With something, I hope, of a rhetorical flourish, let me ask a handful of questions to which, I trust, we can all agree to answer ‘no.’ Was the most interesting thing about Amy Winehouse her bee-hive hair-do? If not that, was it her liking for exuberant tattoos? Or her fateful weakness for alcohol and drugs? Or, perhaps, her close relationship with larger-than-life taxi-driver father Mitch?
No, no, no, no. These things, as hindsight surely has to show, were vivid but periphery. For us listening fans, at least, the energizing center – the core too quickly perished – was, simply, the hugeness of her talent. In her little life, Amy Winehouse gave us a huge voice and two great albums she used it to record. That and they will last a long old while yet; the rest, if good sense may finally prevail, is sadness and noise.
As much as I also relish it, reading good quality music journalism makes me green with envy. Because measured against it my own love of music seems somehow lacking. Inarticulate: felt, maybe, but beyond the reach of my powers to describe it. Words, generally, I’m ok with… but in the whereabouts of music I always come up short. I don’t know about middle eights, and major sevenths, and Mixolydian scales, or glissando, tremolo, and triads. Just the same as I can’t – if only! – sing. Or tease anything at all pleasing out of any musical instrument. Or, indeed, dance. My music is only ever heard – never played, and either not shared enough or not shared at all. Wishing, alas, not enough to make it otherwise.
I have only to be thankful, then, for a couple of consolations. One, and most importantly, the listening sure ain’t the worst thing in the world! A pleasure difficult to convey is a pleasure nonetheless… And, two, you don’t have to read much music journalism to realize I’m clearly not alone. It’s not just me, after all! Even people paid to do it often make music writing seem prohibitively tough. Between listening and writing, surely more is lost in translation than is ever ‘accurately’ captured.
Just think, how many times have you read in the music press some variation of ‘a sounds like x, y and z?’ X, y and z being reliably obscure, of course, so all the better to showcase the author’s impeccable taste and wide-ranging knowledge. But how few are the writers who can actually elucidate how good? and why?
And, back to my reason for writing today, how much easier was it for so many others to sell Amy Winehouse short? To focus on curiosities and quirks – hair cuts and hardship – rather than raw ability and songwriting flair? To miss the real distinctiveness of a truly special voice and only note of it, instead, that it ‘sounds black.’ To look at a troubled genius and conspire to see merely a caricature gawking awkwardly back.
So I’d love to do better myself – but know I’m ill-equipped to… Never mind that, though. Fortunately, I do know of one final thing much more gladdening to leave you with. I think it’s something in our bones and, after all, it’s probably the largest part of what’s worth writing anyway: when it comes to great music, or a great voice, you know it when you hear it.
In an age of ‘talent’ shows on television, when singing is ever-more synonymous with showing-off and every bit as unsatisfying, Amy Winehouse is the real thing. And wonderfully, thrillingly, exuberantly gifted.
You know it when you hear it.