Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse and the 27 Club

We somehow knew it was only matter of time, even as we held our collective breaths and hoped that she'd pull up like an old time aviator in the movies. Some peoples' talent overwhelms them. This death does not come as a shock but still upsets our idealism and hope quotient.

I worked for many years on a "Mad Women Artists" series of paintings. (Ask me someday and I'll tell you what my vision of it was.) Portraits that would incorporate the work, the talent and the remarkable but doomed person in the scope of that long range rifle with crosshairs. We wanted. We waited. We ate them up. Judy Garland, Marilyn,--and of course the gold standard, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who in her mink coat headed for the garage pissed off that Sylvia beat her to it. Janis (interesting that Amy's mother's name is spelled the same), Cobain, Morrison, Hendrix. Unfortunately most of the paintings from my imagined series were eaten by Katrina and I haven't had the ambition, space or supplies to re-create them. My list morphed by the year: Dorothy Parker didn't make it, she wasn't suicidal enough while Virginia Woolf made it in spades. I had decided I'd do a piece that incorporated Dorothy Dandridge and Marilyn Monroe: the black and white manifestations of sex appeal in the land of Jim Crow, used for their commercial value and their sex appeal, unremittingly dismissive of their talent and the sensitivity that didn't allow them to go on, even if they didn't decide at 5PM tonight's a good night to die. Of course, no one noticed that part until much later when they had an advance on a book deal then it made good copy. Piaf. Oh yeah. Read her life story some day while you're listening to La Vie en Rose. The talent within their bodies was so extreme that it took over their psyches and they dealt with that in ways that were less than healthy, forgive my understatement. And of course Janis, a charter member of the 27 Club. Okay. A couple of them lived past that weirdly repetitive year. Nevermind Layne Staley, Shannon Hoon, Lowell George. Geez, a long list but I'm too tired to go keep typing it.

We must learn to separate the art from the character of the artist, otherwise we have to eliminate Beaudelaire, Poe, even Picasso in his cruelty to the brilliant Dora Maar or Francoise, both amazing artists in ther own right. If we decide that character makes the contribution to art we're totally screwed. We have to eliminate them from our Pantheon of great artists. Rimbaud, Van Gogh, hell even Arthur Conan Doyle was an addict. The list of psychological issues and substance abuse in our list of respected artists and scholars is a very long one.

Amy was a woman who sang R&B songs with a jazz singer's flair and style. She stretched notes out, her voice was throaty, her hair out to lunch, her eyeliner completely from 1960. Her clothes were non-era specific but clearly some kind of retro. She poured herself out into her lyrics in an extremely honest way, probably expressing herself in a way that shrouded her inability to be honest with herself, although every addict is honest with themselves every night that they say tomorrow I'll stop. "I died a hundred times." No doubt she did. This time was no big surprise to her and maybe even a relief. "My tears dry on their own." Yeah, well no more tears, my Amy. "I go back to black, to black" no more. Head for that light, my friend, and thank you for the times you kept me on my game with that precious voice of yours.

Cuz ya know, we're all sitting on that cusp of death and life. A truck could hit us tomorrow or we have a "natural death" at age 95. Bless her heart, she gave us a great deal: songs that matter to us, a voice that was strong as she wasn't, and alas, someone we could compare ourselves to and always come out ahead of the game.

That's no small feat. RIP Amy Winehouse. I think I'll queue up Back to Black because some days it resonates and god love ya, your honesty and nakedness were courageous. I'm so sorry I won't be gifted with the follow-up album to your masterwork. And that is totally selfish. But I'll always have what you left, which means you haven't actually left the building like Elvis, who sticks around and can still make me cry when he sings Fools Rush In.

Thanks, Amy. And my prayers go out to your family, who gave a shit about you unlike most of Janis'.