Archive for Amy Winehouse

The Greatest Love Of All

Posted in Current Events, Music with tags , , , , on February 13, 2012 by greedycherry

Whitney Houston at the 37th Annual AMA AwardsYou know, it’s odd …. I seem to spend more time nowadays writing music obituaries on this blog than I do writing about actual music. I assure you that this is, of course, totally and completely unintentional (not to mention a damn shame). Quite often I have an idea of a neat subject I want to tackle, or a fabulous new song I want to promote, or a currently touring artist that I want to tell you more about, only to find out as I’m getting ready to sit down to write that some very influential singer or musician has unexpectedly died. I mean, I know people die and all, but this trend of talented vocalist passings is getting a little depressing now. Amy Winehouse, Etta James … now Whitney Houston.

Born August 9, 1963, Whitney Elizabeth Houston was blessed from the start with a voice almost any young singer would die for. Power, emotion, nuance, control, range … all of these things were indeed part of her arsenal, but the thing that made Whitney such a phenomenon was that these traits weren’t just present individually or interchangeably. The many facets of her talent melted into each other, augmenting and strengthening the whole, combining in a potent mix that gave her that magical thing which we often refer to as “it”. No one knows where “it” comes from, or how to define “it”, but we know “it” when we see it. Somebody opens their mouth, or picks up an instrument, or a pencil, or a paintbrush … and we are moved. We are helpless before this undefinable thing that takes hold of our hearts, and we cannot defend ourselves against it.

It’s that riff that makes your adrenaline move, the harmony that brings a tear to your eye, the lyric that puts a knife in your heart when you least expect it. When some artists create, they do it in a way that makes the difficult or arduous seem easy. You can hear a million soul singers tackle a song, for instance, and they might do a respectable or even really good version of it …. but someone like Al Green or Aretha Franklin can sing just one note of that song, and you are transfixed. You can’t look away. You are powerless to change the radio station, to perform another task, to remove yourself from the presence of “it”.

There is no doubt that some consider Whitney Houston just another dumb pop singer, and her catalog to be filled with vapid songs not worth being listened to … and I respect this point of view.  Some people just like what they like and hate what they hate, and you can’t change their minds or make them change their listening habits or preferences. But I like to think that there is talent beyond the songs a musician performs, an inner glow or fire that brings an artist to prominence in the first place. Sure, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” may not be the deepest song with the most meaningful, heartfelt lyrics ever, but I would argue that there’s no denying Whitney’s amazing voice and the strength of her performance in it. Anyone who’s ever tried to sing knows how hard it is to control the human voice and get it to do exactly what you want it to, and it’s like witnessing the raw power of nature itself to hear someone be able to effortlessly go from a plaintive whisper to a full-throttle belting, to take you from 0 to 60 with just a tilt of her head and a swelling crescendo. Some are born with that gift. Whitney was one of them.

Whitney Houston was beautiful. She was talented. She was blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Some would argue she pissed all of that away in the last years of her life, and that could indeed be a valid point of view to take. In the end, she was not able to find that “greatest love” she sang so movingly about; despite being loved by many, it could be argued that she didn’t really find her strength in that love. That she never could love herself enough to stay off the path to destruction, recognize her weaknesses, and ask for the help she needed is now, in retrospect, a harbinger of the sad events to come.

Her death is made all the more shocking by the fact that it never should have happened, that there was ample opportunity to pull herself together, lean on those who cared and had always been there, and rise back to full health and musical prominence. She could have done it, but, unfortunately, the tragedy of so many artists throughout history is that their demons eventually catch up to them and they pass from this mortal coil far too soon.

As far as opinions of her music, let’s keep in mind … any death is a shame, and the fact that a singular talent has now been removed from the game of life is something to mourn, no matter how you view the catalog they left behind. How many people do you know who are supreme talents, friends or colleagues or even complete strangers who make music that you find exceptional and moving? And if those people died tomorrow, would you remember all the dumb stuff they did in their personal lives, all the horrible habits they couldn’t overcome, all the crappy songs they made in-between the good ones …. or would you just go home and crank up the music they made that moved you, and close your eyes and revel in those memories they created for you and for the world they left behind?

Whitney Houston has passed away at the far-too-young age of 48. Regardless of what we find out about how she died in the days to come, let’s just remember that it doesn’t really matter. She left her songs, she made her mark … and her amazing voice will live on.

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Music Industry Deaths: The Poet, The Singer, and the American

Posted in Current Events, Deep Thoughts, Music, Music Video with tags , , , , on September 15, 2011 by greedycherry

A quick thought: I hope I don’t get into the habit of being astounded at how long it’s been since my last blog entry.  Or, at least, I hope I don’t feel the need to comment on how long it’s been since my last blog entry every time I write one.  Jeez…..that would be annoying. Right?

Anyway, I made a note a few months back (wow, I can’t believe that it’s been….uh….sorry.  Nevermind.) which consisted simply of the title of this particular piece, which you can plainly see up above this entry in big yellow letters. It seemed that notable musicians were dropping over left and right, and I thought that deserved some kind of commentary, especially on a music-based blog like this one. The title came to me after a little consideration, and I figured that by jotting my idea down on a piece of paper and placing that in a prominent place on my desk it would somehow help me to remember my idea more easily and get to the task of writing more quickly.

Oops.

Well, regardless of that particular failure, I’m finally getting around to it….so let’s begin, shall we?

I think, firstly, it needs to be said that it’s a damn shame when anyone dies. I mean, hey…we all have to go sometime, but everyone who passes is always someone’s mother or father, brother or sister, spouse or friend. There are always those who feel the loss of a particular human being heavily, and those who never even know it happened at all. It’s a proximity thing. Such is life.

But when someone in the public eye, or with even the slightest hint of fame, dies, it affects more than just the people you expect it to, those closest to the deceased. It quite often affects complete strangers. People who never met, or even knew, the deceased. I find this to be an interesting phenomenon, but one not altogether unexpected. After all, everyone has heroes….everyone loves to be inspired by someone, to believe great things about themselves through the exploits of others. When someone moves you just by the fact that they exist and have done SOMEthing, whether it’s pitching a no-hitter or painting a great work of art, that person has become a part of you. When young boys go out in the backyard to play football while wearing their Tom Brady jersies, or teens sporting Ramones-style haircuts and leather jackets start a band, you can see influence and imaginations at work. You can see the public figure inspiring these people he or she has never met to action, to rise up and DO a particular thing, to emulate, to wish for, to dream.

This is the power of public greatness, and the effects that it generates.

But, as I said, since this is a music-based blog, let’s deal with the musicians. Being one myself makes me take particular note of the deaths of these artists, many of whom have created songs that are as meaningful and enjoyable to me today as when I first heard them. However, it should be noted that even though we love their music, we usually know very little about these musicians’ lives…very little about their past, about their demons, their influences, and their trials and tribulations. I mean, just because you read an article on a musician in Rolling Stone doesn’t mean you know anything about what they are like in real life, on a day-to-day basis. Yet many of us identify so much with these artists, are so inspired by them, it’s still hard to believe when they’re gone, and tough to let them go. No more songs. No more albums. No more concerts. There’s nothing left, nothing more to be had….and it leaves us with an unrelenting sadness, and that ever-present question: “What could have been?”

THE POET

BBC’s “Newsnight” program called him “The Legendary Godfather of Rap.” Quite a title for a man whose music often involved simple instrumentation, earthy, soulful rhythms, and the sound of a flute wafting through the air. But it wasn’t necessarily the music that you dropped the needle on the record to hear.

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron’s voice commanded your attention every time it rose from the musical landscape to speak. True, his voice could become loud and impassioned, but it was the words that held your ear more than anything. This man had something to say, and boy did he know how to say it. On the cutting edge both culturally and politically, Scott-Heron’s words thundered against oppression, against corruption, against hypocrisy and those who practiced it, no matter what their sex or the color of their skin. But thunder did not equal brutality…he was skillful and deft with his vocal delivery, floating and stinging like a Pulitzer Prize-winning Muhammad Ali. And, ultimately, it was the hypnotizing rhythm of his speech, the artful movement of each syllable into the other, that, if it didn’t invent it outright, certainly helped make spoken word poetry – and therefore, eventually, rap – into a successful, thriving industry.

Like most artists of his age group, most of his acclaimed work was done in the 1970’s, the collaborations with musician Brian Jackson being probably his most successful output in terms of popularity and sales. But Gil Scott-Heron will probably always be best known for his enduring anthem against commercialism and the plight of the inner-city population, 1971’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. As you can see from the song’s entry in Wikipedia, there are more clever references and cultural name-drops than you can shake a stick at. Even the most literate and deft rapper currently recording would be hard-pressed to match Scott-Heron’s knowledge of the world around him.

(My personal favorite tracks of his, incidentally, are “The Bottle” and “H2OGate Blues”, both from 1974’s “Winter In America”. Funky/sad and funny/clever, respectively.)

His later years brought a fall from grace: a series of arrests on drug charges (the kind of bad influence that he often railed against to others during his career) and, upon release from prison, an eventual admission of his HIV-positive status. Although of questionable health and looking much older than his 60 years, in February of 2010 Scott-Heron put together his first album in sixteen years, “I’m New Here”.

It would be his final album.

Upon returning from a trip to Europe in May of this year, Gil Scott-Heron ended up in a New York City hospital and died. The cause of death has still not officially been announced.

THE SINGER

In the summer of 2007, I had what I thought was a really neat choice to make. Two big music festivals were taking shape, with two stellar lineups….the 2nd annual Virgin Music Festival in Maryland, or, if I wanted to spend more gas money, a slightly longer trip down to Tennessee for Bonnaroo. Most of the main artists I wanted to see were fortunately going to be at both concerts….the real difference between the two was, for me, simply this: I could see Lily Allen at Bonnaroo or Amy Winehouse at the Virgin Music Festival. I had come to love both of these ladies’ new records, and it was a tough decision to figure out which was the bigger draw for me.

Unfortunately, I’ve never really been anything but poor, so money was a factor…..and therefore the closer Maryland gig won out. And when I say “unfortunately,” I’m not just talking about being poor.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse tribute, spray painted on a Boston sidewalk

Although I had a great time at the festival, and most of the other bands were great, Amy Winehouse was a huge disappointment. Wait, let me capitalize that. HUGE disappointment. Hmm……still not enough. Let’s try bold with our capitals. HUGE. There…..that’s better.

Those of you who keep up with the private lives of musicians know the tale already, so I won’t really get into it here. Suffice it to say, for those of you who have better things to do than read People magazine or watch TMZ, we can break it down into two words: drugs, alcohol.

And I’m sure I don’t need to upload the video I took at the concert either to show you what I mean. Anyone who cares to can head over to Youtube and see for yourself in short order how Ms. Winehouse performed under the influence. (Or failed to perform, as the case may be.) While we all stood there baking in the intense summer heat, we became her willing victims….a twitchy dance step here, slurred words there, a glassy-eyed look that told us we really probably shouldn’t expect anything much at all today, thank you very much. And, as the exercise in futility ground to a halt, she lurched towards stage right and into the arms of her then-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who, alcohol bottle in hand, escorted her off the stage.

Just a week and a half shy of four years later, on July 24th, Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London home. She was just 27.

How many more songs could she have written and sung? How many more albums could she have given us? These are the questions that ultimately get asked, but to which there are never any answers. Drugs and alcohol are often lethal to their abusers, so it’s never quite a surprise when the end comes….but somehow it never stops us from being shocked when it does.

According to her father, who was recently interviewed on Piers Morgan’s CNN program, Amy had been drug-free for about three years, and no trace of narcotics had been found in her system at the time of her death, according to the autopsy report. So perhaps that demon was behind her. Unfortunately, the alcohol was a harder habit to kick, and she apparently spent alternating periods of time drinking too much, and then not drinking at all. Her father believes that ultimately this is what killed her.

“She had a series of seizures brought on by this binge drinking and then stopping to drink,” Mr. Winehouse told CNN’s Anderson Cooper this past Monday. “I think it’s what the doctor said, I think she had a seizure and this was the time when there was no one there to rescue her.”

A sad end to a promising career and a wonderful talent. I remember when I first heard her last record “Back To Black”, and was amazed at how current and retro it sounded all at the same time. As a lover of old soul and Motown music, hearing the arrangements she chose and the instrumentation that was used truly let me know I was listening to something unique. (Although I will admit I refused to buy the CD initially when I heard she sampled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” heavily on “Tears Dry On Their Own”. I am not a fan of the over-used, overt sample. No sir.) Her first album “Frank” was pretty tasty too, a little more tilted to jazzy inclinations, but there are some people who actually prefer it to the more popular second record. My suggestion is to get both of them and take a listen yourself….I doubt you’ll be disappointed with either purchase.

As my final tip of the hat to Amy Winehouse, I give you “You Know I’m No Good”, my favorite track of hers off either album. It might be the lyrics, it might be the killer groove, it might even be the little nuances and inflections in her vocal performance that make it so damn tasty….but I do know for sure that the bari sax part doesn’t hurt any.

THE AMERICAN

The name of their group was almost a completely accurate description of the type of music they played: America. Their songs ooze with breezy acoustic guitar work and tight, feel-good harmonies. Even if you think you’ve never heard anything by them, I’ll still bet that you have….you just don’t know that you have. Somewhere in their list of hits – “Ventura Highway”, “Horse With No Name”, “Sandman”, “Tin Man”, “Sister Golden Hair” – is a tune you would recognize the moment it started playing. The funny thing about the group America, however, was that none of the three founding members lived in their namesake country when they met, nor had they grown up there. America, in a wonderful case of historical parallel, had started in Britain.

Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek all were the sons of U.S. military personnel who were stationed in London in the mid-60’s, so the story goes, and it was a few miles north of there, at London Central High School at Bushey Hall, that they first met while playing in a couple area bands. Eventually they borrowed some acoustic guitars, warmed up their three-part harmonies, and made their first record “America”, which was released in 1971. Not really very successful at first, it was rereleased the following year with an additional song that had been very well received in their live shows but was not recorded until after the record’s initial release: a little tune called “Horse With No Name”. After that rerelease, everything changed. The album sold like gangbusters, and America officially had their first worldwide hit. They subsequently moved to Los Angeles and continued their career in the country that had given them their name.

America released seven albums between 1971 and 1977, rising to platinum chart-topping heights before falling back to Earth via decreasing sales and failing singles. Lots of bands follow a similar arc, and, like America, most music fans, in both good times and bad, just know these groups by their name alone….not by the names of its members. (How many times have you heard a Pink Floyd song and said, “Hey, there’s that Roger Waters song”? Well, okay….maybe some of you….)  Which is probably why you’ve never in your life heard Dan Peek’s name.

Dan Peek

Dan Peek

But it was Dan Peek who broke up the lovely three-part harmonies millions had come to know and love by leaving the group in 1977, headed off on a different path with a clean and sober outlook and a renewed Christian faith. While America would hit the charts at least once more in the subsequent years (“You Can Do Magic” off of 1982’s “View From The Ground” album reached #8 on the Billboard Pop Charts) and Peek would become a pioneering member of the Christian music scene, none of these old friends ever again reached the success they had so regularly achieved as a trio.

It’s sort of funny when you think about the circumstances and the instances of random chance that go into creating music that is not only popular, but endures. If just one person hadn’t lived here, or gone there, or dated someone who introduced them to that one particular person, well….groups might still exist. They might even have the same name. But they would be different. Their live shows would be different. Their albums would be different, and so would the songs on them. Circumstances have be exactly as they were for things to have happened exactly as they did. It’s mind-boggling to think about.

I mean, what if Terry Reid had said “yes” when Jimmy Page asked him to join his new group, The New Yardbirds? No Led Zeppelin as we know it. What if Ringo Starr had not replaced Pete Best as the Beatles drummer? Would we even know who they were today? And what if three young boys had not met in a London school in the late 1960s….would that calming, summery guitar riff at the beginning of “Ventura Highway” have ever been born?

So many different forks in the road throughout music history, and if these moments had not happened precisely as they did, the music that is so familiar and beloved by us today would probably not even exist. Something to ponder as you turn on your radio today….

Dan Peek died on July 24th at his home in Missouri. He was 60 years old.