Figuring Out Why I Cared About Amy Winehouse Dying

July 29, 2011

When I heard Amy Winehouse died my first reaction was one of scolding. “Of course she did,” I thought. “The woman treated her body like a hazardous waste bin. That was only a matter of time.” But after that sort-of natural knee-jerk sociopathic defense against death had passed, I realized that I was actually, startlingly, sad about it. And I didn’t really know why. I listened to her music, but only casually.

For a long time, if you heard Winehouse’s name, you immediately thought of an emaciated, stumbling, hair-all-asunder enigma. That was her image—cultivated by a media more interested in gossip than greatness.

Not that Winehouse did herself any favors. She ruined her concerts. Her stunts were public and eventually YouTube-public. Her interviews were terrible and you could always count on echoes of “She was totally on [chemical]” when it was over. You’d be challenged to Google “Amy Winehouse” and find many flattering pictures.

And maybe that was why I cared. Like any addict or anyone riding a recreational poison, she existed with that “toxic aura that prevents connection,” as Russell Brand beautifully phrased it. You couldn’t sense her. You couldn’t access who that person was—until she started singing.

Her voice let you pass through the muck and took you to a place that seemed impossible; an authentic beam of light through, and slightly colored by, that toxic aura. It revealed an unexpected soul, while making you notice your own. Even if you didn’t know about her tortured existence, you felt the resonance in her voice.

Someday we will talk about Ella, Billie—and Amy. But because she died at age 27, she will likely be more linked to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, who all went to the great gig in the sky at the same age, for the same reasons. Whether dying at that age is coincidence or the culmination of a tormented, drug-addled gift—who knows.

I’d like to believe genius doesn’t abide by rules.


Death’s Recognition of Music

February 11, 2011

[After proposing the theme six months ago, this is a quick Garling Files’ piece on Music. It’s a tough one to fit words around.]

Perhaps one of my favorite shows growing up was VH1’s Behind the Music. If you wanted a riveting one hour documentary on your band, this was the show. They covered everyone and they covered them well, complete with backstage footage and precious, rare live video. The writers also had this over-dramatic knack—which became so well known The Simpsons parodied it—to leave cliffhangers at every commercial break. “Coming up next on Behind the Music, Tommy learns that violence isn’t always the answer while Vince pushes the wild side a little too far…and it costs his best friend’s life.” You couldn’t move.

Anyway, VH1 eventually realized that they had all this amazing footage and needed to recycle it across other programming. Our nation’s attention span was starting to shorten into bite-sized morsels and the idea of an hour long documentary about a band started to seem boring and anachronistic.

Why not slice it all up and make Countdown shows? Four to six minutes per segment, a Top 100 Artists of All-Time will stretch over five hours of programming. College kids on the Sunday morning couch weren’t going anywhere now. Done and done. (And from there a plethora of Countdowns spun off: Top 100 Songs of the 90’s, Lead Singers, Hip Hops Artists, etc.)

Taking a great deal of interest in music and its history, I always enjoyed getting to the top artists. #11 through #100 were interesting but can you really say whether The BeeGees were better artists than Run-DMC? It was just cool to learn a little bit about bands you never knew anything about. But once you’re inside the top ten, then the Top 5, you felt like you have the right to argue with the television.

When I was in college, here was their list:

5. Jimmy Hendrix

4. Bob Dylan

3. Led Zeppelin

2. Rolling Stones

1. The Beatles

Not a bad top five; I always thought Hendrix should have been above the Stones, but I can see it either way.

Now fast forward a decade from college until a couple weeks ago. Out of curiosity, I checked VH1’s list again:

5. Bob Dylan

4. Rolling Stones

3. Led Zeppelin

2. Michael Jackson

1. The Beatles

Whoa, what up King of Pop.

Granted, VH1 is not the final authority on music; they’re trying to reflect public opinion. But that’s important in some ways: this is what most people think. It’s not an Internet debate so they’d much rather have viewers walk away from the show saying, “Man, that was a good list.” (“I’d watch that again and will tell my friends about it.”) They want this list to be reflective.

But going off that idea…apparently Michael Jackson’s hard work and prolific recording sessions in the last ten years have finally sent him into the public’s musical stratosphere. Everyone bought ironically titled Invicible; you couldn’t get it off the radio. (I had to look up whether MJ had put out an album in the last ten years.) That must be why he shot up the list…or maybe that’s just what happens when you die.

This is a sociological nuance that needs better study. Why do we instantly bump people up our Lists of Respect when they pass on? For instance, I don’t think Hendrix would be this high if he was still alive, tootling around doing Unplugged albums and collaborating with BB King on sterile blues tunes. I’ve often thought that if Hendrix was still alive it would be, for lack of a better word, awkward. He put such an array of color on music in a few short years as this ethereal gypsy who played the electric guitar like a conduit from his soul that if he were still around, we’d listen to his Woodstock album, then look at him in concert today, pot-bellied on stage, and say, “That guy?” Instead we’re left with the “What could have been.” Same with Kurt Cobain, Bradley Nowell, Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious. Are they all really as good as we remember?

It’s a tough one, almost impossible one, to study with real science. (An artist can’t die for half the people.) I don’t have an answer or even a theory other than humans enjoy legends more than reality.  But it’s worth thinking through other bands and wondering who’s going to jettison up these lists once they go to the great gig in the sky.

My top rocket is Radiohead—a disturbing #29 on that list, behind *sigh* Elton John. As much press as they already receive, I don’t think the musical community recognizes what these five Brits have done enough. What Hendrix did for guitar, they are doing for sound. And they do it every time they release a new album—especially since OK Computer. If you listen to other bands, you can tease the influences in their rhythms and melodies to the surface. Contemporary giants like U2, The Boss, Kings of Leon and Coldplay are clearly grounded in the artists that preceded them. Radiohead lacks that familiarity. It’s worth noting that they (as far as I’ve ever listened) have never done a cover nor even shared a stage with other artists. Put In Rainbows in the headphones and walk a city street on a cold night; you’ll be unsure whether your head is going to explode or you’re simply turning into a cyborg. In a good way.

They are their own sound; it congeals around one common cosmic thread. They were on tour in outer-space and their UFO-bus crashed somewhere near Oxfordshire.

Hopefully that means they have some sort of eternal life. I’d rather keep listening to their work, than see them finally get their rightful place among the stars.

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at

www.calebgarling.com


Introducing: Music

September 3, 2010

Think of your absolute favorite book, painting, photograph or piece of architecture.  Pick one and think about it.  Now pretend we are having a beer, talking about it and I tell you that I don’t like it.  You shrug, say, “Really?  I think its great, but whatever,” and move on.

But now think of your absolute favorite song.  Absolute favorite.  I’ll wait……………….got it?

Well, it sucks.

Just kidding, I’m sure it’s great. But that raised a few hackles, right?

It has taken me a long time to not write someone off because they dislike Led Zeppelin.  (Note: this is different than simply not listening to them) If I caught wind of an overt disdain for their music, then I was certain that I could not be their friend.  Plain and simple.  Led Zeppelin’s music is wrapped so tightly around a piece of my core that I just didn’t believe it was possible.  (Even as I write this, I find myself wanting to delete this paragraph and say, “Screw it.  That person would suck.”)  Conversely, I have an overt disdain for Bruce Springsteen and I know I’ve widened a few eyes by saying that.  He is the working man; he is the heart of America—I don’t feel it.  I listen to his music and find myself rolling my eyes.

My usual answer here is “to each their own,” but the curious piece about music, what prevents this adage from working, is that strong musical opinions always have a personal aftertaste, sweet or acrid.  If you’re a big Springsteen fan, hearing someone say he’s cheesy will get you going, just as you’ll feel closer to them if they say he’s a god.  Same for me with Zeppelin.

But why?

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Music is the one facet of our world where science, sociology and spirituality converge cleanly.  It has a power, an ability to move, unite and divide, and there are infinite manifestations and interpretations.  I’m going to add a section to Garling Files about music.  To me, the subject is sacred and therefore its examination doesn’t deserve to be mixed with pieces about punditry, commerce and all the other dirty fragments of our world.  I’m not going to review albums or write letters to Springsteen or Zeppelin; this section will be a place to ask questions about the fascinating nature of music, how it interacts with us and why we love/hate pieces of its catalog.

Like an idea for a new song, I’m not entirely sure how this is going to look and flow yet, but it will start to take shape soon.  Stay tuned….

And just for kicks, a fun cross section:

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and is currently working on the book The St George’s Angling Club which will be self-published this summer.