and about a deeply flawed and vulnerable person, a daughter and a sister.

Few writers will be able to resist the apparently significant fact that she died aged 27. Instead of serious introspection about fame, privacy and the insidious disease of addiction, expect plenty of mindless pseudo-profundity about "Club 27" – the unhappy band of musical geniuses who died at that age.

Blues pioneer Robert Johnson, Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, guitar deity Jimi Hendrix, singers Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at 27. So did Kurt Cobain, the messiah of my own generation who saved us all from 1980s cock-rock mediocrity. By adding her to what Kurt's mum, Wendy, called "that stupid club", we fail to properly mourn Winehouse and the meaning of her death. We deny part of her individual and unique tragedy because we can file her, conveniently, under "27" before hopping on iTunes to buy up her complete back catalogue.

In my recent book, Sex, Genes & Rock'n'Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World, I asked why so few musicians grow old gracefully. They either tend to die young, fade away or end up shattered, broken and on reality television. Dead and ageing rock stars both reveal the perils of living a large and intense life, and in so doing they illustrate why so many beautiful, talented people die young.

There is nothing special about dying at 27. The 20s and 30s positively bristle with peril for music superstars. Among my favourites who died young were Buddy Holly at 23, Tupac at 25, Otis Redding and Gram Parsons at 26, Hank Williams at 29, John Bonham and Keith Moon at 32 and Bon Scott of AC/DC, who died at 33.

At Liverpool John Moores University, Mark Bellis and his colleagues recently looked at all the performers from the alltime Top 1000 albums in rock and pop music. They showed that for 25 years after first becoming famous, superstars are almost twice as likely to die as North Americans or Europeans of the same age. The price of fame can be paid at any age but 27 is simply unluckier than usual.

Dying young, and especially dying at 27, can be a wonderful career move. In time, we will probably remember Winehouse with the kind of sanitised fondness with which we remember Tupac, Cobain, Hendrix and Morrison. Their many personal flaws are interred with their bones while their greatest musical achievements live after them. In so doing, we give them a kind of immortality that many lust after yet few ever achieve. They are forever preserved in our memories at their prime, all youthful looks and simmering with tragically creative fire.

If I had one wish regarding Amy Winehouse's death, it would be that we spend some time remembering her as a troubled person and heeding the lessons that come out of her death. The most eloquent and interesting words I have read since her death come from her long-time friend, the actor and comedian Russell Brand, who said: "Not all addicts have Amy's incredible talent. Or Kurt's or Jimi's or Janis's. Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill."

A generation from now, young women will be wearing their hair and make-up like Amy Winehouse just as so many people who wear Hendrix, Doors and Nirvana T-shirts today were unborn when those superstars drew their last breath.

Winehouse will lose no more of her lustre, and her post-mortem record sales will line the pockets of people who should have looked after her much better than they did.

But will young people, especially the brightest young people, of that distant generation still die or ruin their lives needlessly from addiction? Can we learn from Amy before her pathetic end is romanticised and every shred of unreleased material that she recorded is wrung dry.

* Rob Brooks is Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Director of the UNSW Evolution & Ecology Research Centre