Ron Onesti: Rockers lost at age of 27
Rock 'n' roll is filled with creepy myths, legends and rituals. One of those strange revelations is the "devil's number," 27, which is the age of the passing of more than 50 music icons since the turn of the century.
As I get more and more entrenched in the history of popular music, so, too, does my interest in the circumstances surrounding the demise of rock stars who died at 27, and these in particular:
Beginning with Robert Johnson, the Prohibition-era bluesman who allegedly sold his soul to the devil in order to become a guitar hero, is considered the father of modern rock 'n' roll. After writing 29 songs, including "Sweet Home Chicago," he died in 1938 from tainted moonshine slipped to him by a jealous husband.
Brian Jones was an original member of The Rolling Stones. The guitarist, vocalist and harmonica player was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool with multiple drugs in his system in 1969. The coroner's report: Death by misadventure. Weird.
Jimi Hendrix, considered the best guitarist ever, died in 1970 of a mixture of drugs and alcohol. He couldn't read music and was a high school dropout. To be considered the greatest guitarist in history after only a 3½-year recording career is truly amazing.
The voice of Hendrix contemporary Janis Joplin was also silenced in 1970 because of a heroin overdose. Her raspy, powerful and bluesy voice clearly identified the acid-rock era that began with Woodstock, and she is a rock legend to this day.
In 1986, Kurt Cobain formed the band Nirvana, which catapulted the Seattle grunge-rock movement of the 1990s. His songs became some of the greatest in rock history, as proclaimed by Rolling Stone magazine. But by 1994, the pressures of superstardom got to him, and with the aid of a heroin addiction, Cobain took his own life with a shotgun to his head. Tragic.
Amy Winehouse had a monster of a year in 2008 with five Grammy Awards. The pop/jazz superstar was as well known for her troubling behavior and legendary hard partying as she was for her music. With five-times the legal limit of alcohol in her system, she died of alcohol poisoning in 2011.
But my "favorite" rock icon we lost at the tender age of 27 was the Doors' frontman Jim Morrison. He was also a mystic, poet and filmmaker. The Doors splashed on the music scene in Los Angeles in 1967. Morrison's risque antics got the band in trouble many times. Perhaps to avoid jail time for an indecent exposure conviction in Miami, Morrison moved to Paris in March 1971. One morning at dawn, Morrison began spitting up blood, took a bath and died of an apparent heart attack (an autopsy was never performed.)
Because Morrison's drinking and drugging were legendary, even for the standards of the time, his death probably didn't surprise many. Some think Morrison faked his death and went to Africa. He died on July 3, 1971.
Not too long ago, I hosted guitarist Robby Krieger, one of two surviving members of the Doors. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek died in 2013. Krieger was humble and generous with the stories. And boy, were the stories flowin'!
Robby and I sat in our green room and he really shared some quality rock history time. We spoke a bit about Morrison, who was a "Door" from the bands' inception in 1965 until his untimely death. The remaining three members continued to tour for another two years after his passing. It began OK, but the show ultimately just wasn't the same.
Morrison's deep lyrics live on, though. With more than 100 million albums sold worldwide, the Doors continue to be one of the most popular rock bands in history. I could only imagine what it was like hanging with Jim Morrison.
"We were all very close those years, and I remained very close to Ray until we lost him," Krieger said. "Ray was like our older brother. Jim was like the mischievous younger brother. He could be nice, but when he was intoxicated, or otherwise, he could be as uncontrollable as everyone thinks he would have been.
"Jim was writing most of the songs in the beginning, but then he became a bit tired of doing it all the time, so he asked us other guys to begin writing," Robby said.
Krieger either wrote or co-wrote "Light My Fire," "Love Me Two Times" and "Love Her Madly," among others. "I asked him what I should write about. He said to do it on something familiar. So I picked the elements of the universe: fire, air, water or the Earth. I chose fire and 'Light My Fire' was born!"
One of my favorite albums is "The Morrison Hotel," not as much as for the music, but because the album cover is so cool! It is a picture of the band standing in the window of the Morrison Hotel in Los Angeles taken by legendary "rock-tographer" Henry Diltz, (look him up -- amazing!). Robby described the day.
"Ray and his wife were driving around scoping out locations for the photo shoot and came up upon this hotel with Jim's name on it. So on the day of the shoot, Henry, our photographer, asked the hotel manager (it was a very rundown place for transients) if we could shoot inside; the manager denied us! So we hung around outside taking pictures until we noticed the manager leave the front desk. We all ran into the hotel and Henry snapped away. The manager never saw us in there!"
To call it a shame, a waste of talent or the world being cheated by the loss of these legends is an understatement. With what they accomplished in their short 27 years here on earth, one can't even imagine what they could have done had they lived on. But yet, maybe that amount of time WAS their calling.
So I guess I will just be thankful for the body of work these rockers gave to the world, and play my vinyl albums while singing into a hairbrush.
The Arcada Theatre will host a salute to the Doors starring the band Mojo Risin' this Saturday night, Jan. 20. For tickets, visit www.oshows.com.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.