2.Dec.2023 About Us | Contact Us | Terms & Conditions

Are you on Facebook? Please join us @ The New Black Magazine

Search Articles



By Ed Pavlić

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

With thanks  to NewBlackMan

I stay up clean the house at least I'm not drinking.
Run around just so I don't have to think about thinking.
                       -Amy Winehouse, "Wake up Alone"

I wrote the following essay after reading Daphne Brook's review of Amy Winehouse in The Nation Online in September of 2008 when Amy Winehouse's album Back to Black was still a sensation lost by degrees to the shadow of her real-life foibles projected by the pop culture industry's (from tabloids to academic critiques) media machine. I came to Winehouse's work late, I considered her then and I consider her now one of the very finest writers and deliverers of "lyric" I'd come across in recent years. The following is the final third of a triptych essay I'd drafted titled "Evil Gal's Blues" that considered the lyric brilliance of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Amy Winehouse. Yes, I was looking for a fight. Right off, I'd heard something in the way Winehouse can (now, could) "live a line" that joined her to the work of these master-forebearers of her trade. Lyric. Now that she's gone on and formally joined Holiday and Washington and other too-briefly lit lyric torches, I thought it would be a good time to reconsider how Amy Winehouse sounded, at her best. Rather than gawking at her at her worst, I thought some people might be willing to consider her in her place, where I think she belongs, among other great lyric writers. Here's my piece:


"I keep thinking about the lessons of the human ear / which stands for music, which stands for balance-" writes Adrienne Rich in "Meditations for a Savage Child," from Diving Into the Wreck. She's meditating on the role of the ear, of hearing, and of language in trafficking between and charting terrains of who we are. She considers the physical structure of the ear : "the whorls and ridges exposed / It seems a hint dropped about the inside of the skull / which I cannot see." As one pushes one's listening back into the interior, as we all know, the identifications and distinctions between self/other (between whole grammars of this and that) begin to bend, flex, warp. Rich concludes the section observing : "go back so far there is another language / go back far enough the language / is no longer personal / these scars bear witness / but whether to repair / or destruction / I  no longer know."

           For you I was a flame

I want to suggest that, at bottom, the lyric is a device for pulling back these kinds of layers (in language, memory, experience) or suddenly piercing through them, a way of charting and summoning buried structures and putting them into the air. Obviously, various borders (which can be concrete in one level of experience or voice and which can become porous, and even vanish, in others) are blurred and crossed in this 'lyric' process. Others appear sharply focused often by the crossing as if transcendence pulled a hamstring and left one, then, across the border in denied territory. This kind of traffic can be disorienting and, as Rich notes, can bear ambiguous results (repair or destruction) to the traveler. But, what happens if the lyric traveler (as well as the audience) operates in proximity to sacrosanct, historically volatile borders? Seems the results could be confusing, even dangerous. This final section of "Evil Gals' Blues" charts just such lyric confusions and dangers (and, possibly, some that offer a sense of growth and repair) emanating from and swirling about the career of contemporary musician, singer and lyricist Amy Winehouse. Possibly, considering her work in close relation to its lyric pulse (and in relation to multiple lyric traditions with which she's aligned) might enable a new glimpse at what she's done, what she's undone, and what's she's provoked in response to her various "lessons [for] the human ear."

           love is a losing game.

In her recent essay, "Tainted Love," about the ambiguous racial and gendered scurryings-about inflecting (infecting?) Amy Winehouse's voice, stage persona and personal life, Daphne Brooks displays many many things. One, she obviously knows more about the pop cultural cipher than I do these days. Brooks is seemingly mad at Amy Winehouse (isn't everyone?) about many things : unacknowledged and / or dishonored sources of her style; her style; her bad behavior off stage; the stage; her borrowed behavior on stage and her self-obliterative behavior off of it? But, is any of this a surprise? Maybe *that's* what-the repetition trauma-Brooks is-and seemingly so many others who care about popular culture are-upset about? I appreciate what Brooks writes. And she writes about many things: minstrelsy, vaudeville, the blues, Motown, Winehouse's racial affronts, her stage show, her cracker jack handlers. All with accuracy and aplomb and a healthy dose of rage.

           Five story fire, yet, you came / love is a losing game.

What I'd like to do if I could is re-orient attention according to the rare things I hear in Winehouse's lyrics. Most centrally, the power of her writing and the way her lyrics-in the tradition of lyricists like John Keats, Billie Holiday, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Dinah Washington, Marvin Gaye, Yusef Komunyakaa and others-involve frayed edges of her life and psyche. Even more, I'd like to point to Winehouse's gift for "living the line" in performances that (dangerously) blur the line between life and art in a way that communicates a turbulent, simultaneous sense of living and artistic flux at the border (among others) between becoming and unbecoming. So, this is an essay about art and the rough (largely interior but not necessarily personal) waters it swims on its way to us. Before that, some ground to clear.

           One I wished I'd never played / oh, what a mess we made.

As with much I've been reading about Winehouse (admittedly, not an exhaustive survey), all of what Brooks writes is true and most of it a.b.c. gum stuck to the shoe of the popular culture that's steady stomping on Amy Winehouse. It's a formidable distraction. It has been a while since a performer of such talent has worn the shoe that stomps her with quite the intensity of Ms. Winehouse. Still, amid it all, I think Amy Winehouse is a real lyricist.  One of the best I've heard. And, as happens in all true lyrics, registers of experience collide and the results in life can be as ugly as the results in song can be beautiful. Whatever-beautiful, that is-that means? Certainly, there are things to pick at about Amy Winehouse (easy target) and even easier to dart the barn-sized board of popular culture. Even easier than that to deconstruct historical popular culture where we don't share the blind place in the contemporary chaos that the performers occupy.

           And, now the final frame / love is a losing game.

But, pinning sources of brilliant, surprising lyrical writing (and performance) is harder. In fact, it might be impossible. After all manner of hypotheses, Brooks ends up wondering whether all of the shenanigans isn't really about Winehouse's wanting "to be a black man." I guess that'll put her through changes. But, it seems like a distracting gesture. Has anyone wondered if much of Amy Winehouse's turmoil isn't also about her attempts to coexist with her powerful (verbal and vocal) lyrical gifts? As the lives of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington show plainly, coexistence with intense lyrical talent has a well-earned reputation as risky (even more than risqué) business and a m.o. that matches Winehouse's life along the ever-blurrier line between on and off stage. Let's cover a little territory and then get back, briefly, to what's so overlooked about Winehouse's music. Namely, the music. And then let's give a moment's attention to the pulse-under-razor in some of her lyricism.

           Played out by the band / love is a losing hand.

Obviously, Winehouse's style is begged, borrowed and stole(n). Doesn't everyone know that? She names Ray (Charles) and Mr. Hathaway in the rehab song. I haven't followed her around, but I'd guess it's no secret. Seems to me as I look around the University of Georgia campus where I work, young "white"--they and some of the world may think they're white, but they're not--men wouldn't even be able to say hello and shake hands without the guidance of black culture telling them to chin up and find a way to touch hands while staring thru (Shem style) not into each other's eyes. Cross-racial lyric gestures? Am I supposed to be mad at that? Ironically enough, I used to be mad at that! Maybe I still am. But, if they'd come up with surprising poems and songs about it, I'd be less mad at it. Maybe. But, it doesn't matter, the fact is that if you live on earth and have electricity (or someone you know does), you've been touched by the rhythms of black life in America.

           It was more than I could stand.

And Winehouse's racist ditties (apparently, there's footage of her singing some offensive song to the tune of "Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes")? I hadn't heard them, doesn't surprise, don't want to hear them, really. By now, don't we all know that we ALL carry around brains full of racial slurs about -"our own," whatever that means, and-other races in our heads? When a (literally) slurring addict like Winehouse, or a repeat offender like Jesse--cut his nuts off--Jackson, or a Spanish--chinky-eyed--basketball team lets out in public, it's an offensive wave. Sure. But, I've heard and seen it all before and so has everyone else.

           Love is a losing hand.

And the hoopla and politics and dope and money swirl in and around Amy Winehouse in ways we've seen before too, right? Don't they? One of Daphne Brooks's criticisms of Amy Winehouse is that she's desecrating dignified images and the behavior of performers who crafted images of black people compatible with Dr. King's vision of a racially inclusive America and upon whose musical legacy Amy Winehouse borrows heavily. But, I'm not sure we can honestly look at sources of lyrical brilliance for models of good behavior. Can we? Maybe the Motown girl groups. Maybe. But, don't let's look to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday or Mahalia Jackson for our models of personal behavior, ok? Is *this* why Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Phyllis Hyman, Alicia Meyers and on and on and on get left off the well-behaved list? Did they desecrate the Dream, too? In "Baby Get Lost," Dinah Washington nods to the moral sense, but she's too busy to follow through. She sings : "I'd try to stop you cheating but I just don't have the time. Cause I've got so many men that they're standing in line." Don't keep listening, one of the men is a seven-foot tall dentist named "Long John."

           Self-professed profound / til the chips were down.

Chaka Khan sang "I'm Every Woman," I guess, if one's going to be every woman, a few might not be the ones to invite to the in-laws for the howdy dinner? Amy Winehouse is clear about that as she is, in her brilliant blues, "Stronger Than Me," about the ambiguities of a woman's desire freed of family obligations : "I'm not going to meet your mother, anytime." Maybe she's felt a dose of her own "look who is [not] coming to dinner" blues? In South London, it's more than possible.

           Though you're a gambling man / love is a losing hand.

Is it (again!) the role of music to affirm black dignity through respectability? Is it the only role? First, as W.E.B. Du Bois noted, and as Billie Holiday noted from her childhood in Baltimore, and in a way that echoes many scenes in my own life, many 'respectable' black folks might not have been eager to rub elbows with someone like Amy Winehouse. No home training. Who knows? Second, come to that, let's don't (via time machine) upload 20 hours worth of day-in-the-life, realtime footage of Billie Holiday in action, ok? F and N bombs for all, she'll make your toenails curl up. Is this news? And before we go washing Barry Gordy's feet in hot oils, now, if the Motown men and women *were* prodded into respectability (the ambiguities about which poets like Melvin Dixon, Cheryl Clarke and others have long had lots to say) for the Dream, and they were, no doubt, they were also prodded-flipped hair, pearls, diction lessons and all-that way for the cross-over cash. Why else move the operation to a city named for los angels and dedicated to covering the globe with celluloid delusions. Or was that just so Aretha could profile with the pink drop-top in January?

           Though I battle blind / Love is a fate resigned

Anyway, cross-racial heresy and the poisoned-privacy meets media-frenzy dilemma are all old friends of pop talent, aren't they? Billie Holiday did a year and a day for it. No, scratch that, she did life. And, death. At least the spectacle is a friend of the agents and labels with Their Eyes on the News Cycle. Some artists handle it better than others. And, some make a bi-zillion $ (for someone) whilst it happens. And, I'd guess (though I haven't actually done the research) it's probably obvious that (the miss-taken for) "white" train wrecks do make a lot more dough (for someone) than the black ones do. Legions and generations of black blues and jazzmen and women who were geniuses and train wrecks (and some who lived dignified anonymous lives and some veering from one to the other and back) did it for free! Call Sharpton.

           And the memories they mare my mind.

But, even after the march and the Tom Joyner spot, none of this seems new to me at all. At bottom, it's an unavoidable ebb and flow, like sunrise and set, in a fundamentally delusional culture.

           Love is a fair design.

But, still, why Amy Winehouse as a lens for all this interesting, but re-treaded, critique? Most of Brooks's essay (and many others about Winehouse) is as interesting without Amy Winehouse as it is with her in it. Post Modern? I once had a friend who informed me that she felt no hesitation blasting the film Hustle and Flow even though she hadn't seen it. My position was that it did something for black, southern, un-respectible male life similar to what a Cézanne still life did for peaches. Then again, rightly and / or wrongly, the way one feels about that would fluctuate depending upon one's relationship to peaches in the world. Nonetheless, unlike 'cultural moments,' art insists (and we on its behalf as it does on ours) that its existence be seriously reckoned with. Anyway, I guess the fact that Amy Winehouse's voice makes almost no appearance at all in much of this critique would be perfectly fine if Winehouse was, say, a painter. But, a singer?

           Oh, over futile hours / and laughed at by the gods

So, if the voice is basically absent, is it just the buckets of money, media play, and her private (made pornographically public) demise? Again, apart from youtube access, is this new? It's not like the minstrel tradition and black musical influences are an esoteric discourse hidden high on a mount. And one can, as we know, hide in plain view. As poet George Oppen lamented (strangely), you couldn't escape the voice of black music if you wanted to. So, why Amy Winehouse? Well, what about talent? Brooks's writes : "Winehouse has been lauded for essentially throwing [Billie] Holiday along with Foster Brooks, Louis Armstrong, Wesley Willis, Megan Mullally's Karen on Will and Grace, Moms Mabley and Courtney Love into a blender and pressing pulse." Ok, cool, but that's not how music gets made, it's not how lyrics get written. When the chips are down, a person does that and during the key moments when it happens, they're as good as deaf and blind. If there was a button to push, there'd be a million Amy Winehouses. There aren't.

           And now the final frame / love is a losing game. Thank you.

And, too, maybe it's like Ezra Pound said of the folk-ballad scholarship that basically proved that "Homer" wasn't an unprecedented individual. In fact, there were hundreds of Homers. It was a whole culture of Homers. True. And, Pound : "but that doesn't explain why this 'Homer' is so much better than everyone else."When we say culture, sometimes, we are also talking about art, right? Music. So, why is "aesthetics" (sound) and "lyrics" (writing) and lyricism (apt performance) missing from the discussion of Amy Winehouse? Maybe it's not. But, if you think it is, keep reading. I'm getting there.

            What are you going to do? This is a tune "Stronger Than Me"

Aesthetics. The thing missing from all this Amy Winehouse stuff, for me, is the brilliance of her writing and the crushing way she can (and sometimes does) deliver a line. All due import to period, race, nation, racism, in fact and even so, shockingly, frighteningly (for her), like Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse seems to be able to write it out and then "live a line" in a song. It's about how to sing with one foot in the song and one foot in the world and be both places and neither at the same time. In other words, you have to be who you are and who you're not. It's tough to do that. It's tough to know that the bottom of who you are has little predictable to do with who you think (let alone who other people think) you are. That's the lyric.

In Stephen Hero, James Joyce called the lyric "a simple liberation of a rhythm." What a novelist. Truth is that it's a complex simplicity and, from the evidence, a liberation-like so many-with deeply ambiguous (destruction or repair and, in relation to what, which is which?) consequences. In other words, it's a real risk. Like James Baldwin wrote of his days in the pulpit, for all the preparation and deceit involved, "there were times when it seemed I was really carrying the Word," when, as he explained, the speaker / singer all of a sudden, by whatever accident, testifies to his / her own experience and to the audience's experience at the same time. We reach a language somewhere hidden in us that, as Adrienne Rich writes, is "no longer personal." But, by this point we can clearly see that that's not quite it, either. The lyric voice is, indeed, beyond the personal, but at the same time, it's not not personal, either. Is there a word for that? In my experience, when the beyond but not not personal blurs inter or intra (or the blurs the distinction between intra- and inter-racial) radical dynamics, there's a word for that. Trouble.

           You should be stronger than me / You been here seven years longer than me

That's the crux of the "lyric" tradition, a map of the immediate simultaneity of otherwise divergent interior and public lives. Tangents. Lyrics. Ever looked at a Francis Bacon tryptic and seen your portrait? Millions have. It's the opposite approach to an epic condition. The route to the "universal" leads through things that aren't things about the most intensely private reaches of our beings. The (counter) logic goes like this : if you can touch that private thing that's so private it's a secret from yourself, that's yours and yours alone, and if you can voice that thing, other people will see themselves there. That is to say, if you can really get alone, you realize you're not. Go figure. And, then get ready.

           Don't you know you're supposed to be the man.

And, yes, and with whatever other stuff about Amy Winehouse, with all of it, the child can do that. She does do that. Not every performer can do that. No one really knows how they do that. Smokey Robinson went into Marvin Gaye's house while he was writing What's Going On, Marvin said, "Smoke, I ain't writing this, man, God's writing this." Maybe, maybe not. But it wasn't really "Marvin," either. And, Marvin knew that and it was tough for Marvin to know that. With studio time left over, they asked Billie Holiday if she knew any "sayings" that would make a good extemporaneous blues. Resisting the "down home" implications, the sophisticated Lady said, no. Then after a few moments, she said, well, there's that saying "God Bless the Child. . .".  But the saying isn't the lyric. Billie Holiday made the lyric from the saying, there on the spot. She pinned it to a melody and injected it with . . . well, with what? Well, with something unknown (to her) in herself, but that doesn't really narrow it down. And, then there's how?

           I pale in comparison to who you think I am.

There's no map to the origins (though it seems to be close to some pain center in the brain of the gifted/afflicted) of this talent and there damned sure isn't an etiquette guide for how to handle that gift. A list of "lyricists" from John Keats to to Marvin Gaye, to Ms. Winehouse's Mr. Hathaway to. . . won't necessarily produce a viable group of people to run for Senate or to affirm anyone's respectability. Then again, either will any other 100 people randomly selected (including, obviously, the present Senators). That's the delusion.

           Cause you always want to talk it through, and I don't care.

The lyricists affirm, though, they affirm plenty : we're here; this is who we really are. They leap into the dark and say, "if it's there in me, it's there in us all." Is there any real dignity-leave respectability to the side-without that affirmation? James Baldwin told Studs Terkel, "there's a division of labor in the world. . . my job is to imagine the private life. Not mine, yours." Billie Holiday sings in her lover's ear in "Long Gone Blues" : "Aw, you trying to quit me baby but you don't know how." How do we know she's right?

           I always have to comfort you, when I'm there.

Lyric. Repair and Ruin. In 1983, at the NBA All-Star Game, Marvin Gaye sang the United States as close as it's ever been (in my ear) to a truly "lyric Anthem" of itself. It was as if he'd been possessed by the ghost of Lester Young-who was always possessed by the presence of Billie Holiday and vice versa. Listen to Marvin's Anthem against, say, Lester Young's "I'm Confessin'." Anyway, Marvin was very respectable. Well dressed, clean, with dark shades on to hide how hopelessly fucked up he was. In his voice, the place-this is Reagan's America-actually sounded like a place to live, not a prison, not a Nepalm strike, not a suburb, not a cliché or an abstraction to be defended through extermination of "terror" and other murderous, delusional objectives to achieve. I listened then and I listen-via youtube-now and I think, I could live there. And I watch Marvin's chin bump the mic and see his knees buckle to near-collapse and his face crack open into a vague plea when he belts "La-and of the free. . .". I think, shit, I do live there. And, I wonder what color flashed behind those shades when he whispers "Oh lord" (just off the mic) at the close of the song. And he did it in Philly, where Billie was pinned to the narcotics charge that got her sent away for a year and a day. She came back a year later, with Decca, singing "Ain't Nobody's Business if I do. . ." and never played in a New York City jazz club again. Life. It's nobody's business. As for Marvin, he was dead inside a year. Anyway, enough lyric history.

           But, just what I want you to do, stroke my hair.

So, yes. That Racial Apartheid American Style and sheer terror of life on the denied territory athwart Jefferson's disease-and-genocide depopulated, slave- state dream of a "tabula rasa with inalienable rights" has forced  (some) black folks to show out, dress well and behave better than that no matter the hell inside marks an important line in the sand. Whew. It's a valuable principle of coherence for black culture with its own dissident tradition (why people like Robert Williams, Malcolm and Baldwin weren't at the March on Washington). So, is the point that Amy Winehouse should mime *that* part of the culture as well as whatever she already has in the blender? Sure, why not? If she gets to grow up, she might. She's 25 at light speed.

           Oh, I forgot all of young love's joys.

Cursed blessings abound, changing costumes, all the while sharpening their teeth. My ipod could hold enough itunes songs to empty my retirement account. At this rate, the bank can give my mortgage, my student loans and applications for Chinese passports to my kids. But, art lasts.

           I feel like a lady and you're my ladyboy.

Lyrics. Aesthetics. I've listened to plenty minstrel acts (not all of them white) and few of them "live a line" in a song like Ms. Winehouse can. Strictly speaking, maybe it's not *her* (moat diggers abound) life she's living in these songs; that's true of every autobiography we have. Imagined. Lives come apart and come back together in the turbulence of an imagination. Alberto Giacometti would spend hours sculpting or painting his model's face (his brother, his wife, friends) and then go to dinner (usually around 3 am) with them and claim that he didn't recognize them at all. Shit gets loosed in a lyric. Have we met? Beckett found the plays in the abyss, wrote them in French, and then translated them back into English. Identities loosed, borders be damned. Stevie Wonder is (and isn't) Steveland Morris. Yusef Komunyakaa isn't (and is) whomever he was by whatever "misfitted"name growing up in Louisiana. Ruth Jones in Alabama, Dinah Washington in Chicago. Someone little black, Irish-Catholic girl in Baltimore by the name of Fagan, someone else (and not) sings "Moanin Low" with Lester Young whispering in her ear. Who are they when they sing what they sing? Who are we when we hear them? Cause if they're not exactly who they are, then are we. . ? You see, this lyric business is disturbing stuff. Maybe that's why it's left out of the culture wars. It won't choose sides. It won't represent.

           You should be stronger than me / but to stay longer than frozen turkey.

Racial, ethnic borders in a riven, violent world imperil people's lives. No matter, the imagination won't abide these borders and identities fracture in creative work (the Yoruba word for tradition translates as "fork in the road"). Even de-Frosted, there really isn't any being one traveler. As DuBois knew way back yonder-when and as Michelle Cliff's brilliant new book, If I Could Write This In Fire, shows again and again, being (what George Oppen called) 'numerous' in America is ever an inter-racial, fraught, reality. All artists aren't well studied in matching one dimension of experience (of a life) to the others. But, their skill and foibles can illuminate otherwise invisible lies and perils and, hopefully, otherwise invisible boons and pleasures and truths. As an artist, while one's busy tripping the invisible beams of the alarms (which is never the point of a piece, much less a life, really), it's hard to tell which is which. Enter, critics.

           Now, why you always put me in control / when all I need is for my man to live up to his role.

In the end, who knows just whose life (or lives and how many) sounds (sound) in Amy Winehouse's mouth? But, in the lines she lives, she's made it hers better than crowds and crowds of others. Here and there on the records it happens. The critics and audiences know this. And, by obsessing (on Jezebel and other net rags and elsewhere) on the distractions, it seems the audience and critics seem to have as much trouble dealing with her gift as she does. T.S Eliot wrote that the perfect critic must first "submit to the work," get eye to eye and toe to toe with the art. Is anyone doing that? When I try it with Ms. Winehouse's work, it's moving and scary.

           You always want to talk it through, and I'm ok / I always have to comfort you everyday.

It happens on the records, but it happens better on those youtube performances (with live acoustic guitar--yes, black men in both cases--accompaniment) of "Love is a Losing Game" and "Stronger Than Me." "Stronger than Me" is so "wrong" it works in the (black) signifying tradition over gender roles. The woman's voice complains that the man should be stronger than she is while she distills her needs and voice into crystal clear beams of being. Works for me anyway. Gender reversals and behind the scenes brought into the light : "You always wanna talk it through, and I don't care. I always have to comfort you when I'm there / but just what I need you to do, stroke my hair." She taunts "I feel like the lady and you my ladyboy / you should be stronger than me. . ./ why you always put me in control." Curse of the superwoman myth belied and even a little cross-racial im-posturing revealed : "I pale in comparison to who you think I am." Standards quoted and coda attached : "You don't know what love is / get a grip." Is that song that far from "Don't Explain" or "Long Gone Blues" or Dinah Washington's "I'm a girl who blew a fuse"? Amy : "Don't you know you're supposed to be, the man?" Billie : "Ah, you're trying to quit me baby but you don't know how." Maybe I'm too far gone, but I'd love to hear Hot Lips Paige in there with a plunger mute filling in windows with Ms. Winehouse. Keep the Dap-Kings. I don't need the retro hoopla. Give me the lyrics. At heart, she's a solo songstress, lyrics like razors, symmetrical as Sushi, in relation to which so much of the culture looks and sounds like Botox'd butcher meat.

           This what I need you to do / are you gay?

Going under. At the Mercury Awards in 2007, that version of "Love is a Losing Game" is classic concert songstress lyricism. The tune swims the whirlpool like a bird with a broken wing. Afloat, for now. And, Ms. Winehouse behaved herself even if her tattoos didn't. Maybe it's borrowed straight from Billie Holiday at La Scala? Or stolen. Either way, it's the best Sade song I've seen performed in years. And maybe that is a crime but it's true. Because he was there at those pianos with Billie Holiday at the end, I'd love to ask Mal Waldron what he hears in this performance. That "no longer [but not not] personal" thing I hear living those lines in Amy Winehouse's voice probably didn't announce itself when it appeared. Likely, it knew her before she knew it. Could she handle it better? Yes. Who knows? I don't. Would I have? Am I stronger than Amy Winehouse? Was I when I was 25? The questions are meaningless. Or maybe they're not. But, they shouldn't overshadow the brilliant lines the woman's living in her work.

           He said the respect I made you earn / I thought you had so many lessons to learn / I said you don't know what love is / get a grip.

Take a few reads through the line above. How's that for a younger (supposed to be white?) woman turning around the head-trip rap of a seven-years older (presumably black) man? Where'd she run into that line do you suppose? Where'd she get that lyrical ground to stand on? And, what did that cost? In any case, if she stole it upfront, seems like she's paying for it (or paying for something) now. She sings, in "Love is a Losing Game," about the "memories that mare my mind," and she rips the word m-i-n-d apart and into the sound (if it makes sound) of tearing flesh. If tearing flesh doesn't make a sound, it does now. As Adrienne Rich put it in "Meditations for a Savage Child," another "lesson of the human ear." And, new. Lyric brilliance. Always dialogic, always, ours. That is new. Like Pound said about real poetry, "it's news that stays news."

           I'm not going to meet your mother, any time / I just wanna grip your body, over mine / now, please tell me why you think that's a crime?

And, watch with your ears or (via youtube) listen with your eyes as she nails "think" to the ear in the lens of the camera. In "Uses of the Blues," James Baldwin recounts a story of Miles Davis giving an addicted and broke Billie Holiday $100. And someone said to Miles, "man, you know she's going to go buy dope with it." And Miles : "Man, haven't you ever been sick?" Which, in whatever imperfect way, was Miles saying two things : don't fool yourself, it could be you; and, go easy on her, ok? Let's us in her audience (critics and especially professors!) go a little easy on the poet, Amy Winehouse. She's in a tumult and she doesn't know the way in or the way out and, if others like her are any guide and when push comes to shove, she's going to have to find the way on her own. And, by that, by the logic of the "no longer [but not not] personal" lyric, she'll do some of that traveling for (if not with) us. I'm pulling for her.

           You should be stronger than me


Ed Pavlić's most recent books are But Here Are Small Clear Refractions (Achebe Center, Bard College, 2009), Winners Have Yet to be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway (UGA P, 2008) and Labors Lost Left Unfinished (UPNE, 2006). His other books are Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue (Copper Canyon P, 2001) and Crossroads Modernism (U Minn P, 2002). His prizes include the Darwin Turner Award from African American Review, The American Poetry Review / Honickman First Book Prize, and the Author of the Year Award from The Georgia Writers Association.  He teaches Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Georgia at Athens.

  Send to a friend  |   View/Hide Comments (0)   |     Print

2023 All Rights Reserved: The New Black Magazine | Terms & Conditions
Back to Home Page nb: People and Politics Books & Literature nb: Arts & Media nb: Business & Careers Education