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.

 

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