Wow.Two posts about famous musicians in one month.
Beyond the sadness that accompanies any loss of life, I am neither surprised nor especially disturbed by her death. I have no idea what loss it is to the world (what she might have done and all that crap.) But in truth, when I think of contemporary artists who have died young (Hendrix, Parker) I’m not certain they would’ve done all that much beyond what they did. It’s always a shame when life ends so young, but it’s not necessarily a disaster for art.
But I am sad simply because, with that one record, Back To Black, Amy Winehouse was the finest female singer of the past two decades. Straight up.
RHYTHM IS WHAT MAKES GREAT SINGERS
What made her extraordinary was her sense of rhythm. All the greats have it. Note that great singers don’t always have the best voice. (If that were the case, all those American Idol winners nobody remembers would be fuckin’ geniuses.) The classic example comparison of great voice against great singer was Tony Bennett vs. Frank Sinatra. Tony had by far the better voice. But Frank had what everyone called ‘phrasing’. Tony grew into being a real artist, but not until long after Frank was ‘Sinatra’. Tony had to log a million miles to get that soul. Frank just had the world-weary rhythm that made you believe what he was singing. And so did Amy.
As many critics have pointed out, few singers are expressive geniuses the way the great instrumentalists have been. Poets, yes. But few singers can evoke deeper meaning from their instrument. The great jazz singer was (and is) Billie Holiday. Billie didn’t always sing all that great; especially near the end. Some of her more painful recordings become a caricature (check out David Sedaris’ impression sometime. It’s eerie and sad how accurate it captures her in that drunken state.) But what made Billie unique was that she was the first singer who used her voice as well as Louis Armstrong used his trumpet. She was -jazz-. She bent and twisted the notes; the words; the meaning to reveal deep truths that went far beyond the lyrical narrative. And so did Amy. She had that innate talent that could have created a body of unparalleled work.
When I first heard Rehab I was stunned. I had to stop what I was doing to find out who it was. I -never- do that. I wasn’t looking for new songs. I generally could care less about singers now. American Idol and AutoTune have almost completely dulled my interest. Oh wait, there’s one thing I care even less about… the latest white soul singer du jour. Joss Stone? Bah… Adele? Please.
But Amy was business. ‘Rehab’ is a masterpiece. The rhythm is incredible and, depending on how nerd you wanna get, it’s actually pretty easy to see, in a sort of scientific way, how she stands out from the pack. All computer music programs now have a gizmo that converts recorded melodies into notation. These are generally toy-like devices. But they let you see, in black and white (so to speak) what music is made of. If you generate notation of most singers performances, you’ll see that they have much in common with one another, regardless of the differences in tone or style. But if you compare that notation with an instrumentalist, it’s night and day. For example, look at any two singers doing ‘America The Beautiful’ and then compare that with any two instrumentalists—on any instrument—playing the same song. Just looking at the notes, you can easily see which ones belong to the singers and which ones are the instrumentalists. But then look at a notated performance by Billie Holiday? You can’t tell it from an instrumentalist. It’s weird, but true—she sang like a horn player; unconsciously delaying one syllable and pushing ahead another. And the end result was not just a singer of jazz, but rather a jazz singer. Billie bridged the gap that actors describe between acting and being the character. She didn’t ‘act’. She was. The notation shows this to be the case. But sadly, of course, not how it was achieved. That’s the mystery.
And as you can guess with all this build up… Amy too, unlike other singers, had this innate gift. She too ‘sang like a horn player.’
BACK IN BLACK
But none of that would’ve mattered had she not had that one perfect medium in which to express her gift. How many of us have our stars aligned as precisely as she and her producers did on “Back In Black”? The songs are perfect for her. And the production has a reality that is hard to describe. The record will probably remain on my top shelf for the rest of my life, like a Vermeer; a perfect miniature that stands on it’s own, and yet always making one wishing there could have been just a few more pieces.
As a guy who knows a thing or two about re-creating music from a bygone era (play “Can’t Help Myself” a few thousand times and you’ll get it too) I want to say that there’s a difference between the sound of “Back In Black” and every other soul re-treat out there. You may hire Booker T. or The Funk Brothers or whoever. You may try to record with exactly the same vintage crap they had in 1966. But you still won’t get it. Because Booker T. is close to seventy years old. And the guy running the vintage tape machine isn’t living in 1996. He’s living now. Whatever makes a record sound real is ineffable. Most of the time I think it’s utterly pointless to try and re-create an era, unless you’re making period costumes for a movie. I do not know much about the producers of Back In Black, but my guess is that these are young guys who like R&B but don’t worship at the altar. They’re living in the now. Back in Black sounds like now through a lens of classic soul and that’s it’s strength. It’s not a museum piece made on period instruments and in fact could not have been made in 1966.
WHAT MIGHT’VE BEEN
As I said before, I have no confidence that she was going to make another record anywhere as good as “Back In Black”, but hey, one masterpiece should be more than enough for any career, right? But such a gift! Beyond the cliché about ‘she died too young’, is it wrong to mourn such a talent left on the table? Yeah people gripe all the time about stuff like, “Man if Shaq had kept it together he wouldn’t have been just ‘great’ but he woulda been the greatest? Maybe that seems trite, but in today’s hyper-saturated entertainment world, where everybody and their brother puts out new tracks every other week—and bands like The Rolling Stones never seem to bother retiring, let alone dying, how many singers of the past twenty years can you think of where you can seriously say to yourself, ‘Boy I sure wish she had made more records.’ I will miss Amy because, even though I am not certain she wouldn’t have squandered her gift. Because, unlike all the hyped ‘talents’ out there, she truly was one in a million. And I got the proof in black and white. And thankfully, I’ve also got my ears to tell me the same good news.
Thanks for “Back In Black”, Amy. One of the best albums I’ve heard in a loooong time.