A Song for Her: Back to Amy Winehouse

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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.

Tales of addiction: Never Enough in the TLS

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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…

Never Enough at Appledore

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Sunday 24th September
8.30pm
9.30pm

| £8.00

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.

Three festival readings this summer

THREE DATES for your diary, if you happen to be in the relevant vicinities:

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• I’ll be discussing Never Enough: A Way through Addiction at the Margate Bookie (Turner Contemporary) on Saturday 19 August at 2.0 pm.

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• I’ll be Small Town Talk-ing about Woodstock, New York, and about Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Bobby Charles, Todd Rundgren, Albert Grossman, Karen Dalton and the whole gang at Bewdley Book Week (Riverside Elim) on Wednesday 6 September at 7.30 pm.

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• I’ll be returning to the theme of Never Enough (while also Small Town Talk-ing) at the Appledore Book Festival (St. Mary’s Hall) on Sunday 24th September at 8.30 pm.