Remembering Miss Winehouse (Cabaret Music pt.2)

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
      –Edna St. Vincent Millay
        (From Figs from Thistles)




There was once a cool college radio station in Boston.

When I was a teenager it taught me everything I knew about the Blues, and older alternative music (not just the stuff on MTV). It even turned me on to a cappella music. Hold there for a moment, Gentle Reader, and do not scoff — it steered me well.

The station’ s last gift to me, before it died an undignified corporate death, was Amy Winehouse. It was when Frank came out and “Stronger than Me” was on heavy rotation. I didn’t know anything about her. I had never heard of her, and the infamy of her hobbies hadn’t yet eclipsed the fame of her vocation.  That song used to be pretty consistently on the radio when I woke up and drove to work in the morning. It wasn’t the perfect time to listen to her. She didn’t sing in a morning mode, unless ‘morning’ means 3 a.m., but the music stuck with me.

Pretty soon I had my own copy of the album, and slowly America became aware of the gossip and the baggage. The British seemed more interested in her bad behavior, smoldering eyes, and beehive —  but none of that matter much to me. I had fallen in love with the voice, and the songs.

The songs had an edge to them that were lessened by all the things that critics like about them — the cursing, the Mark Ronson production, and the deadening remixes. Maybe the pre-fabbed pop versions did vault her to the top of the charts — but it hardy matters — they did neither her nor her music any favors.

She wasn’t a repository of kitsch and slander — she was a magnet for them.

She was the greatest cabaret singer of our century. And, in the years since she died, the music has improved. Her voice and her songs have gotten stronger over the years, even if all of the celebrated ‘hip-hop’ influences have only become increasingly distracting and dated. There are a few unmarred tracks she did, on a a BBC album that is pure, sound, edgy, and unkitschy, but there aren’t enough.

It was her decision of course. She embraced all of the tawdriness — the weed, the sampling, the drum machines, everything. It is part of her and there is no separating her from any part of it. If she wanted to be the bad girl she would have to reject some of the good, and so she wanted and so she rejected.

When she died, a friend of mine was envious, because she joined the famous 27-Club, as if it were an accomplishment. I chalk it up to her and me getting older (we were in our early 30s) and our chances of living fast dying young and leaving good-looking corpses were up. But I can’t envy it now, and I couldn’t then.

My friend and I had come to the age when we knew that we weren’t going to live up to our early potential. It is a knowledge that still hurts. But wasting potential, letting the match burn itself to nothing before it lights any other fire isn’t a solution or even a cop out. It’s only a waste.



Auden’s Music con’t

It seems the British Library has been thinking about Auden’s songs too, and produced a handy guide to them. 

The blog I posted last week didn’t include any introduction to them whatsoever and I had been planning on doing a little one in case anyone​ was curious about what I was talking about. 

I don’t suppose that many people are familiar with Auden or cabaret music these days, but it seems I did suppose so when I wrote that entry.

Auden’s Songs (Cabaret Music pt. I)

I can’t find a suitable version of Auden’s cabaret songs.  I can find some well-done versions, but they are all done in the operatic style.  It may have something to do with Britten’s settings, or the simple fact that Britten did the settings, which are musically fine, but don’t really reflect how good the lyrics are, or the nature of the material.

Opera can ignore bad writing, because it is about the performance, but the same is not true here — the quality of the song depends largely on the quality of the lyrics. That is the story of popular music in the first three quarters of the 20th century.

There was a sentimental movie in my youth that featured one of these songs read aloud at a funeral as if it were a poem. Whoever wrote the screen play showed good judgement here (if not anywhere else).  The lyrics aren’t poetry (there is a very big difference and Auden wrote on the subject) but they do function better on their own.

It doesn’t have to be the case. Certainly, we can imagine these songs would be better if they had been scored by Kurt Weill, or George Gershwin, but it ain’t necessarily so. The music is better than sufficient, but the songs themselves need to be sung in different voices — the baritones and contraltos they were meant for. The ones that could deliver the wry jokes with the sly winks they need.  The songs need to be transposed into a different sensibility (and perhaps into keys low enough for us to hear the words).

But, alas, the song are, and have always been, the property of the classical world.  It is a world of composers and of performers, but not of lyricists. It is a world where changing a key is an act of impiety, where a great performance treats the voice as an instrument, but it is far away from the world where these songs belong.


More Bizarro

I am really at a loss about what ‘Bizarro’ fiction is, although I am pretty sure it has nothing to do with a rather serious treatment of the rise of Odoacer and the fall of Rome (or with cabaret music but that is another matter), but my odd little verse-play on these subjects is going to be in Vincenzo Bilof’s ‘More Bizarro’ anthology due this March.

So keep your eyes on the news stands, not because the book will be found there, but because it’s good to keep up on current events.  After all an empire can collapse at anytime.