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The Year 2018


It is the year 2018, and we are losing legends like leaves in autumn. The end of my era, and the era that inspired my era, is on its way. McCartney and the Stones chug away with gusto, but there is no denying the waning of a certain creative golden era in pop culture. There will be a time when all the icons of a certain kind, finally, are gone. In the past two years alone, we’ve lost David Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty, Glenn Fry, my dear friend Hugh Hefner, Harry Dean Stanton, Chris Cornell…the list goes on, and trying to be exhaustive makes leaving out someone important an inevitability.

When they leave us, we tend to make saints of them or, at the very least, romanticize them. Death

puts us all in a reflective and revisionist mood, and we polish, if not actively rewrite, the histories of our heroes.


David Browne,, 08/14/2017.

“Celebrity Deaths That Changed Music History: Gone Too Soon,” by


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We build them up or tear them down, and construct narratives around their passing that make sense to us. At times, it is justified; at other times, we are biased and our emotions get the better of us.

Why so many, now? Why all at once, so close together, barely giving us time to take a breath and grieve before the next? Looking for patterns is simply what we, as humans, do. We are pattern-seeking animals, and it is in our nature to make sense of things that throw our lives out of order.

By my lights, the reason (if there really is just

one reason) that so many are dying now is because

there was a magical period of time when pop cultural legends, with a capital “L,” were born, all very close to one another. A special kind of figure—a timeless figure, from a unique era; it is only natural that they should

all reach their twilight years at around the same time

as well. The generational wheel turns and takes entire cultural movements with it. It stands to reason that there is one generation, one chunk of time, that was uniquely influential, because we notice all of our legends die at once when it comes to pass. Narrowly, I put this magic time at the early-60s to the late-70s, but there are notable exceptions outside of those sand-drawn lines, as there are to every rule. Elvis is one exception.

Our obsession with celebrity death is only exceeded, it seems, by our obsession with young celebrity death. When cultural figures pass in their twilight years, we can process it as somehow comprehensible, although

sad. Our reflection on their careers is appropriately calm—less frenzied and conspiratorial. However, when a figure seems to pass in their greatest strides, at the peak of our expectations for them, we tend to obsess, and even aggrandize it as somehow exciting or mythical. We invent conspiracy theories. We are shell-shocked, confused, fascinated. We analyze, review, replay again and again. Perhaps this is all simply our way of trying to make sense of senseless things.

After 1969, a slew of major musicians all died

in quick succession. Brian Jones (founding member of the Rolling Stones), Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison of the Doors, arguably the biggest rock stars of their time, all passed at 27 years of age, within just three years of each other.

Whether this was coincidence, simply a logical result of their lifestyle choices, drugs or mental illness, the pressures of being a public figure, or some combination of all of these factors combined, people began to notice a pattern. Correlation began to equal causation in the public imagination. An urban myth, and subsequent cultural fixation, was born: the “27 club”.

As the idea gained traction, pre-1960s figures such as Robert Johnson (one of the, if not the, most influential bluesmen of all time), also dead at 27, were included, as well as post-1980s figures such as Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. The true origin of the word “club” in the term “27 club” is unknown, and there are a few different theories thrown around about who said it first.



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For most people, the question nags: why 27 specifically? What is so unique and deadly about that number? Why so many, why the most famous, the most revered? Was there some sort of curse, some sort of reason for it all? An idea—that there were more deaths of famous musicians and cultural figures at 27 than at any other age—took form, spread, and conspiracies began to formulate.

Now, this supposed “statistical spike” of musicians dying at 27 is not quite true—as it happens, almost as many famous musicians die at 25, or 32.3 A study, done by the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, concluded the following: “We identified three deaths at age 27 amongst 522 musicians at risk, giving a rate of 0.57 deaths per 100 musician years. Similar death rates were observed at ages 25 (rate=0.56) and 32 (0.54). There was no peak in risk around age 27.”4

But, since when has hard science ever dissuaded the mob or the media? A cultural obsession was taking form, an urban myth was spreading, and it bled across the years into the 90s. As it is with many conspiracies and urban legends, this one contained a kernel of truth: Fame and youth can be a destructive combination. Though the number 27 specifically does not appear to be significant, youth and fame more generally is statistically different. The study found that, “the risk of death for famous musicians throughout their 20s and 30s was two to three

3 “Does the 27 club exist?” by M. Wolkewitz, A. Allignol, N. Graves, AG Barnett. The BMJ, Vol. 343, 12/2011.

4 Ibid.

times higher than the general UK population.”5

The 27 club, then, can be viewed as symbolic of

this trend, even if it is not, in fact, its sole peak.

When writing a book about this sort of topic, being sensitive, while still being brave enough not to shy away from the facts, is important. Needless to say, being sensitive has not always been my strong suit, but I’ll try. While fans naturally deify their heroes, these figures were people of flesh and blood, like the rest of us, and many of them are survived by loved ones who do not view their demise as romantic—and who loathe the constant speculation, tabloid attention, and conspiracy theories that fans bombard them with daily.

The concept of the 27 club, in my view, should not be about how glamorous it is to die young—at the peak of success, in a flurry of drugs and excess. This is the way it is usually described, and I’ve been vocal about disapproving of this line of thinking. Even those who, themselves, participate in drug-use and excess are not necessarily on board with its glamorization; Kurt Cobain himself, to his credit, said in an interview, “I never went out of my way to say anything about my drug use […] I think people who glamorize drugs are fucking assholes, and if there’s a hell, they’ll go there.”6 I tend to agree. To the families and friends of these people, and of people all around the world who met similar fates at the hands of

5 Ibid.

6 “Dark Side of the Womb: Part 2,” by the Stud Brothers, Melody Maker, 08/28/1993.



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that deadly cocktail of drug use and mental illness, there is nothing glamorous or heroic about losing someone you love, or losing your own life.

However, what I did not realize in my (slightly) younger years is that the story can neither be about scolding the figures themselves for their choices, which is what I have been known to do, publicly and relentlessly, in the past. One especially cannot truly understand another’s experience if, like me, they have never taken drugs themselves. That place, after someone is already addicted to drugs, is a place I’ve never been. Similarly, this crazy public life we (the famous and infamous)

find ourselves in is difficult to describe to those who

have never experienced it. I have nothing to complain about—I live my dream every day. But make no mistake: Fame and infamy are strange things, and people find themselves there through hard work, creativity, and

luck, but it can still be a bewildering and disturbing experience. It can change your personality, blind you

in many ways, and alter your perception of the world around you in unpredictable ways. I can attest to this blindness myself; when you stand in front of thousands of people that scream your name, you become a little like Lawrence of Arabia, believing your own legend, feeling invincible to harm.

The phrase itself, 27 club, is problematic in my view (take it from me; the king of saying tone-deaf things in public). I’ve seen articles, and even heard industry people mention it the same way they might talk about Soho House: a private, exclusive, members-only “club.”

(Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the fee for a Soho House membership is less expensive for those under 27, and more for those older than 27, specifically, as if turning 27 is a coming-of-age for the creative class. I am not sure if this is a deliberate allusion, but it sure seems convenient.)

It’s easy to forget we’re talking about actual death when this is the agreed upon jargon, a value system weighted so thoroughly toward youth that has been put in place so long that we barely even notice. To state it plainly: death should not be a club. Yet, if you look up these figures online, you see them grouped together as a pantheon. There are fan-run websites that sell unlicensed merch and t-shirts with these people grouped together like a pantheon of gods, sometimes with phrases like “forever 27” adorned on them, along with stylized grim reapers. Somehow, these merchandisers are excused from the moral outrage that they, perhaps, would have had directed at them had these young people’s deaths not occurred under the guise of being “rock stars.”7

If anything, learning about the 27 club should be about learning about why people do what they do; you can never truly get inside someone’s head, but making one’s best effort to get as close as possible is the key, I believe, to every kind of diplomacy. But, as I’ve said, diplomacy was never my strong suit. So, this book is my attempt.


Sure, it can be a cautionary tale of the perils and

“About Us,”, accessed: 06/11/2018.



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pitfalls that come with undiagnosed mental health issues, as well as how those issues are magnified and inflamed by an industry and a culture that glorifies dangerous behavior. It can be a story about how pop culture convinces people (when they are too young to know better) that they are invincible, and, simultaneously and paradoxically, that death is preferable to old age. “I hope I die before I get old,” sing The Who. “What a drag it

is getting old,” sing the Stones. These sentiments have been with us a long time, and they are, unfortunately, still a big part of pop culture mythos; Forever 21 is one of the biggest clothing brands on earth, after all.

This is the psychology of pop culture America: we like to throw away the things we love before they wither. We buy records and films from brand new stars fresh out of their teens, and with our next dollar, we buy the tabloids that skewer them for their addictions, their divorces, their cellulite, their depression, or their suicide. Build them up, then tear them down.

But that is not all there is to it. Thinking about the 27 club is also about appreciating how totally unique and unfathomable each human experience is—how nature and nurture lead us on twin leashes toward futures we never imagined. Understanding another person’s pain, what drives them to do things that we find inexplicable,

is much like understanding another’s perception of the color blue… How do we really know if my blue is the same as your blue? What if what you call blue would

be totally unrecognizable to me? How can we come

to an understanding if I’ll never really know what your

blue looks like? This concept applies to everything: Can we ever possibly know, can we ever get close enough to truly understand, the motivations, the neurochemical reactions, the environment, and the history that lead to each personal decision we make in life? When you’re in the midst of talking to someone, this is not usually how we think about them, because engaging with someone

on any level in real time is an emotional act. When you see someone jumping into the deep end of the lake, you try to stop them, because it’s too dangerous. Or, perhaps, you’re the one jumping, and you get annoyed that the “square” behind you is trying to prevent you from living life to its fullest. But both of those people arrived at their opposing views of the same act through their own life experience, through the prism of who they are, and it may not be possible to truly exchange perspectives in that moment, or any.

True understanding may always elude us. Certainly, it has eluded me; there are people I will probably never understand, people with whom I have been very close, and people of whom I have been very critical. My bandmates are an example. My children are another—they would be the first to admit that we never quite understand one another. There is always a personal and generational gap.

However, that’s what this book should be: an attempt to understand (for the first time, in my case) what makes people who are in the same position as me, here

at “the top,” go down a darker road. For the first time

in my life, I’m going to (for the most part) withhold my



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criticisms, especially on the subject of substance abuse, and just try to get inside the heads of these figures, because we share so many things and yet ended up in such different places, in the end.

I grew up in this business, the business of “celebrity,” and I’ve seen young people fall victim to

a strange pattern. It doesn’t get everyone. Maybe it doesn’t even get most. But there is something, it seems, that makes people at the top of a mountain want to go

to the edge and peer into the void. Sometimes, they fall accidentally. Sometimes the mob pushes them. And, sometimes, they jump. Like all clichés, “It’s lonely at

the top” sprouts from an authentic human experience, which perhaps only a small section of the populace

will ever get to encounter. There are people, for myriad reasons, who can reach the pinnacle of success, be surrounded by friends and fans who adore them, but who nevertheless feel alone in ways other people do not. There is a paradoxical isolation in being surrounded, for some people. It’s something I have never experienced. But many people in my same position have.

To me, that is what the 27 club really is: a pattern that emerges from the strange impulse that too many young people, so full of potential, cannot help but feel, just by the nature of who they are and what they have experienced. I was never immune, per se, to this morbid fascination, but I was only ever a spectator to it. I always wanted to know what caused people, some of whom

I knew, peripherally, to fall so far, so fast. I wanted to know why certain people felt that way, while some of our

other contemporaries seemed perfectly comfortable with the attention, able to grow a thick skin and ignore the frothing critics. Some survived by luck, despite their self- destructive behavior, and some, like me, never partook in the more dangerous parts of the lifestyle.

A related, but separate, issue to the misplaced romance of self-destruction is false equivalency when

it comes to different definitions of “rebellion.” When I was young, to rebel was to champion outlandish ways

of dressing, casual sex, and other nontraditional lifestyle choices. In other words: to rebel was to be free of those traditions that did not make sense to you, no matter who of the older generation expected you to follow them. Freedom was the reason for it all; the freedom

to pursue the life one wants. However, in my opinion, rebellion has become grafted onto self-destruction, and soon freedom is not enough; soon one has to balance oneself on the edge of losing everything, including freedom, in order to be free. The unfortunate old adage, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” has been romanticized

to such a degree that we all accept it without thinking twice. I believe that the “drugs” part of this mantra

has, quite literally, contributed to hundreds, maybe thousands, of young deaths across the world. And it continues to do so—in different forms, and in different genres of music.

Now, I’ve been outspoken about never drinking or doing any drugs, period. To me, it was not a difficult decision to make; the information about the risks was



The Legend And Mythology Of The 27 Club Introduction

there and seemed to me to be plainly logical. But for many, this decision was clearly not as easy as it was

for me. Some, perhaps, did not think much at all, and merely went with the cultural flow—the influencing or enabling forces that almost all young people feel. I’ve rarely minced words on the topic, and my harsh tongue has got me into trouble on occasion, when I have chosen to speak out.

Certainly, it is worth noting that for most of my adult life I did not know a thing about major depressive disorder or its related conditions. I didn’t believe it was real, nor could I understand what it was actually like.

It just seemed like a “rich person problem” to me, a consequence of the cushy life my generation built for

my children’s generation. I’ve learned more about it since, and have changed my mind, though sometimes it

is admittedly still hard for me to grasp. I’ve met people and become close with people who deal with mental health problems. I can be a bonehead sometimes, but I’ve always prided myself on being someone who is open to changing my mind at the introduction of new evidence.

Many people familiar with me may be surprised by my change of heart. The catalyst for this book came as a result of a series of very long, involved conversations with my son Nick, who is helping me write and edit

this book. Nick and I disagree on a great many things. We talk, hash things out, and sometimes never find any common ground. Our life experiences are different, but so are our minds in a lot of crucial ways. But we learn from each other; the first version of this book was going

to be much more of a judgment piece, a criticism, until Nick began to talk to me about his experience interacting with some of the people involved. Nick had played with Robbie Krieger of the Doors, and has had conversations with others peripheral to these stories. After we talked,

I decided that the goal of this book should not be to chastise people or project my own views, but to simply understand—to dive deep into the lives of these icons whose work I loved, from the perspective of a fellow musician, a fellow public figure, and a fan.

The first time I realized I had something to learn was during one of these conversations with Nick. My

son was troubled, which puzzled me; he had everything, in my view, that anyone could ever want. He lives a privileged, fortunate life, which I was able to give him

a head start on. He works hard, and he’s very aware

of his luck. He goes out of his way to express gratitude for even the smallest conveniences his life offers, and he tries to earn them too. And yet, I found that he was very distraught. When he called me, very shaken up, I tried

to remind him about all the things he had going for him, as I often do: He had a great family, he had his health,

he had a wonderful life—there was no reason for him

to be sad. He said that he knew all of that, and he was grateful. So I asked him why, and he said there was no reason; he was just having an episode. “It’s in my head, like a stomach ache is in your stomach,” he said. “I’m not dissatisfied with life. My brain just does this sometimes.”

Sometimes it takes someone that you love to explain things to you before you can believe they are



The Legend And Mythology Of The 27 Club Introduction

real. That was my first encounter with this strange thing, clinical depression, that I actually considered to be authentic. And he needed me to feel that way. He told me: “All I need from you, the only way you can help me, is for you to believe me…Believe that I’m not just making this up.”

I told him, “I do. I believe you. I’ve seen it,” and

I had. Though I had brushed people off in the media, regarding people I did not know personally, I could not brush off a family member. It has made me reflect on other cases I’ve perhaps been too quick to dismiss. I didn’t understand what this thing called “depression” was. I thought it was just an emotion, like any other emotion, and thus a part of someone’s character. In a way, I will never fully understand. But that is the point—I do not need to understand. I only need to understand that they arrived in that place the same way anyone arrives anywhere, at the behest of a whirlwind of forces beyond our control, many of which have to do with genes. I also need to learn to trust people when they try to communicate their pain.

Once I realized my son was part of this thing,

it made me regret things I had said publicly about depression and its related issues. I have been harsh because I didn’t believe that people could be sick in that way. I believed it was a matter of willpower, a matter of character flaws, and I suspect many in my generation still feel this way. Again, a kernel of truth: of course there are people who simply need to toughen up and start taking their lives seriously. But mixed in with these unmotivated,

healthy individuals are people who really are tormented by a medical, psychological condition outside of their control. I never would have changed my point of view on this had it not affected someone close to me. And that is my flaw.

I want this to be an olive branch to people whose choices I don’t necessarily approve of. The meaning

of that olive branch is that we can try to understand each other without condoning actions we don’t believe in. There is a way we can guide the people (especially children and young people) who look up to us and help them realize how they, in each of their unique ways, can live better and longer than we do.

So I offer no apologies for my disapproval of drugs, only context, and some explanation regarding what I mean when I criticize people who abuse drugs. That is the following:

My point of view, as of today, is that if you are a well-informed, healthy adult, and you choose to take that first hit of heroin, that first hit is your responsibility. If you know the risks and dangers of an activity and choose to partake in it anyway, my sympathies are difficult to muster. I used to say that without reservation and without caveat.

But, I also know that to err is human—a lesson I learned from very personal, as well as public experience. So perhaps there is more room for more nuance here than I’ve admitted on-the-air.

My critique, obviously, does not apply to children—who don’t know any better, and who are



The Legend And Mythology Of The 27 Club Introduction

perhaps exposed to a dealer, an enabler, or an otherwise bad influence that gets them into something dangerous from a young age. It also does not apply to people

with undiagnosed mental health problems, who self- medicate for lack of hope or other options. As I’ve

said, I’ve often painted depression with too broad a brush out of anger and frustration. I came from the “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” generation; there simply was no conversation about depression, nor public understanding of what it means, at least not in the circles in which I ran. Depression was treated as a personality flaw. “Get over it” is a phrase I heard a lot from adults growing up, and it’s a lesson I internalized and regurgitated to people in turn.

It worked for me. It made me toughen up and make my dreams come true. I still find myself skeptical of people’s motivations when they claim they are unable to function because of their emotions, because, although I now acknowledge depression exists, liars and scam artists exist as well, and liars and scam artists will take advantage of a real condition, like depression, in order to excuse themselves from the responsibilities of life. Depressive people are real, and slackers are real, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The difference between addiction and any other personal problem—the fact that exposure to drugs is, more often than not, a decision an individual makes— is why the concept that addiction is a sickness is difficult for people to comprehend. This moment of choice, and this informed, healthy, pre-drug person is what I have

been referring to when I’ve been dismissive and angry with people who struggle with addiction in the past.

And my point of view has evolved since then to include extenuating circumstances I hadn’t thought about before.

But I stand by this specific flag I’ve planted.

From heroin to cigarettes, coffee, gambling, junk food, and social media, we all know (especially in this age of information we live in) what these things can do to a person when they get out of control. There is an element of personal responsibility there. It has always frustrated me that people who get sober get applause, while people who never touched the stuff in the first place get apathy.

But context is key. Before people become

rock stars, there are checks and balances in their lives—maybe parents or concerned friends, talking in their ear and intervening. Or, perhaps it’s the fear of consequences, of getting arrested, that keep “ordinary” people from going off the deep end. For young people, these limitations are annoyances, even though they save them from themselves.

Once you climb to the top of the mountain, however, the unfortunate by-product is that there are very few checks and balances. This I say from personal experience. When you reach a certain level of fame, the people around you will only tell you what you want to hear. I hope the dangers of living in an echo chamber, in this age of political unrest and failed conversations,

is obvious. Fame takes that echo chamber and further insulates it from all outside influence. And when you have enough power and money to do whatever you like,



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whenever you like, the only true consequences, the only true laws, are natural laws.

Let’s just say it plainly, as if for the first time: Drug and alcohol abuse kills people. It hurts people,

and it breaks up families, friends…and bands. However, everyone—everyone—has demons, whether they are aware of them or not. If there is anything I’ve learned as I get older, it is that I am not as rock-solid as I once thought I was when it comes to being hijacked by my demons.

My problem was never drugs, but I have my own “drugs” that I am loath to admit as problems and that haunt me in different ways. Attention, accolades, success, validation, even chocolate cake—these are the “drugs” to which I am addicted. Admitting this has made it easier for me to empathize with those whose internal issues are different than mine. I may never understand their nature, but I can understand that they exist, and believe that they are real.

The main reason I never acknowledged my demons before is probably the same reason that famous figures who have substance abuse problems have a hard time grappling with their issues: the problem of the yes- men. After all, who will tell the rock star, the icon, the rebel, the hero, at the peak of his power and influence, what to do? Who’s going to tell a cultural monarch, a creative revolutionary, to put the glass, the pipe, the needle down, to change something about themselves, when there are hordes of young people outside telling them to keep going exactly as they are?

My life and career in the rock ‘n’ roll industry has

been plagued by inconvenience at best, and tragedy at worst, because of other people’s decisions regarding the abuse of drugs. Addicts have hung in grim orbit around me my entire professional life. I’ve lost friends, partners, and opportunities because of drug abuse, and that,

if I’m being candid, is probably where my frustration and intolerance comes from. In the end, when I react

in anger to drugs, it’s because of what I’ve seen them

do to people I care about. It’s a defense mechanism. When I have seen a friend or an associate making that choice, I want to grab them by the scruff of their neck and slap some sense into them. I still, perhaps, will never understand that decision—that first decision, not the ones that are the result of being helpless to addiction, which come afterwards. We cannot control addiction; many are powerless to it. Getting addicted, for the first time, however—perhaps we can control that. And

when I see a friend going down that road, my emotions overcome me. I want to save them from themselves. I get angry. Furious. I still feel this way, when I see it. So, once again; no apologies, only clarification.

Bearing all of this in mind, this book will attempt to discuss various cultural figures, within and beyond the music industry, who passed away at 27 years old, and try to make sense of and empathise with them. I will speculate about what forces, internal and external, led these young people down the wrong path, as well as what their lives and their deaths meant to the culture surrounding them. Most of this book will not be an argument for or against anything; it will simply be an



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attempt to understand. Much of it will be biography, simple observation, and reflection from my vantage point. But I am hoping my point of view will, in some small way, count as firsthand, from within the eye of the storm, and will add a new perspective to this old discussion. In a way, I want to break the spell and show that, even without self-destruction, the people listed in this book were great at what they did. Young death, mental turmoil, and struggles with addiction should add no extra sheen to their legacies, and should not be the entire focus of their stories. On the contrary, our mourning should be properly mournful, not asterisked with that strange caveat: how cool it is to hit a wall. Perhaps if we internalize that the charisma of death

is a myth, the next generation of young icons won’t

feel the need to continue the trend, and can start their own revolutions and actually see them through to the end. Perhaps if we focus more on life than death, we can actually understand these figures as people. If we glamorize anything, let it be the work and the humanity of these artists, not the dirty laundry and juicy gossip.

It seems to me that young people with dreams

of greatness are given a burden: a viral narrative that to self-destruct (in one way or another) in order to achieve a sort of mythical greatness is the right way to go; that this is the only thing that makes one valuable and desirable and heroic. We mythologize famous deaths as, “Burning too bright, for half as long.” Many people believe their status as “great” is causally related to this self-destruction. I don’t believe this. To me, our fascination with this

pattern, the age 27, is the result of our need to ascribe some meaningful narrative to the absurdity of life, to take the sting out of death. In reality, these artists were people, as messy and flawed and absurd as all people are—as I am, as you are. And every person’s experience is unique, incomparable, and worth exploring.

So, as if for the first time, let us be fascinated more than we are judgmental. Let us try to understand them not as heroes or villains, gods or icons, good or bad influences, but simply, as human beings.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.