All right, the news online and on everyone’s mind for exactly 3 hours and 7 minutes today was about the death of Amy Winehouse. The print was full of adjectives like tragic, unfortunate, upsetting and other un-words (unhappy, unpleasant, you pick one) but not surprising. Any one who’s caught off guard by this is just plain stupid.
Winehouse’s drug use is/was legendary. Her hit “Rehab” was initially considered a bit of politically incorrect fun, and has proven to be prophetic. The same way the Kurt Cobain penned Nirvana number, “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” was. The first time I saw the title, it was a great laugh, and a few months later, well, the world wondered out loud how they could have missed all the signs. As of this writing, the official cause of death has yet to be determined, but I’m gonna guess it wasn’t food poisoning.
A few scant weeks ago, Winehouse was being goofed on by news anchors on CNN for her horrifically bad opening night performance in Serbia. When she walked out on stage she said “Hello Athens!” and the audience turned on her immediately. Things didn’t improve. She was incoherent, forgetting the words to her own songs, and berating the musicians in her band for perceived mistakes. She wandered the stage, unable to focus or complete a song. She ended up getting booed off the stage. The tour was subsequently canceled. This would be the pathetic final performance of her life.
I don’t wish to seem straight up unfeeling regarding her passing, but the only news to me is that she wangled her way into the 27 Club. Not a big club, but really exclusive and largely reserved for genius/seminal quality artists. Robert Johnson, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison are all card carrying members. People are calling Winehouse a genius in part because of her Grammy win, but a couple of good albums, a good voice and a throwback retro vocal and fashion style, however enchanting, does not a genius make. Sure she was talented, but she’s leaving behind a legacy of two memorable full length CD’s and mountains of ink related to her very public problems, which unfortunately, overshadow most of her career achievements.
But death is almost always a good a move for an artist. Ask Elvis and Tupac. Well you know, ask the estate of either one. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “Tis a poor business to speak ill of the dead.” And usually the public is in full agreement. There will be tributes in the form of shows and CD’s, posthumous releases, t-shirts, Sno-globes, and rolling papers, black light posters and anything else anyone might think up. This cash cow is aching to be milked, now.
I don’t think Winehouse will suddenly become a ubiquitous part of pop culture, but in the short term, she’ll have a spike in popularity. Maybe we’ll see her hairstyle catch on en masse. But I see a cable TV bio-pic, some quickie sordid paperback biographies, and far too many overly sentimental testimonies by friends, lovers and complete strangers lamenting the loss of her amazing talent. Whatever. Winehouse now has everyone’s attention in death for the same reason she did when she was alive; laying there unresponsive, smelling of dope and liquor.
Some of the lesser known members of the 27 Club also qualify as amazing. These need to be identified by their bands as they never achieved the mainstream recognition they deserve. D. Boon of The Minutemen, Mia Zapata from The Gits, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, a founding member and keyboard player for the Grateful Dead, Chris Bell from Big Star, seminal painter/artist Jean-Michael Basquiat and Dave Alexander, original bassist for The Stooges.
There are lots of notable dead artists; some of them just got the timing wrong and as a result their legacies are sort of tenuous and fleeting. Shannon Hoon is the best example off the top of my head. The voice of Blind Melon, he was a notorious drunk and junkie. Hoon was found unresponsive on his tour bus in 1995. But kicking off at 28, Hoon becomes a footnote as a great one hit wonder. Tim Buckley, Bradley Nowell, and Hillel Slovak, all deceased at 28. All remarkable and important, but the numbers conspired against them. They all deserved greater recognition for their accomplishments and not who they inconvenienced with their passing.
One hopes Miss Winehouse restless and troubled soul will find peace and respite in death. Her parents, who publicly plead for her to seek help, now have to endure one final fall they can’t help their child with. Hopefully they will be able to replace the years of uncertainty and anxious fretting with tranquility. The rest of us are left to contemplate another cautionary tale of excess, and a talent not fully realized. It will only be a matter of time before we turn our attention to another celebrity playing out a disaster called their life for our entertainment.