After the delightful David Kamp graced us with his presence on the latest RBP pod episode, regaling us with the story of how it took 11 years to land his 2007 interview with Sly Stone, he sent us this fabulously barmy “phax” from the former Sylvester Stewart (see below). If you can make more sense of it that we can, you’re doing well…
In the new episode of the Rock’s Backpages podcast, Barney & Jasper welcome the legendary Alan McGee into RBP’s virtual cupboard. The Creation Records founder talks us through his storied career, from his school days in Glasgow to the Creation 23 label of the 21st century.
Reminiscing about the early ’80s Living Room gigs he put on in London, Alan describes the signings of Oasis, the Jesus and Mary Chain another great Creation acts. He also explains how Primal Scream got from Sonic Flower Groove to Screamadelica; how he almost signed Teenage Fanclub’s idol Alex Chilton; how My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless did (or didn’t) almost bankrupted his & Dick Green’s baby; and how appalled Sony were by Kevin Rowland’s My Beauty album after the company acquired 49% of Creation’s shares in 1992.
Slightly cheekily, RBP’s co-hosts then force Alan to listen to clips from a 2007 audio interview with Alex James of Oasis’s Britpop nemesis Blur — except it turns out he never really hated those soft southern Sassenachs in the first place: it was all the Gallaghers’ fault. Quel surprise…
After paying their respects to fallen pop heroes Wayne Fontana, Trini Lopez and Seeds guitarist Jan Savage, Barney & Jasper talk through their highlights of the week’s new “library load “. These include Lillian Roxon’s 1966 report on “Music City USA” (i.e. Nashville); Michael Goldberg’s 1983 report on MTV’s exclusion of Black music videos; Joni Mitchell bellyaching in 1981 about being “written out of rock history”; a breathless 2002 review of Scandi garage rockers the Hives live at London’s Astoria, and a riveting Aphex Twin interview from 2003…
In last week’s episode of the Rock’s Backpages podcast, we welcomed special guest James Fox, author of 1982’s bestselling White Mischief and the man who, 10 years ago, made Keith Richards’ Life one of rock’s outstanding autobiographies. James talked us through his long and distinguished career as a journalist in Africa, and as a features writer during the golden era of The Sunday Times Magazine. He described how his friendship with “Keef” was cemented by the pieces he wrote for that publication about the Rolling Stones in 1973 and 1976, answering his hosts’ questions about the great man’s rhythm guitar playing.
The fantastic Mr. Fox also offered his perspective on Little Richard, whose death last week prompted discussion of the gay black southerner’s explosive role in the birth of rock & roll. We heard a clip of the sometime Mr. Penniman speaking in 1985 – as well as one of the late Betty (‘Clean Up Woman’) Wright owning up to being a shameless show-off in 1978. James was on hand, too, to reminisce about the importance of Moe Asch’s legendary Folkways label – as revisited in the week’s new audio interview, a conversation with folk elder Pete Seeger conducted by Tony Scherman in 1987. Clips followed of Seeger talking about Asch and recalling Folkways legends Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie…
It was a hoot.
An Incantation to the Jollamallawalla Gods
I only interviewed Mac Rebennack once, though I met him socially on a coupla other occasions. He was a delightful man, and absolutely the fonkiest white dude I ever encountered. Here’s the piece I wrote for MOJO, published in September 1995. You can hear the audio of my chat with Mac by subscribing to Rock’s Backpages…
A QUARTER OF A CENTURY has passed since Malcolm Rebennack, trading under the sinisterly exotic stage name “Dr John The Night Tripper”, descended the steps of Trident Studios in London’s Soho to commence work on his fourth album, The Sun, Moon, And Herbs.
When he opened the door of Trident’s main room, so the story goes, the Doctor couldn’t quite believe his eyes. Not only was the room packed with a multitude of drummers and percussionists from several continents, he could also make out the familiar faces of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton among the throng – superstars who, in the haphazard spirit of those times, had simply dropped in to jam with ‘Mac’ because they knew that an intensely fonky time would be had by all. Also present were Clapton’s fellow Dominos Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock, soul siren Doris Troy and Graham Bond, the black-magic-dabbling Brit for whom Rebennack had produced an album in Los Angeles two years earlier.
Many things have happened since that particular aggregation of revellers congregated in the English capital. Carl Radle and Graham Bond are no longer with us. Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton are even bigger superstars than they were then. And Mac Rebennack would appear to have given up the old night-tripping for good. Curiously, though, he is now signed to Blue Thumb, the very label to which his managers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone were attempting to sign him 25 years ago – even though the Trident sessions were being financed by Atlantic. Something seems to have come full circle.
“That trips somethin’ in my brain cells,” says Rebennack, who, back in London to promote the new Afterglow, looks just like a character sitting outside a French Quarter bar on a steamy summer’s day. It’s less the hat and the braces and the famous walking stick you fix on; more the sheer size of the man’s huge moon face and the history embedded in it. It’s the eyes – stoical, sleepy –which have seen too much. And it’s the slow, gravelly voice, thick with the music of the city whose torch he continues to carry: the Big Easy the magical and crazy Crescent City of New Orleans.
ASK ANY of his peers in the business – or “the bidness”, as he pronounces it–and they’ll tell you Mac Rebennack is the gen-u-wine musical article. Jerry Wexler, who produced Dr John’s Gumbo (1972), calls him “the blackest white man in the world”. Everyone from The Band to The Rolling Stones has come knocking at his door, hoping that a little of his hoodoo 88-key funk will rub off on their records. More recently – simply because there’s no-one else around to do the job – he’s become a kind of unofficial custodian of New Orleans R&B, so closely identified with the city’s spirit that he was hired to play in a Southern Comfort ad.
“The saddest thing is the amount of New Orleans artists that only had one hit record, There was nobody ever there to look out for anybody’s career, with the exception of Fats Domino, who had Dave Bartholomew. Some o’ the younger cats is startin’ clubs, ‘cos they been so caught in the corner of havin’ no gigs that they actually had to, but there’s very little happenin’. New Orleans is a very poor place, and it doesn’t attract a certain element of investment. Willie Tee just built a new studio, and Allen Toussaint’s startin’ to revamp his place. But, I mean, just compare it to Nashville.”
Almost as central as New Orleans to the Dr John legend is the heroin habit the man hauled around with him for the best part of 40 years, and from which he only properly freed himself six years ago. Reading Under A Hoodoo Moon, you wonder where he found the energy to put one foot in front of the other, let alone make dates on the road and in the studio.
“I look back to my life early on, way back in the ‘50s, and I see that somethin’ was wrong even then,” he says. “Somethin’ should have said, This is not makin’ things better. I have no idea what I was thinkin’. Least I know what I’m thinkin’ today. My life is so much nicer and pleasanter.”
What about the multitude of premature and/or violent deaths with which his book is strewn? Does it ever shock the Doctor when he looks back on the toll that the life took?
“It makes me real disgusted when I see the same stuff goin’ on today. I mean, just two weeks ago in New Orleans one of the young kids in the Rebirth Brass Band got murdered. He was another one of the Lastie family. The number of people in that family who’ve died young is so phenomenally out of synch with any family I’ve ever met, and they were all so talented.”
You could say it’s a miracle that Rebennack himself is still with us today, and clean and sober into the bargain. Vivid in his mind are the words of veteran Dixieland banjoist Danny Barker, who died not long after playing on Mac’s superb Goin’ Back To New Orleans (1992). “Danny said to me right before he passed, ‘A lotta things that happened changed my life, but now I look back and it don’t even seem like that was my life’.”
LOOKING BACK, of course, certain uncharitable souls have suggested that Rebennack’s long journey from Gris Gris and Babylon (with their heebie-jeebie lyrics and deranged time signatures) to In A Sentimental Mood and Afterglow (with their faultless big band arrangements of Tin Pan Alley standards) has effectively been a retreat – even a betrayal. He sees it less as a gradual move towards the Harry ConnickJr market than as an inevitable process of deceleration, and makes no apologies for either of his “standards” albums.”I really feel like it’s all music. I’m just tryin’ to learn how to sing in tune – little things like that. At some point I figured I better learn how to be a frontman and how to be a singer. I always felt comfortable playin’, but I’m tryin’ to learn how to do this stuff professionally. That’s the only thing that’s really at all different to me. And now I’m not panicked for chump change or immediate fixes and nervous breakdowns and all o’ that. And I’m gettin’ older, and all of that goes together with something and it’s like, I can take time to enjoy things. As far as the journey I’ve made, it’s like the song says: ‘I have had my fun if I don’t never get well no more’.”
ONE OF the lesser-known facts about Mac Rebennack is that he only became Dr John because there was no-one else around to play the part. (The original intention was for Ronnie Barron, sometime member of the Night Tripper’s band and a piano legend in his own right, to assume the role of the mid-l9th century New Orleans root doctor.) It says a lot about the man’s innate humility that for a long time he never saw himself as much more than a glorified sideman.From his earliest days hanging around the great musicians at Cosimo Matassa’s famous studio on Governor Nicholls Street, Rebennack rarely strayed into the spotlight for more than the odd number, the odd single. He penned songs like ‘A Losing Battle’ (for Johnny Adams) and Lights Out (a hit for ‘Jerry Byrne’), but otherwise worked primarily as a bandleader and A&R man. A formidable guitarist, he rapidly became a pianist fit to choogle alongside the great keyboard masters of New Orleans: Archibald, Huey Smith, James Booker and of course Professor Longhair (purveyor, as he memorably puts it in his book, of “deeply-felt spirituals with a rhumba-boogie beat, incantations to the jollamallawalla gods”).
Mac had no loftier ambitions when, in 1965, he followed the trail which had lured so many New Orleans greats to the gold-paved boulevards of Los Angeles. Not that he was exactly enamoured of what he found there as a sessionman. “Walking into a Phil Spector date with massive amounts of people makin’ minimal amounts of music was a total culture shock,” he says. “Just seein’ the kind of money New Orleans guys like Earl Palmer was makin’ blew my mind. When I first went to Earl’s apartment, it was like walkin’ into a cathedral.”
Mildly appalled by the way such Crescent City homeboys as Palmer and Harold Battiste were squandering their talents on the likes of Sonny & Cher, Rebennack decided to carve out a little piece of New Orleans magic in California. Using down time during a Sonny & Cher session at the Gold Star studio where Spector had cut so many hits, he rounded up a band of exiles – Battiste, Jessie Hill, Dave Dixon, Ronnie Barron, Alvin ‘Shine’ Robinson and others – and cut the extraordinary tracks that became the 1968 debut by Dr John The Night Tripper.
By pure coincidence, the exotic and darkly menacing Gris Gris album – featuring the original ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’, as covered by everyone from Marsha Hunt to Paul Weller – was released into a world only too receptive to all things freaky and deaky. “Because nobody knew anything about New Orleans, everybody thought it was just some psychedelic thing,” Mac remembers. “But it wasn’t. We was so outta synch with what was happening, but people didn’t realise. We thought Gris Gris was just keepin’ a little of the New Orleans scene alive, it dint sound that freaky to me. Man, we didn’t have a clue about hippies. We thought anyone who smoked a joint in public was outta they minds!”
Mac says he only realised how out of step he was when “a little kid, literally” wandered up to him in San Francisco and said, “you guys are like dinosaurs…everybody’s groovin’ on acid and you’re just a buncha junkies!” Actually, they were more than just a buncha junkies; band members like the percussionist Didimus were fairly heavy customers, and most of them (like Mac) had done time.
Rebennack says that when he delivered 1969’s Babylon – a thoroughly wacked-out response to post-psychedelic America replete with choice couplets like “Donate the chef to the charcoal barbecue/transplanted heart sewed to the sole of my shoe” (‘The Patriotic Flag Waver’) – he figured Atlantic would never release it and “it would end the whole Dr John thing so’s I could get back to doin’ some other things”.
Fortunately, the label stuck with Mac long enough for him to team up with Jerry Wexler and record the paean to N’awlins that was Gumbo, and for Allen Toussaint to produce the righteously funky In The Right Place (1973), Dr John’s most successful album to date. Boasting the Top 10 single ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ alongside the equally lubricious ‘Such A Night’, ‘In The Right Place’ also featured Art Neville’s Meters, then unquestionably the hottest band in New Orleans.
“Everything I ever did with Allen Toussaint is real special to me,” says Rebennack. “Jest playin’ on sessions with him from day one was special, and then it was double special when we did In The Right Place. The Meters was the funkiest little band you could ever find, and the combination of Allen and us was so hip. I felt real good about bein’ on the road with the Meters, but when Allen honed some of those tunes down in the studio it was killer. He’s a piece of work, man. I always look at him like he’s a prince, like he’s some mystical presence.”
The ‘70s success of Dr John notwithstanding, Mac Rebennack never completely gave up his side gig as a star sessionman. It is a mark of his pedigree and longevity that he can talk about playing on a record like Exile On Main Street and make the experience sound as if he’d merely been cutting demos with a bunch of mates. “When you do sessions all the time, every now and then one sticks out. And at the time, that session was somethin’ similar to a lot of other Stones stuff. See, when I’m doin’ a date, I’m waitin’ to hear somebody do somethin’ new”
Rebennack’s book clears up one little mystery about Exile, which is the identity of ‘Amyl Nitrate’, the marimba player on ‘Sweet Black Angel’: turns out it was none other than Didimus, the Night Tripper’s fearsome percussionist. “And I’ll tell you somethin’,” says Mac. “Didimus was real pissed about that credit. Those guys [Messrs Jagger and Richards] don’t know how close they came to gettin’ hurt! I mean, Didimus hurt a lot of people over the years. It was probably good that he couldn’t get a passport to come to Britain.”
Slightly more memorable, for different reasons, was the session he played with John Lennon in December 1973. Was he surprised by the mess Lennon was in when he showed up to play on Rock And Roll?
“At that time I was in a weird zone with John, and with Harry Nilsson and Phil Spector too. I was gettin’ further and further away from John by the minute, and I blame a lot of it on that chick who was hangin’ around [May Pang]. I always think things wouldna been so bad had she not been there. That situation was bad, and it led to some incidents with John where I had to just cut him loose. Last time I saw him was when he was doin’ a record in New York and there was the same set of people all around him, and I had to get out of there. I told [guitarist] Hugh McCracken to tell John l said goodbye.”
One gets the feeling that Mac Rebennack is not overly impressed by the egocentrism of his fellow rock’n’roll stars. Fair or unfair?
“Well, you know what it’s like. When we was in Paris recently and the Stones was playin’, I felt like seeing some o’ the people. But I said, Lets go see ‘em after the gig, ‘cos I don’t wanna be around all that shit. Even when I was in the middle o’ that shit in the ’70s I couldn’t handle it. It all started when they screamed for The Beatles, ‘cos they wasn’t even listening to the music. It’s like, a whole other thing is happenin’. I like it better if they’re dancin’ or something – at least connected in some way to the music.”
I ask him if he feels any differently about Van Morrison, whose Rebennack-produced album A Period Of Transition was the recipient of some undeserved flak when it was released in 1977.
“Van is a deep cat. That poetry that comes out of him is like automatic writing or just spiritual flows. It’s so hip, man. He’s still got that thing and it’s so powerful. I just got blew away the other night when I heard him doin’ a thing on the radio and it just brought me to a place, man, it touched me real good. I still think if the original idea of me and [veteran R&B producer] Henry Glover doin’ somethin’ with Van had come off, it woulda been a whole other thing. I think maybe if I had been around Van a little longer, I would’ve started readin’ him better.”
IN UNDER A HOODOO MOON, Rebennack says that his worst nightmare was always that he’d “end up a solo-piano lounge act, staring at Holiday Inns or bowling alleys for the rest of my natural life”. Ironic, therefore, that two of his best-loved albums are the solo-piano collections Dr John Plays Mac Rebennack (1981) and The Brightest Smile In Town (1983), both recorded for the tiny Baltimore label Clean Cuts. Ironic, too, that one of his dearest friends and principal inspirations, James Booker, did a long stint in a Pennsylvanian cocktail lounge in the early ‘70s.Of all the musicians namechecked by Mac Rebennack, the mercurial Booker is the one who seems to haunt him the most, and the one who perhaps best embodies the tragicomic spirit of New Orleans’ musical history.
“Booker and me was so close,” says Mac, “and then t’ward the end we weren’t tight any more, and I felt bad about it. It broke my heart. After he lost his eye, he lost all the people in his life that he was close to, and he flipped. He started writin’ these newspaper articles that became stranger and stranger. And he’d go to this seminary in Mississippi and chill out, and there were so many weird things going on. I used to try to talk to him, because I felt like I owed him so much. But the more I would try to open him up the worse it would get. He’d say things like, ‘I’m gonna lose my other eye and then I’m gonna be like Ray Charles.’ It got really scary, and when he started doin’ these little solo gigs it got even stranger. He was writin’ songs that insulted people in the clubs and he was sabotaging everything he could.”
After Booker died of a cocaine overdose in November 1983, it transpired that due to a mix-up he’d been left unattended in a wheelchair in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. “I heard that he’d been dead for a while,” Rebennack says grimly of the man who was a regular fixture of his band for several years. “That’s a terrible thing, and he didn’t deserve it. All of his life was really unnecessarily bad.”
Mac’s tone as he says this almost suggests the guilt of the concentration camp survivor: how come I’m still around when so many of my junco partners is dead and buried? But then he remembers his other great friend Doc Pomus, the New York songwriter who co-wrote most of Mac’s City Lights and Tango Palace albums and whose main concern, battling heroically against cancer on his death bed in 1991, was that the song ‘I’m On A Roll’ should be finished properly.
“It was somethin’ he was still writin’ in the hospital,” laughs Rebennack, “and the last words Doc ever said to me was, ‘Make sure it sounds like one o’ them Louis Jordan songs!” Fittingly, Mac performs the song on the recently-released Pomus tribute album Till The Night Is Gone.
ONE OF the tunes Dr. John pulled out of the cupboard for Afterglow was ‘There Must Be A Better World Somewhere’, a mournful Pomus-Rebennack ballad which earned B.B. King a Grammy when he cut it back in 1981. By way of concluding our interview, I ask Mac if the song’s sentiments still speak for him today.”That song means somethin’ different to me than maybe the way it looks on the surface,” he replies. “It came out of me tellin’ Doc about this old hymn and him coming up with a little vignette. It really turned me out when I heard Irma Thomas doin’ it on the Doc Pomus tribute album. She did it almost like it was originally written – a little churchy, a little in the vibe of Percy Mayfield’s ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’.
“See, it ain’t about wallowin’ in pain. It really is like a hymn to me.”
I can’t pretend I adored the Prodge, but when Rolling Stone asked me to review The Fat Of The Land I declared it was “a thrilling, intoxicating nightmare of a record”. I think it still is. And poor Keith Flint was undoubtedly one of the most disturbingly exciting front men the world has ever seen. Here’s the review, published 7th August, 1997…
RARELY HAS a pop trend been so shamelessly spoon-fed to America as the hold-all genre dubbed “electronica”. Rarely, indeed, has the music industry tried so hard to convince us that the Next Big Thing is in fact a done deal – that another wave of English boys holds the future in its hands and we’d better get used to it.
Lately, dissenting voices have questioned the wisdom of the electronica hype. Geeky boys with keyboards may find in-crowd success in the country’s hipper conurbations, they argue, but the Chemical Brothers will never rock Cleveland. Enter the Prodigy, four manic street ravers from working-class Essex, with their bullishly-titled third album The Fat Of The Land. To say that the Prodigy are anything but self-effacing synth nerds would be a comical understatement. To suggest that they are the Sex Pistols of techno would not be such an exaggeration. What the Prodigy have done, quite simply, is to drag techno out of the communal nirvana of the rave and turn it into outlandish punk theater. And they’ve done it brilliantly.
The group’s chief weapon, of course, is not their menacing cyber-yobbo frontman Keith Flint, or their leering dancer-rappers Maxim and Leeroy Thornhill, but their one-man engine-room Liam Howlett. A loopy genius of the µ-Ziq or Aphex Twin variety he may not be, but on The Fat Of The Land Howlett has gone boldly where no techno maestro has gone before, easily surpassing the band’s 1994 opus Music For A Jilted Generation and fashioning some of the most ferociously exciting music of the year so far.
The point about The Fat Of The Land is that it packs all the visceral punch of rock at its incendiary best – not least on the frantic, panic-inducing ‘Firestarter’. There is nothing genially Kraftwerkish about Howlett’s seismic bass grooves or skittering drum programs. There’s no soothing cosmic-prog balm about his shrieking machines. Nor is he exactly shy about his rock references. Crunching guitars abound on the album, and a moshworthy cover of L7’s ‘Fuel My Fire’ rounds it out. ‘Climbatize’ all but steals the pulsing pre-climax keyboard riff of the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and the savage ‘Serial Thrilla’ (sampling Skunk Anansie’s ‘Selling Jesus’) is as rabid as any Rage Against The Machine track. The debt to the Pistols, meanwhile, is only too explicit in the chorus of ‘Breathe’, a thrilling paean to drug psychosis which has already topped the charts in eight countries.
Howlett laboured on The Fat Of The Land for the better part of two years, and the results speak for themselves. His grasp of rhythm and texture – and of basic song structure, come to that – has matured immeasurably from the days when the Prodigy were churning out frenetic rave novelties like ‘Charly’. He may reject the cerebral world of ambient, but he has also left behind the hyperventilated hardcore techno of old. Squelching synths bounce round each other on ‘Mindfields’, creating a mesmerising funk force-field. On ‘Breathe’, everything drops out for eight bars to make way for a mournful, Joy Division-ish guitar riff. Voices from India and North Africa, alternately seductive and sinister, seep into ‘Narayan’ (a collaboration with Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills) and the furious opening track ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Only when Howlett opts for more conventional formulae – the old-school hyper-rave of ‘Funky Shit’ or the pounding hip hop of ‘Diesel Power’ (featuring the formidable Dr. Octagon) – does The Fat Of The Land lose its rollercoaster momentum.
The Prodigy are greeting the dystopian future with a crazed kind of glee: there is no pre-millenial tension on this, their third album. Nor do they appear to be very interested in the Sixties. Where the Chemical Brothers cast a fan’s eye back to the psychedelic past of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Lothar and the Hand People, the Prodigy are crafting futurist soundtracks for disenfranchised youth, populist electro-punk that serves as a perfect Brit counterpart to the industrial noir of Trent Reznor and the jittery soundscapes of Wu Tang’s RZA.
The Fat Of The Land is a thrilling, intoxicating nightmare of a record, an energy flash of supernova proportions. “This is dangerous,” spits Maxim on ‘Mindfields’; “Open up your head, feel the shell shock!” If America can accept Keith Flint as a psycho frontman – and accept the Prodigy’s essential in-your-face hooliganism while they’re about it – there’s no telling how far the band’s marriage of man and machine could take them.
I was honoured to be asked to contribute to Charles Moriarty’s book of photographs of the great Ms. Winehouse. My essay “A Song for Her” is included in Back to Amy, published this week by Octopus. I dropped into the piece this review of Amy’s awesome show at London’s Somerset House in July 2007:
From Silver Lake to Somerset House, via a Miami wedding and a Mercury Prize nomination: would Amy stand me up a second time? Well, she didn’t, and she told us – more than once – how she’d looked forward to this for “months”. I’m guessing she’s caught a show or two here herself, experienced its summer-piazza feel for the pleasant change it makes from your average concert venue.
I was instantly smitten by Winehouse’s sophomore opus Back to Black: not by novelty item ‘Rehab’ per se (I’m bored to fuck by Priory Rock) but by the album’s other treasures, which all did something I didn’t think possible: take the basic Sixties soul template, tweak it just enough for a tattoo’d post-hiphop generation, and turn the whole ritual into something vitally personal and contemporary.
Me? I was never convinced by Joss Stone and never will be. But this little slip of a Jewish street princess comes over 100% credible, customising her soul and ska influences to fit her fucked-up persona. Someone said Winehouse’s lyrics read like pages from a drunken teenager’s diary, but they’re more than that: they’re piercingly believable, achingly sharp, rid of cliché.
Great artists combine artfulness with something that’s rawly their own: the key is that we can’t separate the two from each other, to the point where it ultimately doesn’t matter anyway. With Winehouse we’re drawn in by an uncanny mix of hip (hop) toughness and about-to-implode vulnerability (which might just be part of her “act” – how can we know and why, frankly, should we care?)
Here she is, this skinny slumming hiphop Ronnie Spector with her mascara mask and piled-high beehive, the sole female onstage with a besuited band that look like rude-boy bodyguards: the two black dancer-singers, the three white hornmen, the guitarists and drummer who resemble some late Sixties Kingston session band.
Here she is, underplaying every vocal flourish and girlish provocation, and we can’t tear our eyes from her dark elfin figure. We want to know more, to know how dangerous this really is. The remarkable thing is, she’s not a brat at all. She lets her music do the talking. (Stop the press: she’s a total pro!)
She sings brilliantly, saving herself and placing every line just so, periodically letting herself go in a melismatic cry from the heart. The voice is essentially Lauryn Hill’s, as the passage from ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ tacitly acknowledges, but you don’t actually think Fugees or Miseducation when you hear it.
While the whole effect – the iconography and the choreography – is a hair’s breadth away from Stax-Motown pastiche, it never feels like that. In fact, the essential feel of Back to Black isn’t Stax/Motown at all but the early Sixties girl-group soul that came out of Chicago and New York’s Brill Building, infused with the street-sharp mood of ska and bluebeat (and even 2-Tone, as the cover of the Specials’ ‘Hey Little Rich Girl’ makes clear). ‘Me and Mr Jones’, perhaps her most startling song, almost feels pre-soul. ‘Wake Up Alone’ and the heartbreaking ‘Love is a Losing Game’ are more Luther Dixon or Berns/Ragovoy than Berry Gordy or Booker T. and the MGs. The genius of Back to Black is that it recreates the ornate feel of that music while emphatically yanking it out of the museum.
“What kind of fuckery is this?” I’m not sure I know, other than that Winehouse gets me deep in my gut. I dare say she’ll crash and burn like every other codep dipso celeb in London, but even if she does she’ll have left behind at least one remarkable record. As she winds up with the Zutons’ ‘Valerie’, everyone is smiling and jumping with untrammelled joy: live music doesn’t get any better than this.
Out in paperback from Constable tomorrow (at the slightly less daunting price of £8.99).
My addiction memoir gets a very nice review in the new TLS as part of an omnibus roundup of various books on the theme.
Eric J. Iannelli describes Never Enough as “erudite and ruminative” and writes:
“In ‘My Chemical Romance’, the first of two sections, the music critic and journalist, now approaching sixty, looks back on himself in his late teens and sees in the discontented peripheral figure who is unable to blunt the fervency of his emotions ‘an addict waiting to happen’. At twenty, he shoots up for the first time, immediately discovering a ‘one-size-fits-all remedy for the core angst of sentient being’. ‘I can see my crippling self-doubt’, he writes of the instant when the drug hits his brain, ‘but – most precious of all gifts – I can no longer feel it.’
“This mirrors the epiphanic moment experienced by many addicts, the first magical encounter with a substance that allows us to inhabit ourselves fully and elude that pervasive sense of soul-deep discomfort, to feel genuinely at home among humanity and yet uniquely separate from it, impervious to its malice and somehow more attuned to its beauty. Thus begins, as the title Never Enough suggests, the interminable quest to re-experience that moment in perpetuity.
“For Hoskyns, this quest lasted three increasingly desperate years, until he grew sufficiently exhausted by its futility. He has spent the nearly three decades since in recovery attempting to anchor ‘the poor little tentacles of self’ – a phrase he borrows from Edith Wharton for his memoir’s second, more philosophical and introspective section – to firmer stuff. He draws considerably on other writers and thinkers as he contemplates how self and ego function in the addict, teasing out universalities that once in a while tread too close to oversimplification. By and large, however, his writing is worth savouring for his descriptions of the multifaceted nature of addiction, the paradox of sobriety that makes surrender a form of victory, and the role of our zeitgeist in stoking the flames of disenchantment, self-seeking, alienation, impatience and invidious distinction that drugs are, however fleetingly, able to dampen. ‘There’s such a desperate hunger to be somebody and mean something’ in this age of social media and unbridled narcissism, writes Hoskyns; ‘the entire machine of global capitalism . . . has become addictive and compulsive’.
“Though relatively slender in terms of page count, Never Enough is substantial and satisfying…
Sunday 24th September
8.30pm – 9.30pm
St Mary’s Hall, Appledore, Devon
At the end of this month I’ll be discussing Small Town Talk and Never Enough: A Way through Addiction with Richard Havers at the Appledore Book Festival, just north of Bideford in gorgeous North Devon. The festival also boasts Ian Rankin, Jeremy Paxman… and Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards.
I’ll be discussing my book Never Enough: A Way through Addiction with Granta publisher Sigrid Rausing (left), author of Mayhem, and Alex Clark (right) at the CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL on SATURDAY 14th OCTOBER at 2:30 pm. The event is entitled “Addiction: Everybody Hurts”…