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Amy Winehouse: A Rock Star Dead Again at 27

Wayne Robins laments the death of the Britsoul star and ponders the meaning of a decidedly un-magic number--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

The other day I was listening to Amy Winehouse sing "You Know I'm No Good" on WFUV, and thought about how authentic she sounded. Not authentic in the way that, say, white people have learned to sing the blues and R&B, but authentic in the way that she was explaining herself. Being herself. Knowing herself. "I cheated myself like I knew I would/I told you I was trouble/You know that I'm no good," Winehouse sang.

Pondering her disastrous dysfunctional demeanour, displayed on a quickly curtailed concert tour in Eastern Europe recently, I had the same thought any empathetic person who liked her music must have had about her: Hope she doesn't die too soon.

Too late. A few hours ago, each of my daughter's interrupted their own social networking simultaneously to run into the living room to tell me Winehouse had been found dead, likely of an overdose, in her London apartment. I yowled with a long dormant but familiar pain: That ache and anger that happens when you find out another gifted person-Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain-has discovered that their fame and talent did not make them bigger than life after all.

I'm not sure I mean to equate Winehouse's talent with theirs: her body of work is too small to measure against the rock of ages. Nor was her death a blow to a culture-or, as we used to call it, a counter-culture-whose unity and identity was in a large way based on the shared belief in the totemic meaning of their music.

But Winehouse was 27, like Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Cobain, and it might be discussing if there is some biological danger connected with that age. Stages of western life, it has been said, change every seven years: 14 the beginning of adolescence, 21 the near-universal official legal marker for adulthood. Some separation that occurs around the age of 28 that indicates the end of youth and the imminence of some deeper and darker phase, the moment when what you were is no excuse, no explanation, and no defence, against what one is becoming.

Bill James, the baseball statistician and writer, has noted that baseball players peak at 27. Another statistician, Tom M. Tango, crunched a lot of numbers about the aging curve of the fielding ability of baseball shortstops, and "tried different regression values, and it always maxes out at age 28." Professional soccer players peak in their late 20s.

In fact, 27 is the magic number for almost every major professional sport: "It's no wonder, since male ballplayers in almost all sports peak somewhere between 26 and 29," Simon Kuper, a sports correspondent for AskMen.com and a columnist with the Financial Times wrote. "For instance, the average age of an NBA player going into the current season was 26.77. Every team in the MLB last year had an average age somewhere between 25.9 (for the Cleveland Indians) and 28.7 (the Philadelphia Phillies). The average age of the top 10 men's tennis players is 26.2. And ice hockey players peak at 27, according to statistics." That is the physical and mental effects of peak level athletic competition begin to wear down muscle, stamina, and ability in almost every sport.

Rock stars with a routine regimen of hard drug and alcohol use might be considered the musical equivalent of elite athletes that others have quantified. The ability to rebound after a drug and/or alcohol binge may be comparable with the ability of the hockey player to sustain nightly body checks, the football player to respond to the constant brutal physical contact and training, and exhausting travel schedules of the baseball and basketball player and exertions on the field and court may have an effect similar to a hard drinker's daily hangover, or the drug user's resilience in surviving the intake of toxic chemicals. The body and spirit are beginning to break down.

A ballplayer may lose just a step, their statistical achievements begin an almost insignificant but measurable decline. But the kind of drugging and drinking that always went with "sex, drugs and rock and roll" leaves no such margin for error. The once indestructible become unexpectedly and fatally vulnerable.

That is why we marvel at Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, because he is constitutionally so much the exception. His long ago former band mate, Brian Jones, is much more the rule. Jones' drug and alcohol-related drowning occurred 42 years ago, when Jones was 27. In the case of Amy Winehouse, a history of manic-depression and destructive self-medication made her death less accidental than predictable.

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