—Much Ado About Nothing III, 2
We were driving in to Medinah this morning at our usual time, six, when Scott, who’s twenty-six, started in on the recent death of the singer Amy Winehouse. “Twenty-seven,” he kept saying, going on to repeat the Internet story (now with its own Wikipedia entry!) about the “27 Club” or the “Curse of 27.” “Spooky, huh?” he wanted to know. I replied that I did not find it “spooky,” at all—that, in fact, I find it rather more interesting that more celebrities don’t die at that age than actually do. I call this the “Celebrity Death Theory,” and while at first it may appear rather far from golf, I think it actually sheds a certain light on Tiger Woods’ recent firing of caddie Steve Williams.
My theory is that celebrities sometimes die at that age because it is part of the life-cycle of the celebrity, considered in the same way that one might look at some interesting species of beetle. Consider: people who become huge, international stars often become that at an early age, sometimes while still in their teens or early twenties. This is because the industries that produce “stars,” the entertainment industries, needs young people: first, because people usually look their best at that age (some people, sure, age into their bodies and so on, but for the most part); and second because the greatest consumers of the entertainment industry’s product are people of that same age.
Still, why should celebrities die at the age of twenty-seven—when, if they achieved their status at some earlier age, they ought to be at their peak of fortune and fame? This, I think, is actually the sort of “puzzle” that resolves itself if you happen to think about it. Twenty-seven is, in reality, a natural age for celebrities to die. Consider: Hendrix and Morrison and Joplin and Cobain (to name four of the people associated with the phenomena) had all had their international breakthroughs at early ages: as noted, the entertainment industry has a constant need for young, fresh faces, so naturally there is a constant stream of newly-famous in their early twenties or even younger.
But after that first flush of success, where are you? In the music industry, at least—and other places—there’s a phenomena known as the “sophomore slump,” which describes what happens when your next album (or book or movie or whatever) isn’t quite the same international smash as your first one. Of course, since we’re talking about the sorts of products that have massively huge success—Nirvana’s Nevermind, for instance—there’s a certain argument that nobody could possibly follow that up with something even more successful: this is what sabermatricians, the stat-heads of baseball, call “regression toward the mean”—it was virtually certain, for example, that Barry Bonds would hit less than 70 home runs the season following his record-setting year, even aside from the possibility that he cut back on his steroids intake to avoid detection.
A lot of things have to happen to turn somebody from just another recent college graduate—what Morrison was in the summer of 1965—into the sort of star that everyone knew two years later, after the release of the Doors’ self-titled first studio album in the winter of 1967. Most of them, of course, are outside of the control of the “artist,” or worker in the entertainment industry: “fame” is what happens when the particular concerns of one person suddenly are also the concerns of great numbers of other people. That’s what the German philosophers meant when they referred to the “Zeitgeist,” which Shelley (himself one of the first beneficiaries of the process) translated as the “spirit of the age.” In German, it all sounds mysterious and exotic, but what they meant was something far more down-to-earth and prosaic, even if that’s difficult to recall now.
Yet what happens after that first wave of international pop stardom is over, after your name stops being what’s listed in the apartment directory and starts being the last thing the announcer says before you take the stage? Well, for a lot of people, it might be time to take stock, and figure out what to do next. That’s apparently what Morrison was doing in Paris in the summer of 1971—escaping to a city where his name was not a household one, in much the same way that Michael Jordan used to escape to Europe during the NBA’s offseason.
Twenty-seven, in other words, is about the age a person might suddenly have some time on their hands, if they became famous at the age of twenty-one or so. At loose ends, so to speak. Back to Black, the album that made Amy Winehouse famous—and won her five Grammy awards, more than any previous English musician—was released in 2007, nearly five years ago. She had not released an album since then; there’d been a few singles, and just prior to her death there was a twelve-city European tour (the latter dates of which were cancelled due to the catch-all diagnosis of “exhaustion”), but there doesn’t seem to have been an album due anytime soon—certainly not something to compete with Back to Black.
These deaths at the age of twenty-seven, in short, are perhaps part of the life-cycle of the species, not something anomalous or strange. There ought to be a certain amount of casualties from celebrity status—which, after all, is a life-threatening condition, as we have reason to know now—and so there are, if one examines the record with a cold eye. Which brings us around to Tiger Woods and Steve Williams, which happened two weeks ago and, I would say, is equally part of the life-cycle of the famous person. Part of that cycle, we might suppose, is the increasingly-narrow circle of people that the celebrity can trust: a circle that, in Tiger’s case, was rather small to begin with and has become increasingly more so in the past several years.
Woods fired his long-time caddie, Steve Williams, at the AT&T National at Aronimink over the weekend of the Fourth of July, apparently because Williams showed up at the tournament with Adam Scott, the Australian golfer Williams first worked for this year at the U.S. Open. Woods was under the impression that the U.S. Open loop at Congressional for Scott was a one-off, and took Williams’ appearance with Scott at Aronimink as a sign of “disloyalty”—never mind that Williams has not only defended Tiger on the golf course (like the time he threw a photographer’s camera in a pond), but also in the press since Tiger’s unfortunate Thanksgiving. Together with how Tiger fired his first looper on tour, Mike “Fluff” Cowan—Cowan had the temerity to appear in commercials—this latest dismissal paints a picture of a man with a particularly narrow interpretation of loyalty.
It’s just to escape such an increasingly tighter circle, of course, that led Jim Morrison, and later Michael Jordan, to Europe, because there they could walk down the street without being mobbed as they might be in the United States. It’s one reason that smaller-scale “celebrities” are drawn to New York or Los Angeles: in cities like that, a mere former governor of Arkansas, say, is lost in the crowd. So what we might say is that “celebrity” status has its own forces at work that are, in effect, much like the forces that draw the salmon back to the same stream year after year, or that move whales from Alaska to Hawaii with the seasons: as the web of international media attention grows tighter, the “celebrity” realizes that success is also a prison with bars of gold instead of steel. Inevitably, as all semblance of a “normal” life is shed, that has an effect on the psyche: innumerable arrest records can attest to the reactions of Winehouse et al. to the price of fame.
Human beings are, after all, social animals: we have to have contact with other human beings in order to stay sane, as studies of the effect of solitary confinement on prison inmates have shown. So what we might think is that there is some algorithm to human behavior whereby increasing celebrity leads to increasing distance from what we like to term the “real world,” a distance that can be measured in altercations and prison sentences, divorces and “rehab treatments.” As that distance increases so too does the number of people with whom one might have a standard kind of human relation, as Woods apparently had with Williams (who had previously worked for another number one player in the world, Greg Norman, and so was presumably inured to celebrity status), and maybe that means that a person will spend an increasing amount of time thinking about those few relationships still left.
It’s reasonably well-known, for example, that the rest of Tiger’s family—his half-brothers and sisters, and their children—have barely had any contact with him in years, despite the fact that one of his nieces, Cheyenne Woods, is following in her uncle’s footsteps in golf: she’s won more than 30 amateur tournaments. But Tiger cut his ties with those relations shortly after his father’s death, as CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes described it in a story some years ago. Now these same forces have, we might say, acted to show Steve Williams the door. One can only wonder whether Tiger realizes how much his actions are being dictated to him, who’s always prided himself on his own self-mastery.