Lament for a lioness
People get a lot of flak for expressing emotion and shock when celebrities die. I suppose it’s because our facebook and twitter feeds are jammed with inane and comically redundant missives at any such event, often followed by the flaktivists pointing our attentions to the many dying from war and famine and such. A life is a life. Death is always solemn, whether its Whitney, Qadhafi, or your next door neighbour.
Amy Winehouse was a walking corpse for years, her imminent death a favourite joke for cyber trolls. But when she died, my heart still broke. It was a Saturday, a beautiful Canadian summer day, and I started my weekend morning the usual way – Youtube playlist, singing along to Amy, sipping chai, checking my facebook. The pause between songs, I am googling something, somehow I see the news. She is dead. My heart sank in my stomach. For a second I didn’t breathe. What? It is true. The next Amy song starts to play. I have to stop it. She is dead. This woman, who wore her heart on her sleeve, and is wailing through my speakers, she is no more. I cried for a good while that day. I have never cried over a celebrity before. But Amy wasn’t just a star, or a singer, she was a hero. She didn’t look like Lana del Ray or always sound as pretty as Adele – she was crass, awkward and unpredictable. But she had somehow, by some miracle, broken through the sea of bubblegum music and given the world something real. Her lyrics spoke to the urban female – jaded by men and her own lust, never submissive in her sexuality and unblemished by her own weaknesses. In her own words, she just wanted her lyrics to help young women know that they were not alone in how they felt. By daring to be herself, she had achieved a most elusive thing – she was relevant.
I didn’t hear of her till “Back to Black”, and then I wanted to reach out and teach those songs. Then I heard her earlier work, the B-sides, the pre-hive days when she sang “No Greater Love” to an acoustic guitar and flaunted her “common” background on Jonathan Ross. She was awkward, had an artless smile, her outfits ghetto-fab in the truest sense … I loved her completely.
Amy didn’t like being compared to Billie Holiday, although she often was. She named Sarah Vaughn as her influence, and I understand why as the two match in their freedom of melody, their jazzy fluency of twisting a single verse into many stories. But I still see her as Billie’s equal. In her time, Miss Holiday was scandalous, her sensuality too hot, her moaning too raw, her passions too dangerous for the genteels. Self destructive and unlucky in love like Amy, addicted to substances and love like Amy. They weren’t performers. They SANG. Feral, emotional, unashamed, unrestricted, untamed. The Celines and Whitneys may belt out the high notes and have crystal delivery but their performances are still as manufactured as “The Beeb”. She brought the attention of a generation back to Jazz, soul and blues, even sending an electric wave through R&B. Women wore lilies in their hair to look like Billie, now they wore their hair in hives. Even Gaultier presented a posthumous Amy-inspired line.
In one of my favourite Youtube finds, Billie Holiday starts a live 1957 recording of “Fine and Mellow” with Lester Young on sax with this – “The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy. There’s two kinds of blues, happy blues and then sad blues. I don’t know, blues is sort of a mixed-up thing. You just have to feel it. Everything I do sing is part of my life”
Amy’s femininity, like Billie’s was sometimes unapologetic, cold, bitter, sensual and naive, she didn’t care. Unlike the feminists of the 90s Tori Amos or Alanis, Amy didn’t have a politic, a war or a stance. Her post-feminism was unrehearsed. Her lyrics flowed in a complete circle from and towards her own heart. Her “unholy war” was her own soul. The truest war, the war that allowed her to connect to her audience like no other. Sweet, gentle, despairing, yearning, hopeful, always true.
I received “Lioness: Hidden Treasures” as a birthday present right after it released. My heart skipped a beat as I unfurled the wrapping paper; I wanted to delay the experience of hearing fresh Amy songs for a little while. Now Nas, is releasing his new album, and his collaboration with Amy has already been leaked. I imagine a few more recordings will surface, teasing the heartstrings of all who celebrated her, inspiring another generation of musicians, artists, lovers and fearless souls with her tempest.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.