Amy Winehouse: the magic, the tragic and the art of being classic

Rachel and I went to see the documentary film Amy last weekend.

It’s not possible for me to explain how I felt/feel about Amy Winehouse. I simply don’t have the words to do her justice.

She was an instinctual artist, in the true sense of that word. Before she was out of her teens, she had soaked up a phenomenal amount of influences that generally mean nothing to others of her generation.

Her contemporaries rarely have a cultural reference point that goes back further than the day before yesterday. I have a name for for them. I call them ‘one note sambas‘.

Of course, as a description of their current pop fave, it’s lost on young people. Post-punk generations don’t know what a samba is. The idea that they may ever have heard (or at least be conscious of) Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim’s clever and jokey One-Note Samba would be presumptious at best.

There’s an entire thesis to be written about this, but briefly it has to do with the proliferation of media. Why look back when just a sideways glance reveals an oasis of distraction?

When I talk to Rachel’s father, Don – 87-years-old and plenty old enough to be my own father – there’s barely a cultural or political reference we don’t both know. Despite our age difference, we grew up at a time when the past informed the present in a very direct manner.

The entire 20th century and even bits of the 19th furnish our playground.  But we’ve also had to keep pace with cultural and technological developments that sped up mightily from the mid-60s on. We’re not too shabby about the first decade and a half of the 21st century.

Post-punk generations can scarcely believe there was ever a world without computers and mobile phones. As for watching a black and white film, well, why would you? It never occurred to me that generations might grow up not knowing who Charlie Chaplin was, let alone Buster Keaton.

The first act I ever referred to as a ‘one-note samba’ was Oasis. They took their look from the back cover of Revolver and their sound from a Beatles B-side. For their entire career they barely varied anything. The only thing that noticeably developed was Liam Gallagher’s yobbish ego.

The Beatles had been steeped in Music Hall, Variety, big bands, crooners, jazz, Latin America, comic songs, war, silent movies, blues, Hitler, rock’n’roll, country & western, modern art, Labour and the unions, the establishment and the anti-establishment.

They had 60-odd years of popular culture and politics to draw on, and they drew on every single bit of it – from the late Victoriana of Marie Lloyd through Louis, Bing and Frank, Elvis and Buddy to the Everlys.

At their peak they didn’t stop. They imbibed inspiration from their working contemporaries. Their battles with the prodigious Brian Wilson are legend. But Shankar, Stockhausen, Moog and Dylan also kept them constantly on their mettle and moving forward.

And that’s how you get magic.

What separates contemporary greats – Blur, for instance, and Amy Winehouse – from the one-note sambas is an open mind and open ears married to a singular talent. You don’t repeatedly create magic by knuckle-headed adherence to a single card in the pack; nor, for that matter, to a single deck of cards.

I mostly hear Dinah Washington in Amy’s voice, with occasional echoes of Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. Others cite Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. I’ll allow the first two; but not the third. If you hear Nina Simone when you listen to Amy Winehouse, you’re not really listening to either of them.

Despite and because of her influences she was her unique self. But what made her unique also made her a huge star, and that made her uncomfortable. The letters a, r and t may be in the word ‘stardom’, but they’re not – necessarily – in the right order. They spell out instead something sticky, dark and vaguely unpleasant – which seems to be how Amy viewed her status.

As Tony Bennett says in the film: “Amy was a true jazz artist. And no jazz artist wants to look out at an audience of 50,000 people.”

Amy Winehouse’s lyrics told her story, and she was happier telling her story to a few properly appreciative and attentive listeners than to a huge crowd attracted to her stardom rather than her art.

There are moments in the film when she talks about writing, and it’s a revelation to see her working around a guitar fretboard looking for the perfect, or at least the most interesting chord for the note she’s singing. Not for her the repetitive four-chord turnaround of modern pop writing.

But her lyrics are the key. It’s easy to ignore that this fragile slip of a girl – so sassy, funny and tough, but also vulnerable – had a mind like a steel trap when it came to noting the passage of her minutes and days.

The way she wrote down her life was not as other writers do (except the very greatest). There’s the searing honesty for a start, not to mention the frequent and unembarrassed mentions of sexual moistness.

More to the point, reading her words, it’s not always easy to see the scan, catch the rhyme, feel the rhythm. That’s all in the phrasing, the performance.

In her song Wake Up Alone, she ends successive lines with the word ‘him’. Few would be so brave. But she ensures the rhyme with the preceding words: I stand before him; it’s all I can do to assure him.

If I was my heart
I’d rather be restless
The second I stop the sleep catches up and I’m breathless
This ache in my chest
As my day is done now
The dark covers me and I cannot run now
My blood running cold
I stand before him
It’s all I can do to assure him
When he comes to me
I drip for him tonight
Drowning in me we bathe under blue light

The scan, the rhythm and the rhymes are mostly in her head till you hear her sing it. Then it’s a heartbreaker.

As we sat in the cinema watching the film, you could have heard a pin drop. No munching, no scrunching, no slurping. I was very conscious that Rachel, mother of the pop star who lives in my house, might well be thinking: “My daughter? No way!”

As indeed she was. Any parent looking at Amy would have to take a close look at their own musically ambitious child – measure their strength, evaluate their vulnerabilities, assess the risks.

Amy Winehouse wasn’t best served by some of those around her – and that’s putting it kindly. Her friends were stalwart. Her record company boss did his damnedest for her. Others shouldn’t be sleeping too well.

But we have to get past that and simply celebrate a blazing talent, in no way a one-note samba.

The actual One-Note Samba by Tom Jobim perfectly demonstrates how the ear can be fooled into thinking it’s hearing a melody, when what’s really happening is that the underlying harmonies are changing under a single repeated note. It’s technical, but it’s fun.

The Illuminati. Oh Lord, Really? Conspiracy theories are so tiring!

Paul McCartney, as we all know, was killed when he crashed his Aston Martin on his way home from Abbey Road studios late one night in 1966. A very sad night.

His place in the Beatles was taken by William Campbell, a lookalike-soundalike about whom nothing much is known except that he is the singer of every ‘McCartney’ track on every Beatles single and album post-Revolver. Who wrote those songs is not really discussed.

Buddy Holly, on the other hand, didn’t die when his plane crashed in 1957. He was just horribly disfigured and didn’t want his public to see him. So he hid out in a secure house in a remote part of America. He’s never been seen in public since.

Elvis Presley, of course, has often been seen in public since his death was announced in 1977 – in supermarkets and by sightseers around his Memphis home. Well, where else would he be? A real home-boy, our El.

I mention all this because of an increasing belief among young people that the music industry is controlled by the Illuminati.

I say young people. Actually, I know some of their parents also believe this and won’t hear a word of argument. It’s all over the internet, you see. There are videos on YouTube, some of them even showing artists and executives explicitly admitting that, yes, it’s true.

Except, of course, no-one is explicitly saying anything of the sort.

And it’s not true.

I prefer the older conspiracies myself. Paul is Dead is a stonker.

That William Campbell. What a bloody nerve! It was him broke up the Beatles you know. Can you believe the sheer brass neck of the man?

At one point, on the Let It Be sessions, he even tells George Harrison not to play on one of the songs. It’s there, on film! George says to William, “Well, if you don’t want me to play, I won’t play”. And Campbell says, “I seem to have a way of upsetting you”.

Bloody right. Coming in here with your airs and graces, thinking you actually are Paul McCartney.

What an ungrateful sod. He gets the opportunity of a lifetime to step into the shoes of a Pop God. All he has to do is play his part and become stinking rich.g

Instead, he sows discontent, refuses to acknowledge Allen Klein as manager, tears Apple Corps apart and then announces he’s leaving the group. “I’m leaving the group,” he told the Daily Mirror in 1970.

Not long after, he formed a new group, this fake McCartney, and bugger me, Wings became the biggest band in the world!

Lennon, Harrison and Starr must have looked on in wonder and asked themselves: “How the fuck did that happen?”

In the meantime Campbell/McCartney writes a song (Too Many People on the Ram album) in which he tears John Lennon off a strip, saying, “You took your lucky break and broke it in two. Now what can be done for you?“.

That’s just cold, isn’t it? Not to mention a pot, a kettle, and the colour black.

John struck back. In How Do You Sleep? (on the Imagine album) he tells William Campbell: “The only thing you did was Yesterday“.

See what he did there? He took Campbell back to the actual Paul and let him know that he, Campbell, couldn’t write a song as good as anything by Paul.

Anyway, in the immortal words of Jimi Hendrix, “Enough of this rubbish”.

Professor Diane Purkiss, Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, had this to say last week, on the subject of conspiracy theories: “All conspiracy theories are dangerous.”

Her thesis is that the more you feel that they are not listening to you, the more you feel that they are keeping the truth from you. And that’s where conspiracy theories are born. But they’re more dangerous than we might imagine.

“Conspiracy theories excused most of the genocide that took place last century – the idea” (for instance) “that the Jews are conspiring against everybody else.

“Stalin’s purges were part of a conspiracy theory. You take action against the people who are supposedly conspiring against you. If we’re lucky, we end up with a Mark Chapman. If we’re unlucky we end up with a Hitler or a Stalin.

“Conspiracy theories are one of the greatest menaces to democracy. Where it gets dangerous is when you decide that people are deliberately keeping the truth from you, and to resolve that, you have to kill them.”

So come on kids. Listen up. True dat, what the Prof say. Ya feel me?

The Illuminati of legend has been around since 1776. Having, according to rumour, fomented the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash and the Second World War, wtf do you think they’d be doing messing around with pop music?

The irony is that the original Bavarian Illuminati – which was real – had the aim of opposing superstition and prejudice. They also wanted an end to religious influence and abuses of state power. They even – in 1776 – spoke up for gender equality, starting with the education of women.

So, again: wtf, kids!?

Go in peace and listen to your music, free of superstition and prejudice. And if you want some real fun, I heartily, absolutely and totally recommend you read the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

I can think of at least three current conspiracy theories that are a direct result of feeble-minded people actually believing that Shea and Wilson’s satire was, in fact, contemporary history.

And while you’re waiting for that corporate behemoth Amazon – surely bent on global domination of a much more sinister kind – to deliver your books, have a listen to Paul Is Dead on the BBC iPlayer. It’s all sorts of fun, and all sorts of interesting.

And, obviously, it’s also part of a conspiracy to convince us there is no conspiracy. If you meditate on that too long, your head will explode.

So here’s a little fact to calm you and ground you. Paul McCartney’s house in St John’s Wood was less than 10 minutes walk from Abbey Road Studios. Who in their right mind would drive to the studio, smoke pot and drop acid all day and then drive home…….oh……….I see what you’re saying, man.

Yeah. Heavy.

Surely he won’t shoot us if we just listen to his problems?

Backstage, Bob Dylan, Earls Court, 1978. My friend Heather and I are chatting with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash. “So, what do you think?” asks Heather. Muttering and shrugs from the Clash boys. “No, come on, be honest. What do you think?”

They’re looking at the floor, avoiding our eyes.”Well, it’s ok, s’ppose, bit old hat”.

Heather’s tougher than me. She’s dealt with Art Garfunkel demanding a sofa, a private shower and top of the line hi fi on a British Rail train. (Seriously; when the rest of us were grateful simply that the train was there at the station, Art believed you should be able to custom design your own carriage).

So she looks at them like one of those stern school marms from 1950s black and white films and says: “Come on guys, it’s Bob Dylan!” And rather sheepishly, the rebellious boys of London Calling go: “Yeah, fuck it. It is, it’s Bob fucking Dylan.” And they smile, their cool gone, schoolboys caught eating sweets in the classroom.

Bob fucking Dylan wrote Blowing In The Wind when he was 21. Around the same time he also wrote Masters Of War.

“For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed, You ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins”.

Is there a 21-year-old around today so indignant; so well read; so articulate; so politically and poetically literate; and so minded to put it out there without worrying about “the market”?

If there are such beings, I’ve yet to be pointed in their direction.

My mother used to say that if women ran the world there would be no wars. (Stick with me here. There’s a thread). Her female friends all agreed. So imagine my surprise when first Indira Ghandi, then Golda Meir, and then Margaret Thatcher all went to war.

There was another prevailing orthodoxy at the time which took a lot longer to shake off. This was the notion that if you could just sit people round a table, all problems could be solved, all conflict avoided. People, the argument ran, were fundamentally good and decent. All any of us need is a fair shake and we’ll put our weapons down.

You would have thought, given Neville Chamberlain’s experience with Hitler, and the horrors of Stalin’s Russia, that by the mid 60s we might have ditched this shibboleth.

But in fact, the hippy movement – which elevated Dylan to God-like status while ignoring the underlying philosophy of much of his writing – drip-fed this idea into the liberal mainstream until it became accepted wisdom.

Consequently, we’re only just now getting used to the idea that there are people in this world who cannot be negotiated with. They have an agenda which they largely keep to themselves. Talking doesn’t help. They’ll just lie to you, tell you what you want to hear. And then they’ll go and do as they damn well please. Hitler was the classic case. But more recently Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gadaffi, Charles Taylor – the list goes on – have all proved the point in blood and murder. Now Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his murderous Islamic State are coming for us.

Thinking about this recently, a line from Blowing In The Wind popped into my head.

‘How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?’

But in my head it was:

‘How many roads must a man walk down before we call him bad?’

For decades we’ve made excuses for bad people, even blamed ourselves (our colonial past) for corruption and violence in Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

We’ve also blamed ourselves for trouble in the Middle East (partition after WW1).

But the veneer of civilisation that has held together despite the Sadam Husseins and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads, is about to be stripped away. For competing versions of Islam – Shia vs Sunni – there is no reconciliation, no negotiation.

And then I thought of the Berlin Wall and the more recent West Bank wall and I thought: “What have we learned?” And there I had the beginnings of a song I couldn’t have written 30 years ago.

‘We’ve seen iron, we’ve seen fire, mothers waving across barbed wire; walls go up and walls come down and what have we learned?’

I couldn’t have written this song 30 years ago for the simple reason I didn’t think then like I do now. Back then I still had a vestige of faith in the basic goodness of humanity. No more. So this new song Iron & Fire is essentially pessimistic.

Another reason I can write this song now is that I’ve long since stopped worrying about the charts. It is wonderfully liberating to be able to write about any subject, not worrying whether there’s a hook, or even a chorus.

Bob Dylan knew this 50-odd years ago. He was a seriously old soul in new skin.

There’s no point me crying over spilt milk. I didn’t have Dylan’s sensibilities, awareness or talent when I was younger. (Neither do I now, just to be clear!).

But what I have developed is a sort of fearlessness about subject matter and form and production.

I hope there are proto-Dylans out there, developing their art in a similarly fearless way.

Competition in the pop world is more intense than ever, and getting more so. It’s never been more important to develop your own voice, and use social media to build your audience. The internet is your friend. The record industry will find you if you’re worth finding. There’s a pop star lives in my house and, honestly, she’s being found by someone new almost every week.

So don’t think you have to play the industry’s game. The record industry doesn’t have a game. It never really did. Sixty years ago it looked as if EMI and Decca had it all sewn up, and then their world fractured around them. The Beatles, then the Stones, the Who and countless others shook up the men in suits, and within five years indie labels started to proliferate – Island, Immediate, Apple, Polydor, Stax, Stiff, A&M, Elektra, Rak, Sire – and it didn’t really stop until the mid-90s when the current big three (Universal, Sony and Warner) began ingesting the plankton.

Two years ago it was four; but EMI got swallowed by Universal. Now, keen students of these things can see that it’s all fracturing again. Who knows whether the majors can hang on? I couldn’t give a fuck. Whatever bad happens to them, they deserve.

Meantime, the likes of me will do what we do in the full knowledge that the business model we once knew is over. Iron & Fire is a candle in the wind. It will never outsell Car 67, but I’m proud of it, and I think I’ll be happy to listen to it in 35 years, when I’m 100 years old. Think on that, you young whippersnappers.