Friday, 24 June 2011

When the road of excess turns out to be a dead-end.

The capricious nature of modern pop stardom being what it is, there are some wrong turns that are harder to recover from than others. For instance, it was recently said of Duffy that she probably throws empty Diet Coke cans at the radio every time she hears a song by Adele (which I imagine would be fairly often). During the last few days, however, I've wondered whether or not Adele might have ever observed the career trajectory of Amy Winehouse and thought to herself, “There but for the grace of God...”. After all, artistically speaking both women come from broadly similar backgrounds – North London “blue-eyed soul” singer/songwriters with a performing arts school pedigree and a second album wildly more successful than its predecessor – but it's there that the similarities end.

By and large, Adele Adkins chooses to avoid the limelight, and therefore little is known of either her personal life or her indulgences, whatever they may be. The spectacular success of 21 suggests that her audience couldn't care less either way, which I think is quite telling. Compare and contrast, on the other hand, with the shambles formerly known as Amy Winehouse. When she emerged - or rather, came out swinging - in 2003, it was with some forthright opinions on her peers in her left hand and, for a 19-year-old, an arresting line in cynical, world-weary lyrics in her right (Fuck Me Pumps and Stronger Than Me being two of the more striking examples). Although the somewhat prosaic neo-soul stylings of Frank might at times have led lazier listeners to dismiss it as more Mill Hill than Lauryn Hill, impressive live covers of Moody's Mood For Love and Teach Me Tonight hinted that Winehouse was utilising her stage-school techniques with something more in mind than a gig presenting the National Lottery draw at some point in the future. In the seven years since, I don't think there's been another female singer/songwriter in any area with anywhere near the same potential for genuine, era-defining greatness, and I still don't.

Skip forward a few years, however, and it's as if you're looking at a different person. In the now-infamous paparazzi shot that signalled her arrival as a permanent fixture in the gossip columns and celeb weeklies, Winehouse's regular-girl shapeliness (“fat” if you're a Daily Mail reader, “normal” if not) was nowhere to be seen – this new model was all spidery, emaciated limbs, sunken eyes, sailor's tats and teetering Ronnie Spector beehive. She sounded different as well. On Back To Black, the modern r&b of her debut had largely been abandoned, at least cosmetically, for that of an earlier vintage, courtesy of producer Mark Ronson and a horn section on secondment from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Nevertheless, despite all these outward changes, everything else seemed to suggest that her talent with a hook and a witty lyric had sharpened considerably. Her earlier Erykah Badu fixation had been dialled down in preference for a heavily-stylised (too heavily for some) approximation of Esther Phillips and Dinah Washington, but not at the expense of her interpretive skills. Overplayed as it is, there remains a sublime duality to her cover of the Zutons' Valerie, in the way it offsets the girls-night-out perkiness of Ronson's fauxtown aesthetic with some rather bleak Sapphic yearning; perhaps not what Dave McCabe had in mind when he wrote the song, but I'm sure the royalty cheques have long since eased whatever misgivings he may have had there.

There comes a point in the career of many successful artists when they decide whether or not they're going to embrace celebrity and all the things that come with it. It seems nowadays that the choice is either to go all-in, or to give it the swerve entirely. You can no longer have your cake and eat it too, if indeed you ever could. There may well be moments when certain famous people might prefer it if they were a little less famous, but the nature of the game is that they rarely get to make that call. That said, I once heard a tale of an internationally famous singer who, during a lengthy spell away from the public eye, had managed to both acquire and eventually kick a serious smack habit without the story ever leaking out. In the case of Amy Winehouse, the impression I always had was of someone who wouldn't necessarily shun stardom if it came along, but who was nonetheless quite serious-minded when it came to her music. While there's no avoiding the fact that her work has been informed by a personal life one could politely describe as “turbulent” (a one-line summary of Back To Black, for instance, might read; “He's a bastard but I love him”, although more recent events would suggest that the follow-up, “Don't hit him, Blake, you're on probation”, might be some way off yet), it's equally difficult to avoid the possibility that the path Winehouse now finds herself stuck on - that of someone at least as famous for her excesses as for her music - could actually be the result of a conscious artistic choice; something that, if true, would be as titanically stupid as it is tragic.

In the July 2011 issue of The WORD, there's a hugely entertaining and illuminating interview with Glenn Hughes, formerly of Deep Purple amongst others, during which Rob Fitzpatrick describes the bassist's memoir Deep Purple And Beyond: Scenes From The Life Of A Rock Star as “[reading] like one monumental binge with the odd LP here and there for ''colour''”. Now, Rob is a good enough writer to sell me on the idea of Hughes' story anyway, even if I may have hitherto imagined I'd have no interest in it whatsoever. The fact is, though, I'm as fascinated by preposterous tales of rock 'n' roll excess as anyone, and I'm aware that I'll appear a hypocrite if I say I believe that to still buy wholesale into the notion of “the rock 'n' roll lifestyle” is the mark of an idiot, but I think it is. The image of the “elegantly wasted” rock 'n' roller, so vigorously championed in the music press during the '70s by writers like Nick Kent, has no better embodiment than Keith Richards. But when Keith finally keels over, I'll bet serious money that the obituaries will talk first about the riff from Satisfaction, the solo from Sympathy For The Devil or the deathless chords of Brown Sugar, Street Fighting Man and Honky Tonk Women. Long after that there'll be the Mars bar, Brian Jones, Altamont and so on. Somewhere in between they'll mention the drugs, of course, but it won't be the first thing they mention. This is the thing that all those wretched souls who model themselves after him completely fail to grasp, with their artfully-teased crow's-nest barnets, skinny jeans, litany of chemical dependencies and hour upon interminable hour of terrible, hackneyed, mediocre music – Keith Richards has never needed to take drugs in order to make good music. By the time he'd reached the point where the music was interfering with his drug-taking, he'd already accumulated a body of work that would have endured even if he'd dropped dead immediately after finishing Exile On Main Street. And let's not forget the likes of John Coltrane and sundry other jazzers, either; A Love Supreme was made after Coltrane had quit drugs, remember.

Let me put it another way; nobody ever remembers any of the people who take shitloads of drugs and produce bad art, and I bet there's fucking loads of them. The possibly apocryphal tale of a distraught Samuel Taylor Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in frustration at being unable to recall the supposedly even greater epic poem he'd made up in his head in its entirety during a massive opium bender is all very inspiring, but there seems to have emerged in recent times a generation of artists whose journey along the road of excess is mostly spent in search of short cuts. I find it hard to listen to someone like Pete Doherty – a Sainsbury's Basics Tim Hardin with William Blake pretensions who attends court hearings for drug offences with pockets full of gear and yet manages to stay out of prison – without thinking, “Here's someone who's convinced himself that if he takes enough of the right drugs and throws enough of the right shapes, and maybe makes the odd record or two, he will eventually become a great artist”. And when I read about someone like Amy Winehouse breathlessly buying into the received wisdom that briefly declared Doherty to be “the greatest poet of his generation”, then it becomes easier to understand why so many gifted artists decide to skip the tiresome “art” bit and go straight to the drugs.

The music press has to take a lot of the responsibility for this, because it's the music press more than anything that's helped secure the seductive myth of drug use as a prerequisite for greatness within the cultural consensus. Its influence may have diminished significantly, but behind the wide-eyed cheerleading for Doherty in particular, there's still the implicit suggestion that you're somehow less of an artist if you don't embrace a life of wild excess. When Brett Anderson was doing gear, he was barely out of the NME. After he packed it in, he'd have needed to murder Damon Albarn for them to write about him. With the news that Amy Winehouse has cancelled her forthcoming European tour after a disastrous performance in Belgrade just over a week ago, it's hard not to conclude that here's another young artist who swallowed that line whole and is now too far along the road to ever find her way back, and I'm saddened by it. Those hair-shirted champions of authenticity who virtually accused her of taking the very food from the mouth of Sharon Jones a few years ago probably couldn't care less about the latest episode in the grim soap-opera that the life and career of Amy Winehouse has become. Some might even perversely see it as karma. But I miss the young woman who aimed for Sammy Cahn greatness, didn't quite hit the mark, yet still came up with the line, “But you're my fella, my guy, just grab your Stella and fly...”. Or the woman who wrote the amazing Love's A Losing Game, a song that would sound just as utterly, heartbreakingly complete had it been written at any point during the last 50 years, which of course it could easily have been. Or the woman from – stone me – the video for In My Bed. I liked her and I'd like her back. I'm not interested in being the sort of person who turned up at Lou Reed gigs in the mid-70s, in the ghoulish hope that tonight would be the night Lou o.d'd, and was taken to A&E and thereafter the bone orchard. I've no desire to watch someone fall to bits on stage. As far as I'm concerned, the world would be a better place with a clean, happy, functional Amy Winehouse in it, and as soon as there's one available, I'll be first in the queue. I hope I'm not the only one.

1 comment:

Steve Yates said...

Great piece Paul. I never really know about Doherty, cos I don't give a toss about his music. But I always wondered whether his drug habit was borne – or rather maintained – out of his fear that once he stopped, people would stop paying attention. Seemed before he became better known for drugs and burgling his bandmates, only the NME was interested. Afterwards, poet of a generation, greatest band in Britain, popping up on Wossy blah blah blah.