Two days before the glitzy music-biz spectacular, Whitney Houston was found dead at age 48. I'm old enough to remember when she was the multi-Grammy darling of the industry. More successful albums followed, of course, and a film role and Oscar for that song. But then the erratic behavior, a celebrity throw-down of a marriage, botched performances, rumors of drug use, and an all-out slide into the darkness. I'm betting there were a lot of emotions flying around Hollywood this past weekend, and that surprise was not chief among them.
As the ceremonies began, the host, L.L. Cool J. acknowledged the passing and read a prayer to a silent crowd. There was then a brief montage to a Houston hit, and on with the show. I'll be honest with you ... I hate awards shows. I do sometimes watch them, because I love music and I love movies, and sometimes people I respect are up for awards or are scheduled for a live performance. But I always feel afterward like I need a long, scalding shower. And as I watched last night ... as the parade of the chosen passed by ... I wondered at a missing name. Amy Winehouse. Now I only watched till Adele's performance at ten, and shut the thing off, so I might very well have missed a touching word about her. I hope such mention was made. Because as tragic as Whitney Houston's death is, Amy Winehouse is the real red flag waving at the edge of our culture's vision.
(As I proof-read this, I learn that tribute was paid to Ms. Winehouse)
I'm not going to research this piece. I know the basics. Winehouse is the fifth of the 27s, the big, fragile talents who rocket to fame, and go down like Icarus with wings dissolving. At age 27. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and now Amy Winehouse too. Sure, there is coincidence around the exact time of departure, but there is great commonality as well. All these were real talents, artists, people who wanted to make something beautiful - needed to - to solve the struggle within. In another age they would have been bards or troubadours, or maybe composers working in drafty lofts. They would have gained some renown perhaps, but there would have been no machinery that could hold them trembling before the hungry gaze of millions. But ever since the advent of radio, and then TV, the potential for fame is limited, literally, only by the number of humans on the planet.
I got hooked into this particular Grammy show because it was on CBS following 60 Minutes. As a lead-in, Anderson Cooper had done a story on Adele. She'd been on my radar for some time even though I avoid pop radio like one might avoid a hive of angry bees. I give it a wide berth. But I do go out to the open mics in and around L.A. - hosting the last Monday of each month at Kulak's Woodshed - and I see a lot of young talent. I'd noticed a few of these young girls singing wonderful emotional songs. When I asked if they'd written them, they would admit that they'd sung an Adele song. I knew that there was an unlikely pop-star out of England named Adele, but after hearing her songs done with just a guitar by green youngsters, I knew that her talent was genuine. She touches something deep in people.
The Cooper interview was a good piece, as these things go, and I found her to be very likeable; irreverent, self effacing, and not at all impressed with herself. But here she is, wandering into a hurricane of opportunity and expectation that no big-boned Cockney girl could ever expect to face. The interview moved from a recording studio to a huge mansion in the English country-side where she now lives. The two of them walked its open acres and wandered its empty maze of rooms. She told him that she'd come here just to get a little relief from the attention. She also told him that her stage-fright has gotten worse of late, because now there are that many more people that she fears she might disappoint. Adele is twenty-three years old, and her latest album has sold 17 million copies.
You probably think I'm about to predict her death in four years. No, I think this girl has a good chance to navigate the shark laden waters and have a long, meaningful career. She has, for starters, a look that does not lend itself to glamour. And she writes her own songs from a place of catharsis. She will probably not be cast into the role of sex-kitten, and her raw, truth-telling artistic style will do much to help her process all that is looming over her now like a thousand-foot wave. She seems to posses a great sense of humor. And of irony. Something about her reminds me of Dolly Parton in her ability to be out in front of the world's perceptions of her, laughing first at all of it.
I don't have to go too deep into why fame is so toxic for fragile souls like the 27s. It's pretty obvious. All were somewhat shy, felt like misfits growing up, and found courage in drugs or alcohol. Putting anybody like that into the withering heat of the spotlight is dangerous. Amy Winehouse, like Janis and Jim especially had the double whammy. These three were not only known for their music and performances but for their hard-core lifestyles. We remember Joplin and Morrison openly boozing on stage. And we loved them for it. Shit, Amy Winehouse's first big hit over here was Rehab, wherein she told us right up-front that she didn't want any help. What is a young person to think? They see the adoring public not only putting up with their bad behavior, but actively creating their legend around it. I know that if millions of people seemed to have embraced me as "that crazy drunken genius", I wouldn't want to go to rehab either. No No No.
There can be no control on these experiments. Maybe Kurt Cobain would have killed himself anyway. There was just one of him, so we can never know. But I have spent over 20 years in and out of AA, and have seen many hundred people locked into a struggle with booze and drugs. The program is called Alcoholics Anonymous for a reason. It is understood that breaking patterns is hard perilous work. Facing one's own demon's and humiliating legacy is tough enough when surrounded by fellow travelers. It's that much more difficult if people are watching your every move who have no understanding of why you do the things you do. I suspect that Cobain and Joplin and Morrison and Hendrix and Winehouse too would, had fame not swept them up, eventually have had their fill of the cyclone and gone to shelter.
I had some up-close contact with rock-star fame in my early twenties. Circumstances - and drugs - brought me into contact with the band members and entourages of Elton John and Alice Cooper while those two were busy carving their names on tombstones. I saw the sycophancy, the disconnect from reality that is visited upon a star by the many who swirl around him or her. The star is a magnet for money and adventure, and everybody wants in on the ride. Nobody can really be trusted, except for those who knew you when. And even those people are apt to change once the rest of the world has. I ran far and fast and have never sought Hollywood's approval since.
Fame certainly doesn't kill everybody. Elton and Alice are still with us. But I will also say this: neither has ever again reached the heights of their early work. This is the second death brought by the scythe of fame ... artistic death. Did anybody see Springsteen last night? A pale shadow of the Jersey Devil indeed. Here is a guy who rose from the streets of Asbury Park with an uncanny empathy for and understanding of the people for whom the world was a series of locked doors. He drew his artistic power from his passion to tell their stories. But he went and got rich and famous. Now, everywhere he goes people posture for him. He goes to a party, it becomes the party Bruce Springsteen was at. An artist like Bruce, or Jackson Browne needs - NEEDS - invisibility in the world. Where can the Boss interact naturally with the working-class men and women who once breathed so vividly in his songs? I guess he could talk to the groundskeepers and maids at one of his estates. Artists of this type need to observe unnoticed the lives of those whose stories they were born to tell. But we take that ability from them when we lift them onto a pedestal and allow them two options: turn to stone or tumble.
The Grammys is not really a celebration of the art of music. The Grammys is a celebration of the business and craft of musical entertainment. And as such, I have no problem with it. Those who never set out to do anything other than entertain people and make a ton of money doing it, will not be harmed by the Grammys. But now and again a real artist comes along who has wide appeal, and the machine presents and promotes them just like it would the less tender, more competitive entertainers. And now and again numbers are added to the body-count .
I suggest we re-examine our attitudes toward fame. Some amount of it is necessary to get the worthy art of a Dylan or an Adele into the culture where it enriches us all. But maybe we could have a smaller, less glitzy celebration based not on sales but on artistic merit, the communicative power of music. And we could then caution the viewers as to the fragile nature of the muse, and maybe create a safer place for the long-term flowering of the vine.
The best moment of the show for me, was when Dave Grohl accepted an award for his scrappy little band, The Foo Fighters. He said that they had recorded the song in question in a garage with microphones and a tape machine and no trickery. He then said that music isn't about the perfection, the craft, but about what is in the head and the heart. God bless him. And he should know what he is talking about. When Nirvana was climbing into the orbit that burned it's leader up, Dave Grohl was sitting behind the drums, hair flying, pounding out a joyful beat.
Dave Morrison ... February 13, 2012