Editor's Note

Rock of Ages

It is not, actually, better to burn out than to fade away.

By James Ross Gardner November 20, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Kurt Cobain at a 1994 concert in Milan.

If you happened to be in your 20s during the 1990s, as I was, you’re likely aware of the so-called “27 Club.” A meme that predates even the grumpiest of cats, it centered on the coincidence that a number of highly influential musicians (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones) all died at the age of 27. The phenomenon didn’t fully capture public imagination—and become a full-fledged ’90s thing—though, until April 5, 1994, when Kurt Cobain, then at the height of his reluctant fame, died at his Madrona home. After that, movies, books, and songs liberally referenced the 27 Club—rhapsodized and romanticized and accepted as a statistical reality despite lack of evidence that rock musicians are more likely to expire at 27 than at any other age.

There was always (and is still) something unseemly about the meme and its ghoulish fixation on mortality. The 27 Club reduced its members, including two of our most beloved Seattle icons, to their expiration date. It also fed into every rock and roll trope. Sex and drugs and live fast and die young.

This month’s Seattle Met cover subjects—there are two, and you have a choice between Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain—share the dubious distinction of being in the club. And yes, both are known for caustic, atonal guitar playing—and for destroying those guitars on stage. But they also represent nodes on the long spectrum between Seattle’s first-known jazz concert, in 1918, to the hip-hop and post-punk of 2018.

Associate editor Stefan Milne explores that long line in our main feature ("100 Years of Seattle Music"). Reading it I was reminded just how rich the history is. Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, The Sonics and the riot grrrl movement: These artists influenced or were influenced by Hendrix and Cobain and they helped forge the Seattle sound as we know it. They also proved that music, even rock and roll music, does not require some sort of big, bright, early flame out. That it isn’t primarily a thing for and by youth.

Jazz and blues singer Ernestine Anderson, who Milne writes warrants mention “alongside [Sarah] Vaughan and Billie Holiday,” not only flouted the 27 Club trope, but her career spanned nearly the whole of Seattle’s music history. As a teenager in the 1940s, Anderson sang in clubs along Jackson Street (a section of which is named in her honor today) and soon took on the world, performing at Carnegie Hall and earning four Grammy nominations, before returning to Seattle and performing here regularly. She lived to be 87.

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