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 alternative music (not the Seattle stuff, real alternative music), 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 stations 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 she hadn’t yet been crushed beneath a heavy stack of gossip.
It used to be pretty consistently on the radio when I woke up and drove to work in the morning. She doesn’t write in a morning mode, unless by morning on means 3 a.m. Pretty soon I had my own copy of the album, and I became aware of the gossip and the baggage. The British seemed more interested in her bad behavior, smoldering eyes and beehive — and who really can resist the latter two? — but none of that matter much to me. I had fallen in love with that voice, and the songs.
The songs had an edge to them that were lessened but all the things that critics like about them — the cursing, the Mark Ronson production, and all of those dull remixes. Maybe they did vault her to the top of the charts, and if they did they neither her nor her music any favors.
She wasn’t a repository of kitsch and slander, although she seemed to attract both. She was a cabaret singer of the highest caliber. 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, but there aren’t enough 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 it. If she wanted to be the bad girl she would have to reject some of the good, and so she wanted and she rejected.
When she died, a friend of mine marveled at her enviously, 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. Couldn’t then. She 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 a cop out. it is only a waste.
Luckily for us, there is a BBC album that is pure and sound, edgy and unkitschy