A POINT OF VIEW
By Clive James
Troubled but talented - the insoluble Winehouse conundrum
Fans who say Amy Winehouse has a duty to her talent are twisting the argument - the duty of the greatly talented is to life itself, because what they do is life affirming, says Clive James.
When the American rap star Snoop Dogg gets into trouble, he goes from strength to strength. When the British singer songwriter Amy Winehouse gets into trouble, she goes from weakness to weakness. This is especially sad because, whereas you might think that Snoop Dogg has a talent from Hell, Amy Winehouse clearly has a talent from heaven. Already it has earned her millions of pounds, so you might say that her worries are working in her favour. But even the press is by now realising that it's callous to say so.
Last weekend a voluntary visit to the police turned into an overnight stay and the story was instantly in all the papers, but there was a new note detectable, as of a farce finally being recognised as an incipient tragedy. If there was ever any fun to be had from reading about her troubles, the point has been reached where there is no fun left even in writing about them.
Probably the best we can all do for her is not to mention her name except when buying one of her albums, so perhaps I am making a bad start. But I remember too well the first time I heard her sing and was so moved that my heart hurt.
When that young woman sings, it's the revelation of a divine gift - but when she behaves as if the gift were hers to destroy if she feels like it, you can't help thinking of divine wrath
And I also remember the first time that I saw her in real life. It was last year, in downtown New York. We happened to be staying in the same hotel, and I passed her in the foyer. She looked so frail that my heart hurt again, but in a different way. When that young woman sings, it's the revelation of a divine gift. But when she behaves as if the gift were hers to destroy if she feels like it, you can't help thinking of divine wrath.
Can't the same force that made her so brilliant give her strength?
Which brings us to the aforementioned Snoop Dogg, who has all the strength in the world. Whether he is brilliant is another question, which I don't presume to answer. As a lyricist who has made no more than a few hundred pounds over the course of a whole career, I try not to speak ill of any lyricist who makes thousands of pounds a week, even when I can't understand what he is talking about.
In Snoop Dogg's case I'm not sure that I'm meant to. At about the same time that Amy Winehouse was emerging from a police station again to be greeted by demands from her own father that she be sectioned as a soon as possible, Snoop Dogg was being cleared by a British judge from a no-visa order imposed on him in 2006 when there was a dust-up at Heathrow, that venue where so many memorable performances take place.
The Heathrow treatment
You will notice that I continue to refer to him as Snoop Dogg. It's easier than calling him by his real name, Cordozar Calvin Broadus. I hope I can pronounce it correctly. I'm not one to point the finger, because I myself found it convenient to abandon my unpronounceable original name, Balthazar Wickerwork Bruce-Barrymore. Nor do I hold against him his self-confessed earlier career as a pimp. As any female sex-worker will tell you when she has a knife to her throat, pimps perform a useful function.
Whatever his origins, Snoop Dogg is making money for the tax man
Anyway, he grew out of it, and became famous as a rap star. You can see, however, that the rapper's reputation might have been against him when he and his entourage were told that they were to be demoted from the Heathrow VIP lounge to life among the ordinary people, whereupon a fracas ensued and Snoop Dogg found himself face down on the carpet, an audience unresponsive to his charm. Subsequently he was denied a visa, despite his assurances that his purpose in this country would be to warn against private firearms, and not to glorify them. The rapper took the rap.
But recently a senior immigration judge overturned the decision, after viewing a tape of the incident. Those of us who don't like to be videotaped wherever we go might reflect that in this case a video tape served justice. Upon close inspection, the tape revealed, according to the court, that some of the staff involved might have been at fault.
One can't help feeling that a rapper's reputation for condoning violence might recently have been overtaken, on the scale of notoriety, by the reputation of Heathrow staff for doing the wrong thing on a massive scale at every opportunity.
Nevertheless, Snoop Dogg deserved a hearing for his contention that one of his reasons for wanting to be free to enter Britain would be to counsel this country's disaffected youth against guns. Snoop Dogg's argument is that he has seen a lot of people blown away and that the use of guns by ordinary citizens should therefore be discouraged. There is no reason for thinking that he does not feel this now just because some of his lyrics previously seemed to say the opposite.
Dogg and Dickens
When I listen carefully to one of his songs - a lot more carefully than I would like to, if the truth be told - I seem to hear him say that he's from the streets and he hangs with killers, by which I think that he means that he hangs out with killers, not that he suffers capital punishment in their company.
In the next line he seems to be saying that if he and his killer friends got problems then they're gon' bust them triggers. I think that means that they are going to fire so many shots that they wear their guns out, but it could just mean that they intend to voluntarily decommission their weapons.
Or it could mean anything, it's hard to tell. I'd be surprised if it meant anything conspicuously non-violent, but we must remember the artist's right to invent a character. It might be just the narrator talking, while the man who invented the narrator is a philanthropist. Charles Dickens, after all, invented Bill Sykes. Dickens wasn't himself a psychopath, and Snoop Dogg could easily argue that he is fundamentally a businessman.
He's certainly got the money to prove it, and if people are going to be shut out of this country for once having seemed to condone violence, I can think of a long list of candidates that I would put ahead of Snoop Dogg. Whatever his street-smart origins, he has become a prosperous taxpayer manufacturing a legitimate product people want.
It isn't a product I want. Watching someone making gang-signs at me with his fingers while his snarling mouth confuses loquacity with eloquence was tough enough when Ice T did it. But Ice T turned into one of the best actors on television, and Snoop Dogg, if he manages to dodge all the drive-by shooters who were stupid enough to take his lyrics literally, will probably end up with his face on Mount Rushmore.
Package holiday ad
And then there's Amy Winehouse, whose best songs really are works of art, no question. And she can actually sing them to you, in a way you would rather remember than forget. And yet she looks as if she can't wait until it's all over.
Billie Holiday, by the end, had reasons to feel like that. But at the start, she guarded her gift. And Ella Fitzgerald sang on into old age as if her gift belonged to the world, which indeed it did. Amy Winehouse, if she wished, might build up an achievement that could be mentioned in the same breath as those two: perhaps not as varied, perhaps not as abundant, but just as unmistakeably individual, and even more so because some of the songs would be composed by her, and not just handed to her on a piece of paper.
Like Winehouse, Holiday squandered her gift
It could be that she does wish to fulfil her vast potential, but she has another wish that conflicts: the wish for oblivion. It's hard to speak against that wish without sounding like an advertisement for a package holiday. As this world goes, there are ample reasons for wanting to be out of it even if your personal history is a comfort, and I imagine hers has been the opposite. But she knows all this. The proof is in some of her songs. The proof is in her voice. You don't get to sing like that unless you can give a shape to grief.
Not long before he died last week, Humphrey Lyttelton said that he admired the way Amy Winehouse sang and would have liked to meet her. Some commentators have wondered what he would have said. There's no telling. He was the prince of joy, and he might have told her that he was glad to have lived out a long life in music. The old Etonian would surely have admitted that he had begun his career in conditions of privilege, as she had not, and that he had always had the gift of happiness, which she plainly hasn't, or anyway does not have yet.
But he could have added that he only had to listen to a few bars of her singing to realise that she had been given the greatest gift a musician of any kind can have, and that a gift on that scale is not possessed by its owner, but does all the possessing.
Maybe that's what she's afraid of. When people say that you have a duty to your talent, they all too often mean that you have a duty to them. But they're misstating the case. The duty of the greatly talented is to life itself, because what they do is the consecration of life. I could end with something that Pavarotti once told me in his dressing room before I interviewed him. He wouldn't say it on air, for fear of sounding immodest. He said he knew his gift was from God. But perhaps a better ending would be what Philip Larkin said to the ghost of Sidney Bechet. "On me your voice falls as they say love should, like an enormous yes". Come on, kiddo. Give us a song.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I am a classical singer, currently studying for my Master's of music in opera performance. As someone who has chosen music as my career, I can say that this is a very common phenomenon - many people that are extraordinarily gifted as entertainers are also cursed with an inability to, "keep it together". Unfortunately for us in the classical world, there are many competitors, and if we can't stand the heat, we get thrown out of the kitchen. Amy Winehouse has won the public's affection and concern, but for thousands of other performers each year who suffer from depression, anxiety or anything else that might prevent them from performing at their peak level, there is no such luck. In that sense, Ms. Winehouse is a fortunate woman.
Kristin Gornstein, Boulder, Colorado
Not sure the Snoop/Amy analogy works. Snoop is a career man, making documentaries & TV shows. Not really the edgy character people got excited about in the 1990s when he was let into the country when apparently up for murder. Controversial Glastonbury performer Jay-Z might have been a better contrast, like Amy he has made millions, but unlike her, he's not remotely messed up. Maybe he's too much of a capitalist after heading a record label, bringing out the clothes line, dressing like the Great Gatsby, & pretending to retire several times. But he's very talented and very positive.
Does La Winehouse have a duty to anyone? Should people apparently dead set on destruction be left to it? Personally, I'm reminded of the quite negative Nick Cave - in the early to mid 80s he was in a very dark place and came through, writing a Faulkneresque book. There were relapses, but from the late 90s he seems to have got control of his demons and become extremely prolific with both music, soundtracks, and writing the screenplay to The Proposition.
Jason Parkes, Worcester, UK
The media loves the idea of a fall from grace - would people really write such high praise and sycophantic nonsense about Amy Winehouse if she was a clean cut and happy person? No, her descent into drink and drugs becomes all the more tragic and wasteful if she can be made out to be one of the worlds greatest singers, a Marilyn Monroe type story of an amazing talent cruelly cut short and tragically taken from us. Lets face it, Amy Winehouse is, historically speaking, at best a middling artist who has some very serious personal problems.
Chris Braithwaite, Cambridge
I too have been blessed with a gift like Amy. It doesn't flow from me at this moment due to pressures I put on myself to try and be perfect and to make money then there is external pressures which are numerous. She is seeking ways to escape from the pressures that stardom brings. Far from looking at Amy as destroying this gift she has, have you considered she might not feel worthy of this gift?
Shona Paterson, Fife, Scotland
This is just sad. I mean, I don't even like Snoop Dogg's music (not since his contributions to Dr Dre's The Chronic anyway) but this is plainly an arrogant Brit's shallow attempt to demean America, and make a hack like Winehouse, who's as equally bad as Snoop Dogg, look like the second coming of Billie Holiday. Mr James does little but state the obvious: that Mr Broadus is a businessman and he sells a product: clearly things that Americans value (and Brits too, but don't tell him). He polarizes this with the ludicrous accusation that America would put Snoop Dogg on Mt Rushmore. But he states it in reductio ad absurdum style as if to suggest that Americans are so stupid, we would. That if the product sells well enough, we will celebrate him with his face carved into the mountain, or moon, or whatever we can find.
Todd, New York, NY
My experience as an artist is that you can never receive inspiration by leading a 9 to 5 life without any emotional upheaval. You need heartbreak, joy, and yes, some think they also need some other kind of stimulation to perform, record or write. Otherwise you die as an artist. It may kill you as a person, but if what you are is an artist, it is a choice that some artists actively make. How often do we hear of artists pegging it prematurely? There are plenty of people who enjoy what artists give us, but they fail to see the price they have to pay to maintain their inspiration.
Dr Jules, Lubeck, Germany
This is an astonishing article for Clive James to put his name to. It meanders all over this place with a message that is as vague as it is trivial. The rather unhealthy obsession of Mr James with the life and work of Snoop Dogg is a particular "highlight" - what's the snizzle my Antipodean bizzle? Word.
Hugh Kenneth, Glasgow
It's a crying shame that the Amy Winehouse Show has unfolded the way it has. When I first saw her at Glastonbury (may have been as long ago as 2000) she was fresh faced and looked very together, she's an utter state now. I know she's doubtless surrounded by a gaggle of fawning sycophants who dish out gear to her willy nilly (which surely doesn't help), but nobody's holding a gun to her head and making her do it.
Let's be honest; she enjoys getting off her head, she has enough money and status to have it near enough on tap and she's like a kid in a sweetshop with it all. Ouch! Bad combination. With any luck she'll come through the other side and it'll make her stronger.
Dave Stalker, Bournemouth
Stars like Amy should be sanctioned by government and stop corrupting the millions of youths who see her as heroine (heroin). From her dressing to the way she smokes and the way she tattooed her body and all those drug related stories, I think it is high time government began to pay attention to stars, celebrities and models who now make serious impact in shaping the lives of children and youths. My simple counsel to her is that she should remember Michael Jackson and gain wisdom. God gave her gift and He can take it away. It is time parents and government join hands to take a stand against stars and celebrities who influence the lives of their children and are driving their children to hell. Stars like Amy should be black-listed by the press and media - unfortunately this may not be possible. If politicians are scrutinized and dealt with severely for immoral and corrupt practices because they are public figures, much more these stars and celebrities should be treated same way. Let her know - flowers will fade.
Olakunle Esho, London, UK
Thank you Clive James for writing the most illuminating, intelligent and heartfelt piece I've ever read about Amy Winehouse. You are so right that the proof is in her songs, but mostly in her voice and body. Through her art she draws us into our desperate hearts and aching hurts. If I could say something in closing to Amy: it's OK to have that "destructive side a mile wide", but don't forget that your nurturing side is a thousand miles wide. And if you are still into listening to great music, go listen to Cat Power sing Woman Left Lonely. Yep, a little comfort goes a long way in a sensitive situation.
Kathleen Hunter, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
"[Humphrey Lyttelton] had begun his career in conditions of privilege, as she had not." Oh give me a break. A hard life of her own making. Two stage schools, a loving family, and an Ivor Novello award at 21.
Clearly Clive James did not need to say these things about Amy, nor could he have expected to gain any benefit from doing so. But his comments seemed both as true, humane and life-enhancing as any one person could utter about another. It was a wonderful piece that restores faith in human nature. He was completely without any maudlin, patronising, sentimental, intrusive, awkward, sycophantic, or otherwise celebrity-related feeling, and beautifully expressed what I myself would have wanted to say to the talented Ms Winehouse. Very occasionally an intellectual finds the words to move profoundly both the intellect and the emotions. Let's have more humanity like this.
Malcolm Young, Hexham
For the sake of performers with the kind of ruinous lifestyle attributed to Mrs. Winehouse it is necessary to reform the copyright law so that it is no longer possible to throw away one's existence while living off the exorbitant proceeds of one or two hit records. "Rehab" is nothing compared to the sobering effect of having to earn your crust week-by-week.
Kevin, London, England
She doesn't have a sublime talent. She has a fairy distinctive, but awful, nasal voice and copies established melodies. She is not the talented woman the media makes her out to be. She is merely very well connected and completely self-obsessed. A grown woman, she puts herself on everyone around her to look after her, it's absolutely pathetic. And as for drug taking, she is committing crime day in, day out yet the police are failing in their duty to arrest and charge her for possession.
Laura Roberts, London, UK
I'm a fan of all the artists you mentioned apart from Snoop Dogg. What pleases me is the fact that you put Amy up where she belongs with the greats. Thank you. It was a relief at last to read recognition of Amy Winehouse's huge talent and of concern for her well-being instead of those who ridicule her for her fragile state of mind. Billie Holiday's life was curtailed too soon due to her inability to gain control whereas Ella, although she had problems, survived - though perhaps not always happily. I just hope Amy can conquer her demons and cut herself free from those who seem determined to bring her down.
Angela Williams, Cambridgeshire
Everyone has talent but whether an individual discovers it is a different matter. Whilst I am a great fan of Amy's music I think that the pressures of fame are obviously too much for her to cope with. Her drug abuse is distasteful but I believe this is the outlet she uses to cope with these pressures rather than her musical ability. I don't think that she should be overly criticized for her personal behaviour in itself but now she has become an iconic figure it is worrying that those within society use her failings as an excuse to not pursue their own talents and embark upon a life of drug abuse.