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.

Only disconnect: Jaron Lanier in London

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A rare visit to our capital by the brilliant Jaron Lanier, in conversation in the wonderful (and appropriate) Marx Memorial Library with dapper Idler host Tom Hodgkinson (centre) and trenchant Guardian columnist John Harris (left). Lanier brought, and played (thrillingly), two of his obscure wind instruments and addressed the main points from his brand-new Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. He is a genuinely fascinating Silicon Valley maverick and I urge you to read all his books. He and his like may be all that stand between us and a dystopian hi-tech nightmare of total control and dehumanisation. (N.B. the Socialist Society banner below was apparently woven by William Morris and his son…)

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His Name was Prince

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Yesterday morning I had a private tour of the new Prince exhibition at London’s O2 centre… This is the unedited version of a Times piece I wrote about it.

 

I hadn’t expected the sudden pang of sadness as I walked in and saw all those gaudy, gloriously naff outfits. My eyes went straight to the studded trench coat – slightly frayed – that Prince wore in Purple Rain, and I was intensely aware he wasn’t inside it. He would never wear any of those costumes, or play any of those daft guitars, again.

The clothes looked child-size, tinier even than I remember him being. For all their brocaded opulence, they made him less immortal than he’d seemed in life. As did the other artifacts in the O2’s My Name Is Prince exhibition: the grubby notebooks and yellow legal pads he scrawled his lyrics on; the road-worn flight cases in the special “VIP” rooms; the bar of Dove soap in his backstage makeup box.

I don’t know why any of these relics should have surprised me. For all his “godlike genius” (to use that overblown rock-journo phrase), Prince was as human as the rest of us, a fact made starkly clear by the nature of his passing – an overdose of the “hillbilly heroin” Fentanyl just 18 short months ago. But he operated on a level of enigma, artifice and musical extravagance that bordered at times on the supernatural.

Nik Cohn, the first great rock journo, called Prince the most naturally talented musician in the history of pop; I wouldn’t disagree. A walking one-man mash-up of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger – not forgetting James Brown, naturally – he could somehow do anything and everything. Including, as it turns out, wash his face with Dove soap.

One might legitimately ask why My Name Is Prince, like the record-breaking David Bowie and Alexander McQueen exhibitions, wasn’t put on at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Its curator, Angie Marchese, told me there are no fewer than 8,000 “pieces” at Prince’s old Minnesota home/HQ Paisley Park, so there’s certainly no shortage of items for a far bigger show. Could it be because he was African-American? Or just because he was ultimately less savvy about fashion than Bowie, let alone McQueen?

Yet that’s one of the things I find most endearing about My Name Is Prince. The entire exhibition is a testament to an essentially small-town notion of glamour, a homemade synthesis of glam androgny and neo-psychedelic dandyism that mirrors the synthesis of the man’s greatest music.

Prince never moved to the coasts; never worked with name designers; never became just another papped celeb in Versace or Lagerfeld (or McQueen). All the outfits from 1987 onwards – starting with the faintly revolting orange-peach ensemble created for 1987’s creative zenith Sign ‘O’ The Times – were made by his own team of seamstresses at Paisley Park. That includes, of course, the matching high-heeled footwear that indirectly killed him. Decades of dancing in them did for both his hips and left him in constant agony. Hence the Fentanyl.

If anything about the exhibition disappoints, it’s the relative paucity of items from the pre-Purple Rain years: no jockstraps from the Dirty Mind days, not a lot from 1999, barring typed lyrics for ‘Little Red Corvette’ and other songs from that breakthrough album. (There’s nothing at all from the late ’70s era of ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and his first two albums for Warner Brothers.) There was something so fresh and D.I.Y. about the hybrid new-wave punk-funk of Prince’s formative period; I’d like to have seen more of it at the O2.

But there’s more than enough to compensate for the absence of 2-Tone badges and kinky garter belts: a multitude of bizarrely-shaped guitars; a recreation of the stage Prince used in his last years; the “third-eye” sunglasses designed in 2014 by Minneapolis sisters Coco and Breezy; and notebooks for the Dreams script that became Purple Rain, with dialogue for Vanity rather than her successor Apollonia. (Embossed on one of the exhibition’s encased notebooks are the words “I’m not crazy I’m creative”. But as we all know, there’s a very thin line between genius and madness.)

Prince was such a weird little dude: so self-possessed, so spookily smart, so almost otherworldly. The one time I interviewed him was the oddest pop encounter I’ve ever had. Yet walking bleary-eyed (and a little teary) around this exhibition, I remembered how radical and revolutionary he was: a miniature purple god, part magus, part satyr, as lewd and libidinous as he was emotionally daring. He made Madonna and Michael Jackson sound like hacks.

And even here, walking through the vaults and wardrobes of his thrilling career, he remains an enigma – a man behind a mask.

Any Major Dudes will tell you: Steely Dan panel in Manchester, 11.11.17

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To celebrate RBP’s brand-new anthology Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion, I shall on Saturday 11th November be discoursing with fellow Dan fanatics John Ingham (who reviewed Katy Lied for Sounds) and Daryl Easlea (who revisited Aja for the BBC) about the wit, wisdom and sheer musical brilliance of Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker. It’s at 2.15 pm at Manchester’s Louder Than Words festival, and you can book tickets here

Small Town Talking in the Black Country

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“Popular rock author set for talk at Bewdley Book Week” (Weds. 6th Sept)

Yes, I’ve finally made it into the pages of the Redditch Advertiser! So it’s been worth all the aggravation… especially if you’re in the area and want to toddle along to the RIVERSIDE CHURCH HALL in Bewdley (England) next Weds 6th Sept at 7.30 pm and hear me small-town-talking about Woodstock/Bearsville/Dylan/Bobby Charles (and, yes, local heroes Led Zeppelin too).

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.