Amy Winehouse: Lack of Love Is a Losing Game (Revisited)

AW

Last year I had the opportunity to write about Amy Winehouse via Howard Sounes’ book 27. (Full review here.)

Here is the crux:

For his new book, 27, Howard Sounes researched the number of musicians who’ve actually died at 27 and discovered the total was 50. But the list of famous, or infamous cases comprising the so-called “27 Club” is much shorter, six to be exact. They are, in chronological order, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

What ties these six artists together, aside from their obvious ages and occupations, is the fact that some measure of controversy dogs each death, and Sounes sets out to examine the various coincidences and conflicting stories, seeing what they all add up to.

Conclusion: not much. Despite the considerable talent, promise and tragedy we can attribute to each of these artists, they all serve as cautionary tales of excess, poor judgment and wasted potential. In the cases of Morrison and Hendrix, enough material was recorded to ensure a definitive legacy; with Cobain and Winehouse we are left wondering how many years, even decades, of genius they forfeited.

***

In 2010, when I was making the list of what I considered the 50 best (rock) albums of the decade, I had this to say about Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black:

Between the pre-release hype and the post-release meltdown, it’s almost difficult to remember how many naysayers this album humbled. Trust me, I was one of them. I recall reading a rapturous review a month or two before the CD dropped (and seeing her for the first time in the accompanying photos and thinking, Hey she’s kind of hot in a coke binge, bar-crawling, tat- sporting, wig-wearing, hot bowl of mess kind of way) and acknowledging that serious marketing money had her pegged as the story of the year.

And then I heard the thing. Yeah, the rehab song was okay, I guess. And this album definitely isn’t a masterpiece, because there are some serious clunkers on there. But my God there are some flat out stunners as well. It got overplayed (through no fault of its own) but there is no denying “You Know I’m No Good” (holy shit what a songwriter! Are you kidding me with those lyrics? That is some sardonic self-loathing that gives even Morrissey a run for his money) and the title track and especially the most hilarious song of the decade “Me & Mr. Jones”:

What kind of fuckery are you? Aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew!

Quite frankly, nobody in the world could ever in a million words write a line like this and actually pull it off. And then there is straight-up one of the best songs of this decade, or any decade, “Love Is A Losing Game”. I remember reading that Prince had begun covering this in his live shows. Repeat: Prince. Yes, that Prince. Just to be clear, people cover Prince’s songs, Prince does not cover other people’s songs. Get the picture? It’s one thing to emulate and imitate the old Phil Spector girl group vibe, but to craft a tune that can easily stand alongside any of them? Wow. And, astonishingly, Winehouse saves the best for last, literally. “He Can Only Hold Her” is an out-and-out masterpiece, a perfect song. Every second, every syllable, every sound: utter perfection. Check out those lyrics: can you say “less is more”? That is not just a short story, that is a fucking novel in three minutes. If you know anything about anything, you simply shut up and marvel at genius (yes, genius) like that.

Look, Winehouse was already at Defcon-4 by the time this album broke big; to a certain extent she earned her excess and the sadly predictable tabloid soap opera her life became. Let’s hope, for her sake and ours, that she gets her act together and makes an attempt to do the unthinkable: making another album half as great as Back To Black.

***

7/26/11:

Well, we’ll never get the chance now, will we?

Whenever an artist dies too young, particularly when it is a self-inflicted surrender, there is an inevitable (irresistible?) tendency to romanticize or lionize. That Winehouse joins the infamous “27 club” (Jimi, Jim, Janis, Cobain, etc.) only ups the ante and ensures that the same folks who salivated at her death-spiral will now weep amphibious tears.

I’m disappointed, as a fan, that we won’t get a chance to hear her mature and evolve from the immature chanteuse whose destructive and self-loathing tendencies overpowered the better (and prettier) angels sulking deep inside. I’m sad, as a fellow human being, that a woman with so much talent and potential was not able to love her life –and herself– enough to see how much discovery and excitement lay ahead of her. I sincerely wish she could have listened to her own music and felt the same thrill and astonishment so many millions of people felt. It may not have been enough to save her, but it might have been enough to help. And sometimes help is the first step to salvation.

I hope, and trust, she is sleeping well. And if there is any karmic justice she is able to feel some measure of peace and fulfillment that in some small way approximates the pleasure she was able to provide so many of us, despite the pain she was so obviously in for so long.

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Russell Brand, Revolution and The Audacity of Apathy (Revisited)

RussellBrand.20130508

FIRST OFF, LET’S dispense with decorum and declare the obvious: Russell Brand is brilliant, and quite possibly a genius. In addition to his comedic and acting abilities, he is a first-rate thinker and a (surprisingly) superlative writer. Wipe that smirk off your face and read his tribute to Amy Winehouse. (My own tribute is HERE.)

Or, check out this paragraph from a remarkable piece on Margaret Thatcher, deconstructing both the hypocrisy and opportunistic destruction of the Thatcher/Reagan ethos and what it wrought:

Perhaps, though, Thatcher “the monster” didn’t die this week from a stroke; perhaps that Thatcher died as she sobbed self-pitying tears as she was driven defeated from Downing Street, ousted by her own party. By then, 1990, I was 15, adolescent and instinctively antiestablishment enough to regard her disdainfully. I’d unthinkingly imbibed enough doctrine to know that, troubled as I was, there was little point looking elsewhere for support; I was on my own. We are all on our own. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s acolytes and fellow “Munsters evacuee,” said when the National Union of Miners eventually succumbed to the military onslaught and starvation over which she presided, “[We] broke not just a strike, but a spell.” The spell he’s referring to is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

Brand’s most recent foray into sociopolitical observation is, justifiably and encouragingly, going viral and prompting all sorts of (justifiable, encouraging) commentary. Check it out:

 

So while Russell Brand’s eloquent and witty rant does some heavy lifting in the service of exposing the Royal Scam of manufactured democracy (etc. etc.), and I endorse much of what he says, I do take serious exception with the statement he thinks he’s making by declining to vote. Apathy, or better yet, the type of cultivated disgust that leads to “both sides do it” equivocation is almost certainly what the people pulling the proverbial strings want our default settings to be.

I always get nervous, and ultimately frustrated when I hear intelligent people asking the rhetorical question: Why bother?

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother since politicians are all the same?

Why bother voting at all?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who is even moderately informed. Not to mention aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration combined with the ideology informing those policies bankrupted our nation and—this is the toughest one to grasp— made us less safe is not a matter of opinion. There is no room for any possible nuance. There is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than five years. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980.

There was probably not a more irascible yet articulate comedian who spoke the Truth to Power in the last quarter-century than George Carlin. He made you laugh, but the topics were often ugly and dead-serious. He dissected the greed, opportunism and collective culpability of a super-sized America as well as anyone has but, like Twain, his indignation eventually (inevitably) took a turn for the bitter toward the end. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. If any famous public figure—an artist, no less!— went as ungently into that not-so-good night, I can’t think of one; eternal kudos to Carlin for keeping it real until he flat-lined.

The one beef I had with Carlin was similar: he famously refused to vote as well. And while it’s difficult to quibble with any of the points he makes in the video below (wherein he proves that he still had both his fastball and spitball up until the last pitch he threw), it is in the 21st Century—and after what we’ve just witnessed with one party fighting for the right to default—disingenuous to deny that the other party even bothers to pay lip service to working Americans.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what one studies in college, or the type of person one already is (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if one is a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right, reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: agency vs. incapacity, history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

Put another way, even if one is open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science, you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little!), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious non-identification.” This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or abscomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes facts, even if couched in fictional narratives, which are largely outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago and Mexican immigrants—especially the illegal ones—who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those who work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces, or engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Authority. Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the Weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion-dollar bonuses (thanks taxpayers!) while unionized public school teachers and middle-to-lower class workers’ pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

One must concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one sloganeers for the soldiers, country, and Christ like Republicans. Of course, we won’t count the ultimate cost of “Mission Accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars our adventure in Iraq has put on the ledger. And isn’t it amusing how seldom the war that would pay for itself comes up during discussions of the big deficits racked up during the last decade? Remember this, when those hoping to drown government in a bathtub crawl out of their taxpayer-fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers.

The Democrats are not immune from the corrupting influence of their donors and corporate masters, but they can continue to ensure the people owed the most won’t get the least. It’s up to enlightened citizens to ensure the Dems don’t dance with the devil and sell out Social Security. It’s the obligation of those who know better to remind their disgruntled or oblivious buddies that Obamacare is almost entirely a plan designed by Republicans! Listen to right-wing radio or the rhetoric of men like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan, who will happily sign off on savage cuts to food stamps, and persuade their supporters to inquire, What Would Jesus Do?

There will be haters, and it’s easy enough to feel their pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle. Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. More than ever, as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish, we don’t want any government interference. We don’t want to pay taxes and then wonder why the Free Market isn’t sorting out these pesky problems that won’t take care of themselves. Put still another way, if you don’t share the view that giving the wealthiest one percent even larger tax cuts is not an antidote for what ails us, you should vote and there is one party you should never vote for.

This is why we have to choose sides. This is why we can’t to let the super-affluent and well-insured with the least to lose lull us into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless class warfare they will instigate, their ultimate ambition is to render the literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Your vote matters, and is vital, so whether it’s the disarming charm of Russell Brand or the transparent mendacity of the puppet-masters, resist the temptation to walk away: the only hope to win what feels like a rigged game is to remain on the playing field.

http://www.theweeklings.com/smurphy/2013/11/17/russell-brand-revolution-and-the-audacity-of-apathy/

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Amy Winehouse: Lack of Love is A Losing Game (Revisited)

AW

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to write about Amy Winehouse via Howard Sounes’ book 27. (Full review here.)

Here is the crux:

For his new book, 27, Howard Sounes researched the number of musicians who’ve actually died at 27 and discovered the total was 50. But the list of famous, or infamous cases comprising the so-called “27 Club” is much shorter, six to be exact. They are, in chronological order, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

What ties these six artists together, aside from their obvious ages and occupations, is the fact that some measure of controversy dogs each death, and Sounes sets out to examine the various coincidences and conflicting stories, seeing what they all add up to.

Conclusion: not much. Despite the considerable talent, promise and tragedy we can attribute to each of these artists, they all serve as cautionary tales of excess, poor judgment and wasted potential. In the cases of Morrison and Hendrix, enough material was recorded to ensure a definitive legacy; with Cobain and Winehouse we are left wondering how many years, even decades, of genius they forfeited.

***

In 2010, when I was making the list of what I considered the 50 best (rock) albums of the decade, I had this to say about Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black:

Between the pre-release hype and the post-release meltdown, it’s almost difficult to remember how many naysayers this album humbled. Trust me, I was one of them. I recall reading a rapturous review a month or two before the CD dropped (and seeing her for the first time in the accompanying photos and thinking, Hey she’s kind of hot in a coke binge, bar-crawling, tat- sporting, wig-wearing, hot bowl of mess kind of way) and acknowledging that serious marketing money had her pegged as the story of the year.

And then I heard the thing. Yeah, the rehab song was okay, I guess. And this album definitely isn’t a masterpiece, because there are some serious clunkers on there. But my God there are some flat out stunners as well. It got overplayed (through no fault of its own) but there is no denying “You Know I’m No Good” (holy shit what a songwriter! Are you kidding me with those lyrics? That is some sardonic self-loathing that gives even Morrissey a run for his money) and the title track and especially the most hilarious song of the decade “Me & Mr. Jones”:

What kind of fuckery are you? Aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew!

Quite frankly, nobody in the world could ever in a million words write a line like this and actually pull it off. And then there is straight-up one of the best songs of this decade, or any decade, “Love Is A Losing Game”. I remember reading that Prince had begun covering this in his live shows. Repeat: Prince. Yes, that Prince. Just to be clear, people cover Prince’s songs, Prince does not cover other people’s songs. Get the picture? It’s one thing to emulate and imitate the old Phil Spector girl group vibe, but to craft a tune that can easily stand alongside any of them? Wow. And, astonishingly, Winehouse saves the best for last, literally. “He Can Only Hold Her” is an out-and-out masterpiece, a perfect song. Every second, every syllable, every sound: utter perfection. Check out those lyrics: can you say “less is more”? That is not just a short story, that is a fucking novel in three minutes. If you know anything about anything, you simply shut up and marvel at genius (yes, genius) like that.

Look, Winehouse was already at Defcon-4 by the time this album broke big; to a certain extent she earned her excess and the sadly predictable tabloid soap opera her life became. Let’s hope, for her sake and ours, that she gets her act together and makes an attempt to do the unthinkable: making another album half as great as Back To Black.

***

7/26/11:

Well, we’ll never get the chance now, will we?

Whenever an artist dies too young, particularly when it is a self-inflicted surrender, there is an inevitable (irresistible?) tendency to romanticize or lionize. That Winehouse joins the infamous “27 club” (Jimi, Jim, Janis, Cobain, etc.) only ups the ante and ensures that the same folks who salivated at her death-spiral will now weep amphibious tears.

I’m disappointed, as a fan, that we won’t get a chance to hear her mature and evolve from the immature chanteuse whose destructive and self-loathing tendencies overpowered the better (and prettier) angels sulking deep inside. I’m sad, as a fellow human being, that a woman with so much talent and potential was not able to love her life –and herself– enough to see how much discovery and excitement lay ahead of her. I sincerely wish she could have listened to her own music and felt the same thrill and astonishment so many millions of people felt. It may not have been enough to save her, but it might have been enough to help. And sometimes help is the first step to salvation.

I hope, and trust, she is sleeping well. And if there is any karmic justice she is able to feel some measure of peace and fulfillment that in some small way approximates the pleasure she was able to provide so many of us, despite the pain she was so obviously in for so long.

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Howard Sounes’ ’27’ Has That Train Wreck Kind of Appeal

book-27-sounes-cvr-200

“You’re drinking with number three,” Jim Morrison allegedly declared, equal parts sardonic and prescient, following the successive deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in 1970. As it happened, he was correct. In less than a year these superstars were gone, all at the age of 27.

For his new book, 27, Howard Sounes researched the number of musicians who’ve actually died at 27 and discovered the total was 50. But the list of famous, or infamous cases comprising the so-called “27 Club” is much shorter, six to be exact. They are, in chronological order, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

What ties these six artists together, aside from their obvious ages and occupations, is the fact that some measure of controversy dogs each death, and Sounes sets out to examine the various coincidences and conflicting stories, seeing what they all add up to.

Conclusion: not much. Despite the considerable talent, promise and tragedy we can attribute to each of these artists, they all serve as cautionary tales of excess, poor judgment and wasted potential. In the cases of Morrison and Hendrix, enough material was recorded to ensure a definitive legacy; with Cobain and Winehouse we are left wondering how many years, even decades, of genius they forfeited.

In the cases of Jones and, to a lesser extent Joplin, they seemed hell-bent on self-destruction, and might well have viewed death as a refuge of sorts. And while Joplin arguably did her best work at the end, Jones had ceased to contribute much of anything, and was a bloated, neurotic mess long before his ill-advised midnight swim.

Sounes constructs mini-biographies of each musician, making Winehouse, who receives quite a bit more attention and time, the centerpiece. The author admits that he has more personal interest in Winehouse, particularly as a fellow Londoner, and it was presumably much easier to find family and friends to speak with. For the four who died between 1969 and 1971, he relies on myriad sources, and his bibliography is impressive, if intimidating. Make no mistake, Sounes did heavy lifting to make this book as authoritative as possible.

If you are already familiar with these musicians, there are not a ton of new or especially interesting insights to be found. On the other hand, if you want exhaustive, at times exhausting detail regarding their collective debauchery, 27 may have that kind of perverse train wreck appeal.

Interestingly, or not, while Winehouse gets more than twice as much ink as the others, much of it is spent in the service of depressingly redundant recollections of her binges and outbursts. Not unlike with Joplin, Jones and Morrison, one comes away wondering not why they died so young, but how they managed to live as long as they did.

Indeed, Sounes betrays a soft spot for Winehouse, at times acting like a priest or psychiatrist, where he is mostly content to dismiss Morrison and Jones as burned out buffoons. In the latter’s case, there weren’t too many people willing to say many nice things: Jones comes off as a petulant, abusive bully, a man-child who might have ended up in jail or in a ditch if not for his musical skills and fortuitous association with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Morrison, on the other hand, warrants more nuance and empathy than Sounes is capable of conjuring. True, the Lizard King was, by most accounts, all too often a braying, inebriated ass. On the other hand, there are plenty of friends and acquaintances who describe him as the proverbial Jekyll and Hyde: when not drunk, he was capable of humor, kindness and generosity. And he was also capable of ethereal brilliance; lost on Sounes are the ways Morrison channeled his vices into unique and affecting visions. A simple assessment of his material dealing with alcohol reveals a trifecta of masterful songs that also work as poetry: “Roadhouse Blues”, “End of the Night” and especially what might rank as rock music’s finest meditation on the irresistible pull of drink, “The Crystal Ship”.

Like Hendrix, Joplin simply seemed to get caught up in the chaos that accompanies life in the spotlight; unlike Hendrix, she had deep-rooted insecurities and a profound self-loathing (like Cobain and Winehouse) that led her to seek solace from miscellaneous chemicals. Hendrix is the only one who seems relatively well-adjusted and mostly in control of his faculties throughout. He enjoyed the party because he could, but he took his life, and his music, very seriously. More, he harbored no apparent desire to harm or annihilate himself, so his death still seems a genuine misadventure, a freak incident that still stings to this day.

Sounes helpfully demolishes any/all conspiracy theories, ranging from the familiar (Morrison lives!) to the far-fetched (Hendrix was murdered), and while we’ll never know exactly what happened to Jones and Joplin, the drugs found in their systems combined with the backstory of their final months in this earthly form leave little to the imagination.

27 also serves as a corrective of sorts for the half-assed mythologizing, particularly of Morrison and Cobain, both of whom have, for a variety of understandable if facile reasons, been posthumously anointed as voices of their generation. Both Cobain and Morrison had upbringings that left them ill-prepared for adulthood, much less celebrity. But there was no shortage of self-indulgence as well, and while anyone with a heart can feel genuine empathy, the record leaves no question these men were surrounded by concerned support systems, and wealth, that might have made a difference.

In a fascinating twist, just about all the maligned parents obtain an odd, non-rock and roll vindication, courtesy of their offspring. In the cases of Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison, all were estranged from their parents, all of whom ended up wealthy beneficiaries of careers they never approved of, but perhaps unintentionally did much to inspire.

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Russell Brand, Revolution and The Audacity of Apathy

FIRST OFF, LET’S dispense with decorum and declare the obvious: Russell Brand is brilliant, and quite possibly a genius. In addition to his comedic and acting abilities, he is a first-rate thinker and a (surprisingly) superlative writer. Wipe that smirk off your face and read his tribute to Amy Winehouse. (My own tribute is HERE.)

Or, check out this paragraph from a remarkable piece on Margaret Thatcher, deconstructing both the hypocrisy and opportunistic destruction of the Thatcher/Reagan ethos and what it wrought:

Perhaps, though, Thatcher “the monster” didn’t die this week from a stroke; perhaps that Thatcher died as she sobbed self-pitying tears as she was driven defeated from Downing Street, ousted by her own party. By then, 1990, I was 15, adolescent and instinctively antiestablishment enough to regard her disdainfully. I’d unthinkingly imbibed enough doctrine to know that, troubled as I was, there was little point looking elsewhere for support; I was on my own. We are all on our own. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s acolytes and fellow “Munsters evacuee,” said when the National Union of Miners eventually succumbed to the military onslaught and starvation over which she presided, “[We] broke not just a strike, but a spell.” The spell he’s referring to is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

Brand’s most recent foray into sociopolitical observation is, justifiably and encouragingly, going viral and prompting all sorts of (justifiable, encouraging) commentary. Check it out:

 

So while Russell Brand’s eloquent and witty rant does some heavy lifting in the service of exposing the Royal Scam of manufactured democracy (etc. etc.), and I endorse much of what he says, I do take serious exception with the statement he thinks he’s making by declining to vote. Apathy, or better yet, the type of cultivated disgust that leads to “both sides do it” equivocation is almost certainly what the people pulling the proverbial strings want our default settings to be.

I always get nervous, and ultimately frustrated when I hear intelligent people asking the rhetorical question: Why bother?

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother since politicians are all the same?

Why bother voting at all?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who is even moderately informed. Not to mention aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration combined with the ideology informing those policies bankrupted our nation and—this is the toughest one to grasp— made us less safe is not a matter of opinion. There is no room for any possible nuance. There is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than five years. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980.

There was probably not a more irascible yet articulate comedian who spoke the Truth to Power in the last quarter-century than George Carlin. He made you laugh, but the topics were often ugly and dead-serious. He dissected the greed, opportunism and collective culpability of a super-sized America as well as anyone has but, like Twain, his indignation eventually (inevitably) took a turn for the bitter toward the end. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. If any famous public figure—an artist, no less!— went as ungently into that not-so-good night, I can’t think of one; eternal kudos to Carlin for keeping it real until he flat-lined.

The one beef I had with Carlin was similar: he famously refused to vote as well. And while it’s difficult to quibble with any of the points he makes in the video below (wherein he proves that he still had both his fastball and spitball up until the last pitch he threw), it is in the 21st Century—and after what we’ve just witnessed with one party fighting for the right to default—disingenuous to deny that the other party even bothers to pay lip service to working Americans.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what one studies in college, or the type of person one already is (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if one is a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right, reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: agency vs. incapacity, history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

Put another way, even if one is open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science, you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little!), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious non-identification.” This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or abscomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes facts, even if couched in fictional narratives, which are largely outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago and Mexican immigrants—especially the illegal ones—who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those who work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces, or engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Authority. Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the Weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion-dollar bonuses (thanks taxpayers!) while unionized public school teachers and middle-to-lower class workers’ pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

One must concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one sloganeers for the soldiers, country, and Christ like Republicans. Of course, we won’t count the ultimate cost of “Mission Accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars our adventure in Iraq has put on the ledger. And isn’t it amusing how seldom the war that would pay for itself comes up during discussions of the big deficits racked up during the last decade? Remember this, when those hoping to drown government in a bathtub crawl out of their taxpayer-fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers.

The Democrats are not immune from the corrupting influence of their donors and corporate masters, but they can continue to ensure the people owed the most won’t get the least. It’s up to enlightened citizens to ensure the Dems don’t dance with the devil and sell out Social Security. It’s the obligation of those who know better to remind their disgruntled or oblivious buddies that Obamacare is almost entirely a plan designed by Republicans! Listen to right-wing radio or the rhetoric of men like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan, who will happily sign off on savage cuts to food stamps, and persuade their supporters to inquire, What Would Jesus Do?

There will be haters, and it’s easy enough to feel their pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle. Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. More than ever, as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish, we don’t want any government interference. We don’t want to pay taxes and then wonder why the Free Market isn’t sorting out these pesky problems that won’t take care of themselves. Put still another way, if you don’t share the view that giving the wealthiest one percent even larger tax cuts is not an antidote for what ails us, you should vote and there is one party you should never vote for.

This is why we have to choose sides. This is why we can’t to let the super-affluent and well-insured with the least to lose lull us into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless class warfare they will instigate, their ultimate ambition is to render the literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Your vote matters, and is vital, so whether it’s the disarming charm of Russell Brand or the transparent mendacity of the puppet-masters, resist the temptation to walk away: the only hope to win what feels like a rigged game is to remain on the playing field.

http://www.theweeklings.com/smurphy/2013/11/17/russell-brand-revolution-and-the-audacity-of-apathy/

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Amy Winehouse: Lack of Love is a Losing Game (Revisited)

Last year, when I was making the list of what I considered the 50 best (rock) albums of the decade, I had this to say about Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black:

Between the pre-release hype and the post-release meltdown, it’s almost difficult to remember how many naysayers this album humbled. Trust me, I was one of them. I recall reading a rapturous review a month or two before the CD dropped (and seeing her for the first time in the accompanying photos and thinking, Hey she’s kind of hot in a coke binge, bar-crawling, tat- sporting, wig-wearing, hot bowl of mess kind of way) and acknowledging that serious marketing money had her pegged as the story of the year.

And then I heard the thing. Yeah, the rehab song was okay, I guess. And this album definitely isn’t a masterpiece, because there are some serious clunkers on there. But my God there are some flat out stunners as well. It got overplayed (through no fault of its own) but there is no denying “You Know I’m No Good” (holy shit what a songwriter! Are you kidding me with those lyrics? That is some sardonic self-loathing that gives even Morrissey a run for his money) and the title track and especially the most hilarious song of the decade “Me & Mr. Jones”:

What kind of fuckery are you? Aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew!

Quite frankly, nobody in the world could ever in a million words write a line like this and actually pull it off. And then there is straight-up one of the best songs of this decade, or any decade, “Love Is A Losing Game”. I remember reading that Prince had begun covering this in his live shows. Repeat: Prince. Yes, that Prince. Just to be clear, people cover Prince’s songs, Prince does not cover other people’s songs. Get the picture? It’s one thing to emulate and imitate the old Phil Spector girl group vibe, but to craft a tune that can easily stand alongside any of them? Wow. And, astonishingly, Winehouse saves the best for last, literally. “He Can Only Hold Her” is an out-and-out masterpiece, a perfect song. Every second, every syllable, every sound: utter perfection. Check out those lyrics: can you say “less is more”? That is not just a short story, that is a fucking novel in three minutes. If you know anything about anything, you simply shut up and marvel at genius (yes, genius) like that.

Look, Winehouse was already at Defcon-4 by the time this album broke big; to a certain extent she earned her excess and the sadly predictable tabloid soap opera her life became. Let’s hope, for her sake and ours, that she gets her act together and makes an attempt to do the unthinkable: making another album half as great as Back To Black.

7/26/11:

Well, we’ll never get the chance now, will we?

Whenever an artist dies too young, particularly when it is a self-inflicted surrender, there is an inevitable (irresistible?) tendency to romanticize or lionize. That Winehouse joins the infamous “27 club” (Jimi, Jim, Janis, Cobain, etc.) only ups the ante and ensures that the same folks who salivated at her death-spiral will now weep amphibious tears.

I’m disappointed, as a fan, that we won’t get a chance to hear her mature and evolve from the immature chanteuse whose destructive and self-loathing tendencies overpowered the better (and prettier) angels sulking deep inside. I’m sad, as a fellow human being, that a woman with so much talent and potential was not able to love her life –and herself– enough to see how much discovery and excitement lay ahead of her. I sincerely wish she could have listened to her own music and felt the same thrill and astonishment so many millions of people felt. It may not have been enough to save her, but it might have been enough to help. And sometimes help is the first step to salvation.

I hope, and trust, she is sleeping well. And if there is any karmic justice she is able to feel some measure of peace and fulfillment that in some small way approximates the pleasure she was able to provide so many of us, despite the pain she was so obviously in for so long.

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2011: Time To Die (Part Two: July-December)

2011: In pace requiescat!

7/26/11:

Whenever an artist dies too young, particularly when it is a self-inflicted surrender, there is an inevitable (irresistible?) tendency to romanticize or lionize. That Winehouse joins the infamous “27 club” (Jimi, Jim, Janis, Cobain, etc.) only ups the ante and ensures that the same folks who salivated at her death-spiral will now weep amphibious tears.

I’m disappointed, as a fan, that we won’t get a chance to hear her mature and evolve from the immature chanteuse whose destructive and self-loathing tendencies overpowered the better (and prettier) angels sulking deep inside. I’m sad, as a fellow human being, that a woman with so much talent and potential was not able to love her life –and herself– enough to see how much discovery and excitement lay ahead of her. I sincerely wish she could have listened to her own music and felt the same thrill and astonishment so many millions of people felt. It may not have been enough to save her, but it might have been enough to help. And sometimes help is the first step to salvation.

I hope, and trust, she is sleeping well. And if there is any karmic justice she is able to feel some measure of peace and fulfillment that in some small way approximates the pleasure she was able to provide so many of us, despite the pain she was so obviously in for so long.

Read the rest, here.

Portrait of the artist as a young pup.

Wait, did I say artist? I meant barbarian.

No, that’s neither fair nor accurate. It’s difficult with Quinzy– he was many things, frequently at the same time: tameless beast, gentle soul, abominably-behaved, adorable, impish, awe-inspiring (of which more shortly), incorrigible and, above all, utterly unique.

Check it out: I have three separate, visible scars on my right hand. All of them are from Quinzy’s teeth. The largest scar is from a bite he gave me, while I was petting him.

***

I used to say (and I was more than half-serious) that while I did not believe he could ever die, if and when he did, the medical community needed to study him and find the cure for cancer. I’ve never seen a dog that simply did not show any signs of weakness or age for so long. He was not hyper, he just went at the world in a way that Auggie March would fully endorse. So with apologies to Saul Bellow, I’ll take the liberty of embellishing that famous first paragraph from his masterful novel: “I am an American, (puppy-mill)-born—…and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a (dog)’s character is his fate, says Heraclitis, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles (or muzzling the snout).”

Quinzy treated the world like his bitch and while I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) necessarily emulate that approach, it’s hard not to admire and respect it. I’ve never met a human –much less an animal– that slurped so much ecstasy out of every second he was allowed to enjoy. Quinzy got his eyes, ears, snout and occasionally his teeth on anything and everyone within his reach and he never hesitated and he never slowed down. Until he slowed down.

But we never thought he would die. We actually thought he would live forever. Or at least shatter some canine records. I still reckon that scientific minds should study his DNA and come up with the antitode for illness, aging and depression. He was the most alive dog I’ve ever known and I’ve known a lot of dogs. Dogs, if nothing else, are very alive and adept at living (they are dogs, after all).

I won’t get carried away and claim that the scars on my hand, which I can see right now as I write these words, are the ironic gifts Quinzy left me. But in a way I could not appreciate until this very second, perhaps he was giving me something I could not fully fathom, since I’m a human. Did he understood and appreciate that he had been rescued from abandonment or a premature appointment with the veterinarian’s least-loved needle? Who knows. Who cares? What was he supposed to do, thank me? He did more than that anyway, and he did it without guile or the expectation of gratitude, since he was a dog. He showed me how to live a less contrived, more memorable life. He left me with a part of him that I can easily keep in my head and my heart. Finally, in his own incomparable fashion he ensured I had a visible reminder or three I’ll carry with me until the day I finally slow down myself.

Full tribute to this amazing dog, here.

Sad new from the wire: guitar legend Bert Jansch has passed away (another casualty of The Big C). Story here.

My introduction to his work was, presumably like many punks my age, courtesy of Neil Young. In particular, Neil’s epic album-closing statement from his (greatest?) album On The Beach, entitled “Ambulance Blues” apparently owes more than a slight debt to Jansch’s ’60s tune “The Needle of Death” (interesting in its own right, as Young would of course write the enormously affecting –and popular– anti-heroin anthem “The Needle and The Damage Done”).

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence.

As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

I am less concerned about what further inventions and innovations we may not now see with him gone, and lament the more simple –and human– fact that he is yet another human being gone entirely too soon because of the awful disease called cancer. It seems very sad to me that once again we are reminded that death is inevitable (not always a terrible thing; carpe diem and all that) but that cancer does not give a shit how rich, powerful or brilliant you are. For some reason it stings a bit more to see people with all the money and connections in the world reduced, like rubble, by this awful ailment that is an equal-opportunity force of destruction. I worry much less about which new toys Apple will produce and the fact that his family has lost the husband and father at the disgustingly, offensively young age of 56.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, countercultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him. What else can be said but kudos on a life well and purposefully lived?

R.I.P., Smokin’ Joe. Another casualty of The Big C; yet another instance where even the toughest amongst us can’t overcome that greedy and too often indomitable disease.

There is not much I can, or would want to try to add to the remarkable life story of Smokin’ Joe. Whether it’s the made-for-the-movies image of Joe pounding slabs of meat in a Philadelphia factory (see: Rocky Balboa), or the way-better-than-fiction melodrama of his relationship with Ali (the fights, the hype, the acrimony, the endurance, the bitterness, the not-fully-resolved antipathy), there has never been anything quite like Joe Frazier. And his relationship with Ali which, well….just watch the HBO documentary The Thriller in Manila. Beyond Sophocles; beyond Shakespeare. No bullshit.

For mere mortals like the rest of us, how could we begin to understand what it feels like to come that close to death in what could accurately be described as blood sport? In front of millions of eyeballs in real time. Preserved forever on tape. And that’s just the (inconceivable) brutality that was inflicted and endured. What must it have been like for Frazier to know that he could and perhaps shouldhave won that fight? You think you’ve had regrets in your life? How about knowing that Ali had no intention to come out for the 15th? I can scarcely comprehend how Frazier got out of bed each day with this thought gnawing at him like a rat feasts on a cold bone. It’s likely that the same thing that defined him is what redeemed him: the stubborn, unflinching, brave and single-minded drive. To survive. To be the best. To be true to himself.

One need not denigrate Ali to elevate Frazier. It comes dangerously close to cliche, but it must be said that Frazier was a true champion. In many senses of the word. He was a fighter, but his biggest bouts always took place outside the ring.

It is a shame it did not happen while he was alive to see it, but it’s long past the appropriate time for the city of Philadelphia to erect a statue for its favorite son. The one created in the dank, reeking gym where they build legends, as opposed to the bright, plastic city where they make movies. If there is a statue for Rocky, there damn well should be a statue for the man who inspired him.

See whole thing, here.

Some extended thoughts from 2011 regarding hockey, violence and cognitive dissonance, here.

Snippet:

So what is complicated about it? For starters, hockey fighting remains a diversion that people who genuinely deplore violence (like this writer) endorse and get excited about. What does that say about us? I’m not certain. But I do know that unlike the “real” world, it is exceedingly rare for two hockey combatants to enter the fray unwillingly. Yes but, doesn’t that make it a great deal worse, if they do it because they get paid? (Well, is boxing beatiful? Brutal? Your opinion here will go a decent way toward explaining your ability, or willingness, to negotiate the enigmatic charm of the expression “five minutes for fighting”.) That gets to the not-so-easily explained sensibility of athletes (in general) and hockey players (in particular). Hockey players have traditionally been paid a great deal less than other athletes in more popular sports. It is, therefore, a bit ironic to consider that these players are more immune to pain and prone to play a regular season game like the world is on the line. It is, for hockey fans, refreshing that the players have an integrity that has been ingrained from generations and is remarkably resilient against the corrupting forces of salary, fame and product endorsements. Put in less exalted terms, people tend to get (understandably) cynical when, say, a baseball player with a multi-million dollar annual contract goes on the D.L. with a strained hamstring. That type of commonplace indifference is especially noticeable –and appalling– when one realizes that hockey players routinely return to the ice moments after receiving stitches, or losing teeth, or suffering bruised (and in some cases, broken) bones. Google it if you don’t believe me.

Another giant of whom we’ll never see the likes of again has left the planet. R.I.P. Hubert Sumlin.

I’ll resist the urge to say it’s the least they could do, since at least they are doing something, and acknowledge this nice gesture by the Glimmer Twins (who owe a great deal to Sumlin and his former employer).

You can usually measure an artist’s legacy by the people who worship said artist. If the names Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix mean anything to you, it should provide some manner of perspective for how huge and influential this understated guitarist was –and will remain. Like all great artists (musicians or writers) he knew instinctively to do more with less and use silence as strategy. Although he was remarkably proficient (listen to his grease-in-a-frying-pan lead on the immortal “Killing Floor”, later covered to excellent effect by a young Hendrix) he also had the smarts to step back and let the almost overpowering presence of Howlin’ Wolf run rampant. The result is the cool and effortless grace that so many subsequent rock stars trying to play authentic blues –including some of the ones listed above– have ably imitated but never duplicated.

The Wolf, of course, would have still been a supernova without the (amazing) band he assembled; he was too much of a force of nature, musically and otherwise, to settle for less. But he was wise enough to employ and retain Sumlin, who gave those old Chess classics their distintive edge and inimitable swagger.

More here.

Not a lot of fanfare surrounded the death of Howard Tate (a couple of obits here and here).

In a sad, sadly typical way, this is appropriate, since there was not a lot of fanfare surrounding him while he lived.

This is a terrible shame for many reasons, the most important being he may be the best singer you’ve never heard.

The dude just could never catch a break. Joplin’s cover gave him the opportunity he needed but…it just never happened. Bad timing, bitterness and frustration followed, and a man who should have dominated the decade ended up homeless, addicted to crack. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Fortunately, he found religion and got his act together. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Better still, he was able to record and perform. It’s nice to think he received a modicum of the respect and appreciation that should have been accorded to him back when it would have mattered a lot more. But he did not die unknown, and he did not end up dead in the streets. So that’s something.

You can –and you should– grab hold of some history (for under $10) here and here (his song “Where Did My Baby Go”, which unfortunately is not available on YouTube, is worth the price of admission: Howard Tate sings the SHIT out of that joint and it’s a travesty that this did not go straight to number one and make him wealthy and well-known. The Lord works in mysterious ways).

I’ll resist the urge to note how untalented ass-clowns are getting record deals and reality TV shows, because it has always been thus. It’s still thus, only more so. And while that makes it harder than it normally would be to swallow the karmic injustice of a man like Howard Tate not breaking through when he might have, it is what it is. Besides, now is not the time to lament or complain: it’s time, as always, to celebrate what we did get, and what we’ll always have.

The music, of course, lives on (stop me if you’ve heard this one before).

Full thing here.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Much more, here.

So what did I like so much about him? Well, you have to be a soccer (i.e., football) fan to understand in the first place. You also probably had to be young and in love with the game. As a soccer freak, I was consistently at awe with how he managed the field. As I got older and understood he got his nickname because of his inconceivable temerity to actually read books, he became a hero on an entirely other level. He also was a chainsmoker. Suffice it to say, those were different days, my friends. More, he was a big drinker. Not celebrating this (indeed, the smoking and drinking undoubtedly led indirectly, if not directly, to his awfully premature death), but just putting it out there: the man knew how to live on and off the field. Oh, did I mention that he actually became a doctor after his playing days? Or that he was very progressive politically? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this motherfucker rocked the beard.

More man love, here.

Regarding the amazing life of Vaclav Havel, there is nothing I can say that he did not say better himself:

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

Another irreplaceable giant has left the planet.

Sam Rivers, always graceful, elegant and cool as a mofo, certainly carved out his own niche in the jazz idiom.

While his work as a leader will –and should– be celebrated, he also did remarkable work on sessions led by his compatriots.

Anyone not familiar with this great reedist should proceed directly to the tri-fecta of Fuchsia Swing Song (1964), Contours (1965) and Dimensions & Extensions (1967).

Check him out on Dave Holland’s classic Conference of the Birds (1973), Tony Williams’s Spring (1965) and Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue. After that, enjoy picking and choosing from the gems he created over five decades on the scene.

In one of the early obits to hit the press, this revealing quote from his daughter pretty much puts the man and his work in proper perspective:

“Music was his life, music is what kept him alive,” said his daughter Monique Rivers Williams of Apopka, who also handled her father’s concert bookings and learned from him the joy of making music. “My father, in my eyes, was on vacation all his life. He used to tell me, ‘I’m working, but I’m loving every minute of it.’ Retirement was not in his vocabulary. ‘Why do we even have that word,’ he used to ask me, ‘there should be no such thing.’”

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Amy Winehouse: Lack of Love is a Losing Game

Last year, when I was making the list of what I considered the 50 best (rock) albums of the decade, I had this to say about Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black:

Between the pre-release hype and the post-release meltdown, it’s almost difficult to remember how many naysayers this album humbled. Trust me, I was one of them. I recall reading a rapturous review a month or two before the CD dropped (and seeing her for the first time in the accompanying photos and thinking, Hey she’s kind of hot in a coke binge, bar-crawling, tat- sporting, wig-wearing, hot bowl of mess kind of way) and acknowledging that serious marketing money had her pegged as the story of the year.

And then I heard the thing. Yeah, the rehab song was okay, I guess. And this album definitely isn’t a masterpiece, because there are some serious clunkers on there. But my God there are some flat out stunners as well. It got overplayed (through no fault of its own) but there is no denying “You Know I’m No Good” (holy shit what a songwriter! Are you kidding me with those lyrics? That is some sardonic self-loathing that gives even Morrissey a run for his money) and the title track and especially the most hilarious song of the decade “Me & Mr. Jones”:

What kind of fuckery are you? Aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew!

Quite frankly, nobody in the world could ever in a million words write a line like this and actually pull it off. And then there is straight-up one of the best songs of this decade, or any decade, “Love Is A Losing Game”. I remember reading that Prince had begun covering this in his live shows. Repeat: Prince. Yes, that Prince. Just to be clear, people cover Prince’s songs, Prince does not cover other people’s songs. Get the picture? It’s one thing to emulate and imitate the old Phil Spector girl group vibe, but to craft a tune that can easily stand alongside any of them? Wow. And, astonishingly, Winehouse saves the best for last, literally. “He Can Only Hold Her” is an out-and-out masterpiece, a perfect song. Every second, every syllable, every sound: utter perfection. Check out those lyrics: can you say “less is more”? That is not just a short story, that is a fucking novel in three minutes. If you know anything about anything, you simply shut up and marvel at genius (yes, genius) like that.

Look, Winehouse was already at Defcon-4 by the time this album broke big; to a certain extent she earned her excess and the sadly predictable tabloid soap opera her life became. Let’s hope, for her sake and ours, that she gets her act together and makes an attempt to do the unthinkable: making another album half as great as Back To Black.

7/26/11:

Well, we’ll never get the chance now, will we?

Whenever an artist dies too young, particularly when it is a self-inflicted surrender, there is an inevitable (irresistible?) tendency to romanticize or lionize. That Winehouse joins the infamous “27 club” (Jimi, Jim, Janis, Cobain, etc.) only ups the ante and ensures that the same folks who salivated at her death-spiral will now weep amphibious tears.

I’m disappointed, as a fan, that we won’t get a chance to hear her mature and evolve from the immature chanteuse whose destructive and self-loathing tendencies overpowered the better (and prettier) angels sulking deep inside. I’m sad, as a fellow human being, that a woman with so much talent and potential was not able to love her life –and herself– enough to see how much discovery and excitement lay ahead of her. I sincerely wish she could have listened to her own music and felt the same thrill and astonishment so many millions of people felt. It may not have been enough to save her, but it might have been enough to help. And sometimes help is the first step to salvation.

I hope, and trust, she is sleeping well. And if there is any karmic justice she is able to feel some measure of peace and fulfillment that in some small way approximates the pleasure she was able to provide so many of us, despite the pain she was so obviously in for so long.

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Three (Revisited)

30. Sonic Youth, Murray Street (2002)

Some might say Sonic Youth did their best work in the ’80s; some may claim it was the ’90s; others may insist they reached new heights this past decade. To me, that there is a band we could have this type of discussion about is itself remarkable. Think about it for a moment: Sonic Youth has been dropping great album after great album for a real long time, and there is no one who could claim, with an ounce of credibility, that they’ve compromised or done anything but follow their own iconoclastic path. Some bands hope and wait for the world to change to enable their fifteen minutes in the sun; other bands change the world and bring everyone along with them.

To be honest, both Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse could easily be on this list, and perhaps they should. But if obliged to pick just one, I would have to go with Murray Street, not necessarily because it is the best of the lot (though it may well be) but because it is just so utterly at ease with itself. Put another way, maybe this is the one where they locked in and fired on all cylinders in a way they hadn’t quite done (at least since Dirty). Perhaps it’s just because I saw Sonic Youth, at an intimate venue (playing on a twin bill with Wilco!) in 2003 and heard them play “Disconnection Notice”, which is my personal favorite SY song since “Bull in the Heather” (a song I’ve always wanted to have sex with, which should tell you something about the song, or about me). For people who are, understandably, a bit intimidated by the band’s ever-growing catalog, Murray Street is definitely one of the more accessible releases, with more straightforward “songs” and less of the beautiful abrasiveness Sonic Youth has patented (especially live). And when I say accessible, I mean music that any half-adventurous listener can –and should– enjoy, but don’t mistake this for anything you’d ever hear on the radio. And that is only one of the great things about it.

 

29. Amy Winehouse, Back To Black (2007)

Between the pre-release hype and the post-release meltdown, it’s almost difficult to remember how many naysayers this album humbled. Trust me, I was one of them. I recall reading a rapturous review a month or two before the CD dropped (and seeing her for the first time in the accompanying photos and thinking, Hey she’s kind of hot in a coke binge, bar-crawling, tat- sporting, wig-wearing, hot bowl of mess kind of way) and acknowledging that serious marketing money had her pegged as the story of the year.

And then I heard the thing. Yeah, the rehab song was okay, I guess. And this album definitely isn’t a masterpiece, because there are some serious clunkers on there. But my God there are some flat out stunners as well. It got overplayed (through no fault of its own) but there is no denying “You Know I’m No Good” (holy shit what a songwriter! Are you kidding me with those lyrics? That is some sardonic self-loathing that gives even Morrissey a run for his money) and the title track and especially the most hilarious song of the decade “Me & Mr. Jones”:

What kind of fuckery are you? Aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew!

Quite frankly, nobody in the world could ever in a million words write a line like this and actually pull it off. And then there is straight-up one of the best songs of this decade, or any decade, “Love Is A Losing Game”. I remember reading that Prince had begun covering this in his live shows. Repeat: Prince. Yes, that Prince. Just to be clear, people cover Prince’s songs, Prince does not cover other people’s songs. Get the picture? It’s one thing to emulate and imitate the old Phil Spector girl group vibe, but to craft a tune that can easily stand alongside any of them? Wow. And, astonishingly, Winehouse saves the best for last, literally. “He Can Only Hold Her” is an out-and-out masterpiece, a perfect song. Every second, every syllable, every sound: utter perfection. Check out those lyrics: can you say “less is more”? That is not just a short story, that is a fucking novel in three minutes. If you know anything about anything, you simply shut up and marvel at genius (yes, genius) like that.

Look, Winehouse was already at Defcon-4 by the time this album broke big; to a certain extent she earned her excess and the sadly predictable tabloid soap opera her life became. Let’s hope, for her sake and ours, that she gets her act together and makes an attempt to do the unthinkable: making another album half as great as Back To Black.

 

28. Secret Chiefs 3, Book M (2001)

A lot of people worried way too much about whether or not Mr. Bungle would ever make another album after California (I know, I was one of them). Little did we know that if they had, we may never have gotten Tomahawk, or the resurgence of Secret Chiefs 3. Who? Exactly.

To put it simply, Secret Chiefs 3 are the “other” guys from Mr. Bungle. But to say that Secret Chiefs 3 are Mr. Bungle without the vocals does not even come close to describing them, or doing their remarkable music the slightest justice. On the other hand, trying to get a handle on their sound is hopeless, and I mean that in a good way. They blend a sort of surf-thrash guitar (courtesy of mastermind Trey Spruance) but remain grounded in a narcotic jazz groove (thanks to bassist and composer Trevor Dunn), with a distinctly Eastern (think Indian meets Bollywood in a cloud of opium) influence, with a healthy dose of Morricone. And then throw in the sax and violin (the great Eyvind Kang) and quickly you realize that…we’re not in Kansas anymore. Of course, we never were. Obviously anyone who is familiar with Mr. Bungle or Fantomas should lap this up, but not to worry, if you’ve never heard of any of these acts, an album like Book M is capable of satisfying anyone with open ears. It’s not deliberately abstruse or eccentric for the sake of being eccentric; there is most definitely a very calculated (and complicated) method to this madness. And madness never felt so fresh and funky.

27. Ali Farka Toure, Savane (2006)

When Mali legend Ali Farka Toure passed on in 2006, the world was robbed of one of its most important musicians. Granted, Toure was well into his seventh decade, but considering how late he was “discovered” (by the western world, in large part thanks to national treasure Ry Cooder), it still feels like we got cheated. On the other hand, that we found him at all, and have the work he left behind is a miracle with a capital M. If you are reading this and want to indulge me only one time, don’t hesitate to pick up everything you can find by this genius (and if you want a place to start, you simply can’t go wrong with either The Source or his aforementioned collaboration with Cooder, Talking Timbuktu).

Savane, the album Ali was working on when he began to succumb to the cancer that eventually claimed him, was released posthumously in 2006. It features the same deep, dark, profound expression (the CD cover acknowledges Ali as “king of the desert blues”) that Toure spent a lifetime perfecting, and it’s a very bittersweet swan song.

26. Josh Homme (and friends), The Desert Sessions, Vols 9 & 10 (2003)

Everyone knows Josh Homme is a bad motherfucker.

He has made some of the more delightfully raucous music of this decade as the ringleader of Queens of the Stone Age, that collective that brings in a rotating cast of talented misfits. But for those who are looking for something even more anarchic and, well, raucous, Homme’s ongoing Desert Sessions series is like a nice side of bacon to go with those sun-fried eggs. For my money, the best of the bunch is the fifth installment, (Volumes 9 & 10), in part because it features some of Homme’s tightest playing and most memorable tunes. But what puts it way over the top, and nudges out even the very excellent QOTSA sets from the last ten years, is the inclusion of P.J. Harvey. That is one of those matches made in heaven (or hell, but in a good way) that you could not come up with in a million years. Thank everything that is righteous they found each other because they certainly make very sweet music together. Homme provides the platform (and ideal backing vocals) and lets P.J. get her freak on. Actually, Harvey is relatively restrained, but her voice is its own force of nature: this is not for the timid, but anyone else can –and should– inquire within. A couple of these songs represent the best work either artist has made, and needless to say, that is saying a lot.

25. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)

Huge regret: I slept on the groundswell that this band generated in the early years of the century, and by the time White Blood Cells started converting people by the truckload, it was too late to see them in a small venue. I say that not for a lost opportunity for hipster cred (shudder the thought), but rather, having seen their game in a large and sold-out arena, I am positive I missed out on something truly special.

Unlike the other (overly) hyped band from the early days of this century, The Strokes, this band actually delivered the goods, so it was easy to celebrate their ascension. How often does a duo (male and female no less) with a distinctive DIY ethos go from obscure to hip to superstardom? About once in a lifetime, and if it was going to happen to anyone, why not Jack and Meg White?

Their influence is indescribable and it’s difficult to imagine other excellent “boy-girl” bands like Beach House and The Fiery Furnaces finding the audience they deserve without the trails blazed by the duo from Detroit.

But what about White Blood Cells, now that we’ve had almost a decade to live with it? Well, it’s not a masterpiece, but it tends to be greater than the sum of its parts. And those parts are never unimpressive, but there are too many rough edges, half-ass rhymes and unpolished performances to put it over the top. It’s still a classic though; in some ways it may be the most important album of the decade; certainly the most important on multiple levels. Of course, none of this would matter much if the music wasn’t memorable. Jack White indicated that he had talent and ambition to burn, and this was his invitation to the rest of the world to come along for the ride.

24. Sunn O))), Black One (2005)

“None more black.”

23. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (2003)

For the handful of folks who have not yet heard My Morning Jacket, here’s the scoop: once you get past the Neil Young thing, it’s all good. They were a bit rough around the edges on the first two albums, and a bit too polished (and mannered) on their last two. On this one, their third, they sound like they are fully comfortable with who they are and what they are doing. And mostly, they are having a good time. Not in a whimsical or superficial sense, but more like they’ve figured out how to unlock that door and can’t wait to burst through. You can feel the smile on so many of Jim James’ songs, and it’s infectious. The band is tight, always balancing the ’70s prog vibe and the more southern rock meets off-the-wall indie. It’s a generous stew that you can contentedly snack on or belly up to for a full meal. The more you listen to Jim James sing, the more it –and he– makes sense. Clearly this man was born to lead a band, but it’s on this album more than any of the others that he sounds as surprised and delighted as anyone else that he is doing exactly what he is meant to be doing. And no one else can do it quite like he can.

22. Neko Case, Blacklisted (2002)

It all begins and ends with that voice. Natural ability that unmitigated is like a weapon, and Case uses it in the service of her incomparable art. Blacklisted may not have done quite enough to elevate Case from beloved cult status to mainstream, but it was nevertheless a major step forward. This is (arguably) her first album that is purely solid from start to finish: it is like a sunset that never ends. Repeated listens still reveal new depths and nuances, whether they are lulling you to slumber or snapping you out of a self-induced haze. Case has been (still is?) pegged as country with progressive overtones, or country-rock or some type of lazily described hybrid. Needless to say she is all of these things, but no label or facile depiction can capture who she is or what she’s about. There are definitely “country” elements here, and this is seldom straight-ahead rock, but it is bigger than any and all categories: it is what it is. And that is, short character sketches with poetry and intensity, a slightly dark, nocturnal sound that embraces life and the less pretty truths we often try to avoid. Case not only confronts the ugliness, she articulates how it works (and hurts) and somehow manages to make it both beautiful and irresistible.

21. Cat Power, The Greatest (2006)

Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) was inching forward to this album all along. That’s not to say that The Greatest is her best work, but here she comes full circle from stripped down singer/songwriter to confident leader of a full backing band. And what a backing band she assembled: crackerjack session veterans from Memphis, who gave a gritty, old school authenticity to the proceedings. It doesn’t hurt that she also is writing some of her better songs, fusing her exposed-nerve emotion and her savvy chanteuse side. The result is arguably her most accessible and immediate release, an album that can convert newbies and satisfy aficionados.

As ever, there is a subdued, sultry vibe throughout, but the rough edges are now velvet-smooth (again thanks in large part to the Memphis session players). Marshall stretches out, writing songs that she (or her fans) could sing in the shower. Yet the yin/yang of introspection and abandon is still in full effect, as the last two songs, “Hate” and “Love and Communication” make blissfully clear. With the possible exception of Neko Case, there is no singer this past decade who uses her vocal range so effectively, forcefully and purposefully. Undoubtedly some of this is instinct, but it’s also the signal of a maturing artist coming fully and vibrantly into her own. The Greatest is a total triumph of survival, faith in self and an unwavering resolve to live and learn. Like all her other albums, only more so.

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2000-2009: Let’s Break it Down (Epilogue)

 

So, the recent discussion of the Top 50 albums of the last decade was supposed to end, as it began, with a sampling of songs. The introductory entry covered 2000-2004; this one will tackle 2005-2009.

(Incidentally, back in December while wisely avoiding shopping malls and ordering my Xmas gifts from the North Pole also known as amazon.com, I spent entirely too much time on this list. Unbelievably, and idiotically, I also compiled a list of the best jazz albums of the decade as well as the best movies –a list that started at twenty, grew to thirty, and ended at forty. My idea was to roll them all out in the early weeks of the new year, but I was quickly disabused of that fantasy by the rather humbling acknowledgment that the day job, sleep, meals and some semblance of a social life would make that impossible. More on that later, possibly even sooner.)

The list will end (as it began) with a bunch of songs –in no particular order, other than somewhat chronological– that rose above the fray and made life a whole lot more worth living.

Sufjan Stevens, “The World’s Columbian Exposition/Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream” (2005):

 

Sleater-Kinney, “Everything” (2005):

 

Tool, “Vicarious” (2006):

Easy Star All-Stars, “The Tourist” (2006):

The Black Keys, “My Mind Is Rambling” (2006):

Iron and Wine, “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” (2007):

Amy Winehouse, “Me and Mr. Jones” (2007):

The Breeders, “Night of Joy” (2008):

Fleet Foxes, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (2008):

Mastodon, “Oblivion” (2009):

Steven Wilson, “Harmony Korine” (2009):

Dan Auerbach, “When The Night Comes” (2009):

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