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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A Drink and a Song (Bloody Caesar & Barrett’s Privateers)

NOTE: this was first posted on my old blog July 1st 2016.

NOTE: this was first posted on my old blog July 1st 2016.

Ten or so years ago I lent my copies of The Beautiful Losers and The Selected Poems of Leonard Cohen to a friend. When last I saw them a few years later they were on her bookshelf, which is as a good a place as any for them. I have so many books now that my living quarters are cramped and, no matter how hard I try, I really can’t stop new books from finding their way to me.

Still I would like to consult the Beautiful Losers every now and again. When I read it it seemed like all of Canada in a single book, and not in anyway that encouraged me to go there. If you have read the book you understand.

A few years after that I found myself at a New Year’s Eve party in Montreal with a Québécois Nationalist named Pierre, both of us literally moved to tears over the beauty and independent spirit of the province shackled to the brute and philistine Anglo-phonic world, while my much more sensible (and Canadian) friend calmly explained how independence would lead to social and economic ruin, not that we were listening — we were tipsily crying and calling out for freedom. That was, and will be, my last foray into foreign politics.  

Whether the book is definitive or not, Cohen, more than anyone else, represents Montreal but we didn’t sing Cohen’s songs going up (we had to sing naturally it being a road trip and all)if for no other reason than his songs are too personal and there is something a little skeevy about other people singing many of them. For instance “Famous Blue Rain Coat” not only is the only song written as a heart-felt thank you note to the man that who seduced and lead away his wife but is signed “Sincerely L. Cohen.”  For the most part his songs are his and we should be happy to keep them that way.  Whenever I have heard other people sing them it sounds tactless and intrusive.

More sensibly, we drove about singing “Barrett’s Privateers” by the great Stan Rogers. It is a boisterous mock sea chantey. It is perfect for people (at least one of whom needs a flawless memory for lyrics as there are many of them), to sing in groups, as it was written to be sung.

It should be dumb and kitschy, after all it is a 70s faux-folk tune about privateers and sea battles, but it is neither. There is something in the darkness of the lyrics and the rowdiness of the tune that has always agreed with me, ven touched me.  When I am listening to the album I sometimes have to skip the track because it can be too much, especially since it was written in the 70s and there is always the war in Viet Nam lurking behind it.

Our war for independence and freedom was just another imperial expedition for the boys on the other side, but we never really think about them.

We also never think of putting clams in our cocktails.  But that is also a very Canadian thing. The same friend who was trying to talk sense to me at that house party introduced me to the pride of Canadian cocktails: the Bloody Caesar. Clam Juice, Tomato(nonsensically you can get these two disparate liquids bottled together), Celery Salt, Worcestershire Sauce, and pepper, with a glug or so of vodka. The last time I made it an acquaintance from New Hampshire demanded hot sauce be added, and he added quite a bit.  I had half a glass and wasn’t sure that it improved the taste, but he had a pitcher-and-a-half and seemed quite pleased, so take it as an alternate recipe.

There is a bit more in common between “Barrett’s Privateers” and Bloody Caesars, than their pseudo-historical names. They are strong, bold, flavorful, and are the best remedies for those off-moments when the imagination strays north of the border and the body has to stay south for work the next day.

Notes:

* One may imagine from this article that I can speak French, and, while I was there, I imagined it too.

* The version of Famous Blue Rain Coat that I linked to is signed “Sincerely, A Friend.” But what does it matter,if one were to write the same letter over and over one would certainly make a few changes. I pretty sure the audience knew who he was anyway.

* I didn’t give the measurements because I don’t measure ingredients — it’s bourgeois.

*I may also add that the song was released in ‘76 — the year of our bicentennial. Maybe that is just a coincidence.

* There was also the war in the Falklands ahead of it. Things didn’t seem like they were getting better and they weren’t, but we are still hoping.