Rock history is full of fallen idols, Icarus-like figures with a penchant for flying a little too high. A handful of them have more in common than an affinity for excess: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain all merged with the infinite in their 27th year. Coincidence, or a metaphysical smoking gun?
New York-based author, musician and filmmaker Ian Halperin is betting on the latter. His "rock musical satirical play," 27 Heaven, which makes its debut at the FlynnSpace this week, features the aforementioned superstars searching for the meaning of afterlife. Along the way, the deceased rockers reveal a lot about the post-human condition.
Halperin, 42, is the author of seven books, including bestsellers Fire & Rain: The James Taylor Story and Celine Dion: Behind the Fairytale. But he's not just a soft-rock scribe. Halperin won an award for investigative journalism from Rolling Stone magazine, and went undercover to expose the ugly side of the modeling industry for the book Shut Up & Smile. Then there's the controversial tome Love & Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, which he co-wrote with Max Wallace. That work, which later formed the basis for the Halperin-directed film The Cobain Case, collects evidence that directly contradicts the official report of suicide.
27 Heaven opens with a recently deceased and rather confused Cobain meeting Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison at the Great Gig in the Sky. The three elder musicians attempt to get the grunge legend to join them on the "next level," a sort of spirit-world glee club reserved for entertainers who expired at age 27. But a lot has changed since these rockers challenged the terrestrial system. Hendrix, for instance, is no longer the psychedelic prophet of guitarmageddon, but rather a staunch advocate for a drug-free Paradise.
In addition to conceiving and writing the script, Halperin composed the music for 27 Heaven. A saxophonist and composer who traveled the world with his own group, he brings plenty of experience to the project. He also had an active hand - along with director Adam Roebuck - in casting for the production.
27 Heaven will undertake a several-month tour before landing on Broadway next year. In this respect, it's closer to a rock 'n' roll outing than a traditional play. Seven Days recently chatted with the author/musician from his Big Apple abode.
SEVEN DAYS: Since there's not a lot of advance info about the show, can you tell me what it's all about?
IAN HALPERIN: It opens at the time of Kurt Cobain's death, and he wakes up in so-called heaven and has to decide whether to go through these gates with the other three - Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison. He's initially gonna do it, but then he sees the changes that have gone on with them. They're a little whacked, different and sort of erratic. So Kurt has his doubts. Then there's this debate about their beings, their souls and their impact.
SD: You've worn a lot of different creative hats - biographer, musician and filmmaker. How does 27 Heaven fit into your overall body of work?
IH: A lot of people today wear different hats. But this definitely incorporates a lot. It's sort of an extension of what I've previously done. I'm also interested in spirituality, and it has elements of that.
SD: What made you want to try your hand at playwriting?
IH: What's concerning to me is that the musical theater canon is, like, Annie Get Your Gun and Brigadoon. But there's a whole other potential audience - people who go to concerts and support bands. They don't have any kind of play they can relate to. Musicians especially.
SD: Is that why you're focusing on dead rock stars?
IH: I've always had ideas about the so-called "27 Club" and the four of them. Because 27 is such a pivotal year in people's lives. In doing the research, I spoke with psychologists, sociologists - all about 27. I found that people often try to sleep through that year, because it's so intense. The fact that these icons all died at that age I found so fascinating. I really wanted to dig into it and explore much deeper.
SD: So you think there's a mystical significance to that number?
IH: Absolutely. I actually spoke to numerologists, and they've all said it's very powerful. A lot of the youth are obsessed with it, and many have had traumatic experiences during that year. There are all kinds of theories, and we really go through it in this play.
SD: You don't think that's too heady for an audience to wrap their minds around?
IH: No. If there's one thing the play won't be, it's boring and over the top. There's definitely substance to the spiritual factors.
SD: You've written extensively about Kurt Cobain's possible murder - now he's a character in your play. Do you think perhaps you're obsessed with him?
IH: No, no. I've done so many other projects. Maybe if you're in the rock world it might seem like that! But this play doesn't address the murder theory. It's a whole different ball game. It's the rock stars' fictitious conversations in heaven.
SD: Do you have a personal opinion about how Cobain died?
IH: I definitely think that the scientific evidence shows it to be impossible that he killed himself. Mainly due to the amount of heroin they found in his system - 70 times the lethal dose for an average person, and three times for the most severe addict. Experts say it's impossible. He'd be dead within a second.
SD: Some might consider a play about a quartet of dead rockers to be kind of morbid. What would you say to that?
IH: I'd say they're leading morbid lives! It's a work of art. Not as bright as Annie Get Your Gun, this play, but we're in 2006. It mixes rock, spirituality and comedy all in one. It'll make people think, but it's not a depression show.
SD: But you have to admit, our culture certainly has a fixation with death. Are you making any kind of comment on this?
IH: Absolutely. Because death is the unknown. And we all know the mortality rate is 100 percent.
SD: So it's hard not to be obsessed.
IH: There you go. Everyone is curious about it, myself included. And this will stretch the imagination as to what it could be.
SD: What was the casting process like?
IH: Over 3000 people auditioned for this play. I guess that shows you the state of acting in New York! Really, though, it was a zoo. They were lining up outside at 7 in the morning dressed as Hendrix and Joplin, drinking whiskey and Southern Comfort. They really went to extremes. What I didn't realize before is how much young women look up to Janis Joplin. Some of them were begging and pleading for the part, 'cause she was their idol, their liberator.
SD: Are you a fan of these dead musicians' work?
IH: The one I admire most is Hendrix. Being a musician myself, I respect someone who really commands the craft. We've not seen such an innovator on guitar since.
SD: How do you think the stars would feel about appearing as characters in your play?
IH: I think they'd find it creative. It keeps their legacy alive, but also makes a statement about four profound individuals. All of them were highly intellectual, so hopefully they'd be honored by the tribute paid to them. But, like it or not, it's still interpretation. And that's beautiful.