On Saturday night, I was at a party for a classmate headed into matrimony. As per custom, she was to inherit a tiara, a bottle of amarula, and large quantities of conjugal advice (the best, predictably, was from the sole married within the sisterhood: ‘practice smiling’). This being Bangalore, our party had to be carried over into someone’s home for the real revelry. The lucky (if unlikely) apartment chosen was mine, and thus it was my castle witnessed the most unbridled hedonism it will ever see. But that it is a story for a less public forum.
‘Round midnight, an apt time for such news, a fellow music nerd poked me in the arm. ‘Amy Winehouse is dead. At 27!’. I would like to say the table fell silent at this point, though you know as well as I that twelve lawyers are incapable of this feat. ‘Kurt Cobain!‘ , the grunge-geek blurted. 'That morose bastard! Hendrix, baby', her neighbour hissed. I, inebriated, bleated ‘Joplin’. Whatever your kind of musician, it seemed, a toll had to be paid. (It was only writing this post I realised that no one resorted to Jim Morrison.) I’m sure Amy Winehouse, the ‘funk soul’ diva, is sniggering away from posterity at being included in this grand pantheon. Indeed, it’s almost an honour to have died at such a significant age. The gods of rock are jealous, and they snatch away the best bards in their prime.
Amy Winehouse’s most famous album is Back to Black, which featured the hits Rehab and Me and Mr Jones. It was written during a break from her husband and wears heartbreak on its sleeve, especially in songs like Tears dry on their own and Wake up alone. My personal favourite from the album is one such despairing number: Love is a losing game in which she sings: Memories mar my mind, love is a fate resigned. Songs from the album spilled over into popular culture- the title track of the television show Secret Diary of a Call Girl is from You Know I’m No Good.
Winehouse’s persona was reminiscent of Janis Joplin, and her music, too, drew on the same tradition of blues ladies. Like the divine Janis, Winehouse defined the ethos of a generation of women: tough, yet vulnerable; scarred, yet triumphant. This is a comparison that has been made repeatedly in the days following her death, and I will not attempt to convince you any further. Yet, replace “Janis” with “Amy” in the Ellen Willis obituary below, and the parallels are eerie:
“If Janis’s favourite metaphors- singing as fucking (a first principle of rock n’roll) and fucking as liberation (a first principle of the cultural revolution)- were equally approved by her male peers, the congruence was only on the surface. Underneath — just barely — lurked a prefeminist paradox.
The male dominated counterculture defined freedom for women almost exclusively in sexual terms. As a result, women endowed the idea of sexual liberation with immense symbolic importance; it became charged with all the secret energy of an as yet suppressed larger rebellion. Yet to express one’s rebellion in that limited way was a painfully literal form of submission. Whether or not Janis understood that, her dual persona —lusty hedonist and suffering victim— suggested that she felt it. Dope, another term in her metaphorical equation (getting high as singing as fucking as liberation) was, in its more sinister aspect, a pain killer and finally a killer. Which is not to say that the good times weren’t real, as far as they went. Whatever the limitations of hippie rock star life, it was better than being a provincial matron — or a lonely weirdo…
… Janis Joplin’s death, like that of a fighter in the ring, was not exactly an accident. Yet it’s too easy to label it either suicide or murder, though it involved elements of both. Call it rather an inherent risk of the game she was playing, a game whose often frivolous rules both hid and revealed a deadly serious struggle… Janis was not such a victim as a casualty. The difference matters.”
Amy’s death was barely a blip on our radar on saturday night, though she was a valuable companion through the raging hangover of the next morning. Your night, however irresponsible and insane, will always pale in comparison to hers. In one song, she deplores her ‘alcoholic logic’: last night tips into my mind through the puddle in my head.
In another, ‘Addicted’ a homage to Janis Joplin’s ‘Mary Jane’, she snarls at her friends: don’t make no difference if I end up alone.
I spent much of sunday and monday wondering what song she would’ve picked as advice to the to-be bride. All the songs I like— You Sent Me Flying, Love is a Losing Game, Stronger than Me— deal with rejection and misery. It was only after listening to both albums obsessively a few times that it struck me: Amy Winehouse wouldn’t have wished anyone with a happy song. Her message would be as brutal as the delivery was kind; any song she chose would be laced with irony and cynicism. Soon as I figured this out, the song was obvious: You Know I’m No Good.
RIP Amy Winehouse.