JIMI HENDRIX died after choking on his own vomit; Brian Jones drowned on a summer’s day in 1969; Jim Morrison died of heart failure in Paris; Kurt Cobain put a gun in his mouth and said farewell to life. All were young men - only 27 years of age.
Their deaths - as well as those of Janis Joplin, Big Star’s Chris Bell, bluesman Robert Johnson, and Amy Winehouse - earned them a place in the infamous 27 Club; the macabre and strange fate which decrees so many wonderful artists die at that age.
Although the manner of each member’s passing is always tragic and was almost always needless and preventable; each young person in his/her short time created a legacy that time cannot erase; Brian Jones founded the Rolling Stones and was a key figure in popularising the blues in Britain; Morrison’s voice and lyrics set a benchmark for others; Cobain’s music will always speak to the angst filled teen, the outsider, the alternative mind; while Hendrix’s became the undisputed ‘greatest guitarist of all time’ - not just in rock, but in any genre of music.
It is this latter legacy Jack L is paying homage to in his new show, The 27 Club, and the Kildare singer brings it to the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday December 19 at 8pm. “It’s about celebrating the history of rock and celebrating these lives rather than the deaths,” he says.
Legacy of the lizard king
The idea for the show - as well as the album (which has received rave reviews and reached No 1 on the IRMA indie chart in October ), and DVD - came when Jack presented the radio show, High Fidelity, on Lyric FM with Athenry vocalist-composer Julie Feeney.
“It was a history of recorded song from Edison to the iPod,” Jack tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview, “and starting in 1938 with Robert Johnson, then Hendrix, Jones, Joplin, right-up to modern times with Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, the number 27 kept appearing - and that’s just the really famous icons. I was looking to do a historical show and the 27 Club was the most appealing. It was a way of presenting the history of rock’n’roll and performing great songs from the canon that have inspired me.”
The fact so many significant musicians have died at 27 has led to theorising as to why that age and if there can be any rational, explainable, reason for it. Does Jack have a theory?
“You can go to the mystics and the numerologists but I think it’s just very unfortunate,” he says. “Maybe at 27 you’re nearing 30 and so you push the envelope that bit further and your body can no longer take it, but not all the 27 Club died from drugs and drink - there were others who died in car crashes. There is no real reason for it other than an unfortunate coincidence.”
Of the songs by various 27 Club members featured in the show and on the album, some are obvious choices for Jack’s magnificent baritone, such as the Echo & The Bunnymen classic ‘The Killing Moon’, Amy Winehouse’s ‘Love Is A Losing Game’, and particularly The Doors’ ‘Touch Me’ and ‘The Crystal Ship’.
“I’ve always loved The Doors,” he declares. “I put them up there with The Beatles, with what they did in such a short space of time. Four guys, exceptional in what they did, it was a moment in time when everything came together.”
Not surprisingly Jim Morrison is a vocalist Jack L looks up to. “Morrison was the quintessential rock star. He was a Sinatra fan, an Elvis fan, and Morrison was the next evolutionary step beyond that. He asked ‘Are you a showman or are you a shaman, leading people into altered states, lifting them out of the mundane?’ He was able to do that.”
Morrison’s influence can also be detected in how Jack L approaches his live shows.
“I sing in a theatrical way, it comes naturally to me,” he says. “I do what I would like to see at a show. I like to have a conversation with the audience and make it a communal get together. The term ‘theatrical’ can turn people off as they might think you are faking it but I try to be genuine, find the centre of the song, and if you get there you can transmit that to the audience.”
More surprising on The 27 Club however, is Jack’s decision to cover Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. “I’m a rock’n’roll guy as much as I am a crooner,” he says. “I was a teenager when grunge happened and I was big into Nirvana.”
Instead of producing carbon copies of the songs, Jack has reinterpreted them in startling, imaginative ways. The psychedelic heavy rock of ‘Purple Haze’ is transformed into a chilled out, slow bluesy groove, reminiscent of the style and sound of French electronic duo Air.
“I’m always reminded of the Bill Hicks joke about Hendrix,” says Jack. “Jimi and his brother bought a UFO and went flying around earth. They saw some people playing guitars and Jimi’s brother says to him ‘Go down there and show them how it’s done and I’ll be back to pick you up when you’re 27.’
“He was like someone from outer space. He was exceptionally talented and one of my favourite musicians, but if someone told me I would be performing a Hendrix song I would have thought they were cuckoo.
“When we start a song we play it acoustically, mess around with it, find the space that suits my voice and with ‘Purple Haze’ we hit upon a groove and it worked, and that’s because a lot of Hendrix’s songs are built around a hook or a groove, they’re bluesy, and it was about taking that and running with it.”
Even more startling is Jack’s take on a song that has gone beyond classic status to become sacred - ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, a work artists cover at their peril, as Tori Amos found in 1992 (“a great breakfast cereal version,” Cobain said. Journalist Everett True was more withering in Nirvana: The Biography ).
Jack’s haunting version is one of themore succesful, stripping the song down to a slow, sepulchral ballad, which keep the element of angst by recasting it as reflective, late night, regret.
“All Cobain’s songs are very abstract but he was a massive Beatles fan and you can hear that in the pop hooks and melodies of his songs, that’s what makes them stand out,” says Jack. “It’s a very dark song about the culture of celebrity, that’s what I take from it, but it’s like Abstract art, you take it on your own terms. I mean ‘A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido’ what does that mean?
“I knew doing this I was setting myself up for potential ridicule. I wanted to do it justice and hold onto the angst of the original, and the feedback has been really, really positive.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie