Posts Tagged ‘London’

The Best Time to Die: Landesman, Winehouse and Freud

July 25, 2011

I realize that my title sounds like a legal brief by a firm of solicitors working in probate, but it is not; rather it is the product of a marathon all-night rumination occasioned by the poignant coincidence of a trio of recent deaths of significant London-based artists.

I wonder what Lucien’s grandfather would’ve made of it all.

At least Freud and Fran got to live long lives, poor Amy joined the 27 Club that seems so cool at first, until you realize it’s full of the ultimate losers…


FREUD

I admit to never caring much for the artistic oeuvre that was Lucian Freud’s. His significance as a personality of London always intrigued me much more than his paintings which I thought brilliantly executed yet verging on repulsive.

Then again, my tastes in visual arts tend to be somewhat virginal; to borrow the words of the late great John Michell (once again) who also lacked appreciation for the likes of Freud and Bacon: I just want a good picture to look at. I don’t want anything particularly challenging or horrific on my wall. I’m into beauty. (Though it occurs to me that those who’ve complained of being disturbed by my Clancy Cavnar visionary art original, an electric blue grinning tiger, might question that assertion.)

His “genius” rep aside, I know I’m not alone in my ambivalence towards Freud’s confrontational vision. It’s been said that his portraits said more about him than they did about his subject and while this could be argued as both the goal and weakness of every Great Artist, in his case the inner landscape thus revealed was a mean one to my sort of mind. It may be counter-intuitive to seek ugliness in beauty and may be true therefore that such a strategy results in arresting and unsettling images, but I confess to preferring work that does the exact reverse.

Degenerate poet Jean Genet wrote that he wished to “become a saint by puncturing the abscess of shame” and though a somewhat melodramatic pronouncement, he didn’t short-change it in either his life or his work: the things he writes about are often low and vicious, but the descriptions are heaven.

Freud’s existentialism flips this on his head and forgoes finding the diamond in the excrement, instead choosing the fly in the ointment every time. I see very little kindness in his work and the tales that circulate of his scathing, if hilarious, wit do little to alter my impression of a man for whom bitterness was as sugar.

Something about Freud’s piercing eyes always hit me as vaguely demented, carrying a whiff of the not-an-altogether-nice-person in their gaze, and it’s unsurprising that he eventually fell out with Francis “slummin’ it” Bacon who found his cultivation of aristocrats more than a bit disgusting. Freud was impressed by rank and fame. As I’m an egalitarian, this bumps my respect down a few more notches.

Some insist that you should take an artist on the merit of the work and ignore his or her personal foibles, but the job of artist carries with it a boast of special powers with which to see into the soul; it’s probably not fair but we do indeed expect improving conduct from those who claim to have such insight. Concentrating on being a good artist doesn’t relieve one of the responsibility of being a good human. If anything, artistic greatness shines a stark light on any contradictions that may exist between one’s sublime expressions and one’s quotidian actions.

So while I gaze in puzzlement upon a Freud nude in which a famous beauty looks rough and haggard it’s not long before I start to wonder what the fuck his problem was and the next thing I’m nurturing my judgmental attitude towards serial impregnators. After all, they can’t possibly be a decent father to them all, a maxim Lucien certainly proved in his treatment of the 13+ that he sired.

No, say what you like about my bad taste, Lucien Freud is not my drug of choice. Such people often live to be quite old however, if only out of spite. Even so, it’s to his eternal credit that he painted right up until his death. I may not admire the results but that he worked the way he did is the measure of a true artist and I’d have to be a bigger bitch than he not to tip my hat.

If one agrees that Freud is macabre and a little bit scary as an old man then that vision of the geriatric as curmudgeon may find its ideal opposite in the form of that most wild and wise and funny lady of jazz and poetry, whose death on the same day as Mz. Winehouse received far less attention in the press despite her many decades at the very forefront of the cultural cutting-edge: Fran Landesman.

LANDESMAN

Freud and Landesman were both denizens of a nearly extinct art+alcoholism scene of London that I was precociously introduced to by my parents, courtesy of Muriel Belcher’s liberal policy of allowing 10 year olds to hang out at the old Colony Room Club on Dean Street across from which my father kept a flat in the late 1970s.

As I read the obituaries and tributes to both Freud and Landesman, recognizing names as I went, I felt quite lucky that I’d had a glimpse of a world of personalities with direct links back to that legendary French post-war scene of arts and letters which was populated with so many of my heroes; the present-day manifestation of which I am wholly unaware. It sez in the papers that Freud painted the photographer Harry Diamond and this jogs a memory: Diamond was the man who took my mother’s favourite photographs of us children before we left for America in 1978.

It could be argued that Landesman had the most successful life of the three – not only is some of her creative work already filed in the timeless classics bin but it seems to me that she was also the most happy, brought most happiness to those who knew her personally, and will thus be remembered most happily.

Is it an unflattering reflection of humanity, and the nature of celebrity that she is also the most obscure, internationally speaking?

I mean to say, when it comes to one’s death making the front page, she’s the odd one out from this trio.

So – to correct this terrible oversight in some small way, may I please request of all who read this, that as we mourn and commemorate the passing of three highly original contributors to the arts, let us raise our glass particularly high as we toast the life of one Fran Landesman. A life well lived and fondly recalled, not to mention having earned a place for all eternity in the pages of the standard songbook – now THAT beats 5 Grammy’s and 30 million dollar price tags hands down.

Yet though she did achieve recognition, and her reputation is undeniably stellar (as Ellington might’ve said if asked: “those who need to ask don’t need to know”), she is not what one would call a household name, as are Winehouse and Freud, a situation reflected in the title of the 2009 film of her life, Almost a Legend.

Why?

Winehouse couldn’t not become famous – it’s the hoped-for / dreaded, totally unavoidable, end-result if you decide to attempt success at the most populist and commercial end of the artistic spectrum. Freud had a famous last name to begin with so that even those indifferent to the art world would have remembered his reputation if they heard of it even in passing. This explains why though he belonged to an elitist world that alienates many, his name and reputation were destined to be known to far more than were actually familiar with his work.

Their careers were just as opposite in terms of duration but the poles curiously meet at the end: his longevity, his always-there-ness, his enmeshment in the cultural landscape of London, made his death nearly as unbelievable as Winehouse’s simultaneously shocking and unsurprising fizzle-out. Lucien Freud’s long presence then sudden absence conjures up an image of a page being ripped out of your London A-Z, whereas the here-today-gone-tomorrow, limited engagement show that was Amy Winehouse was more like a flash flood or an electrical storm; a wild disturbance that is over almost as soon as it begins, leaving a helluva mess and a bunch of dazed survivors in its junk-strewn path asking each other what the hell just happened.

Fran is different in that she occupies the unusual position of having created work that has seeped so deeply into the culture and consciousness that the masses are hardly aware of her at all. It will be years before we discover if Winehouse’s compositions are true lasting classics, but we already know that Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Bette Midler – are just a few of the undisputed greats who’ve lined up to record Tommy Wolf‘s setting of Fran’s poem Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most. From Chaka Khan to Rickie Lee Jones, the tippermost of the toppermost singers who love a great lyric have looked up to tiny Fran to put the witty words in their mouths.

I’m grateful to Greg Sams for getting me and my mother out to Farrago Poetry this past February just after her equally legendary husband Jay Landesman had died, to see one of Fran’s final performances of which I was lucky enough to get a decent recording. She was kind enough to remember us from the 70s and I was able to thank her for inspiring me to pursue my interest in writing. As a child, the only other female poet I was aware of was Christina Rosetti, who I loved dearly, but who died in 1894.

Given the above, isn’t it rich to read, as Cosmo Landesman claimed in his autobiography Starstruck, that his parents, Jay and Fran, were utterly and shamelessly motivated by the quest for fame when establishing their careers?

And yet, her work is deep. How did that happen?

WINEHOUSE

So now begins the inevitable debate about how “great” a talent Winehouse really was, or not. Platinum records and awards just obfuscate accurate assessment so I always make a point of ignoring things like that. Let’s just examine the work.

Literary prodigy Arthur Rimbaud hit an unlikely artistic zenith in his teens; Jimi Hendrix achieved totally complete, Beethoven-like artistry by the time he was 25, but I think Amy Winehouse coulda used a few more years to really show us, to really show herself, what she had inside, what stories she could have expressed. She had a lot of development still ahead and that to me is the saddest thing of all.

I got in an FB argument with someone who was being ghoulishly admiring of how she went in her prime to which I countered, “how do you know that?” Another “friend” must’ve gotten offended and deleted comments in which I posited that Miss Amy had died prior to attaining greatness.

I never met Amy Winehouse nor got to hear her sing live. Wish I had, but much more do I wish she had been friends with Fran and the old guard of survivors. Perhaps having idols among the elders, instead of the dearly (and prematurely) departed, would mean less young talent would go the way of never growing old. Parker, Holiday, Janis, Jimi…with heroes like these is it any wonder so many of us end up on the end of a spike?

The 27 Club member of which she most reminds me is Jean-Michel Basquiat – who tends to get excluded from these lists, presumably because his axe was a paintbrush and not a guitar – another precocious talent exterminated while still in his first flush of creative output. He also had a taste for hard drugs and destruction who wasn’t half the genius he coulda been had he lived.

You can’t tell me that at his death, Basquiat was as good as he was ever going to get, that if he’d lived a few more decades he would never have surpassed his early work. I don’t believe that of Winehouse either.

Dusty in Memphis was recorded when a 29 year-old Springfield was trying for a comeback. The album tanked at the time but is beyond dispute now as a modern classic. After an 18 year slump, she came back again, thanks to the Pet Shop Boys. One of the dudes in the Buena Vista Social Club was in his 90s before they had their first tour!

Or what about the triumphant late-blooming success of the bebop saxophonist Frank Morgan, another great I was fortunate enough to know in life? In his case, early acclaim and apprenticeship with no less than Bird himself was followed by a 30 year detour down Heroin Highway. Years in San Quentin gave him plenty of time to practice and with the help of a good woman he cleaned up his act and led the 1980’s jazz revival, playing O.G. to the Marsalis brothers and other youngbloods.

My youngest sister sent me some video clips I’d never seen before of Mz W in a very casual setting doing acoustic renditions of Valerie and a few other tunes, sitting in a chair in front of a microphone. I wept while I watched – to think she was dead – and yet at the same time I could not agree with those who say, yes I even dare to challenge Tony Bennett, that she sang from the heart. I was baffled by the Youtube comments below these candid clips that praised her emotional performance.

Though the sound of her voice – the quality of it – could not be faulted, it was all a bit blasé and uninvolved; at one point she was actually examining her fingernails while distractedly wailing, as if from no more than force of habit. Literally off-handed. Maybe she was high, I don’t know, but she sure wasn’t trying too hard. A lot of people commented that her singing sounded “effortless”. Well, yeah.

Can you imagine, say, Eva Cassidy – who in-arguably sang from the depths of her soul every time she opened her mouth – picking her cuticles while sat before a mic? When people use the same word “effortless” to describe Cassidy’s uncanny virtuosity they mean something else altogether. You could never say of her that she threw away a line.

I’d have to say I found Winehouse’s singing extremely attractive and stylish rather than honestly moving. The raw sound of it was just so yummy but I always felt like I was witnessing an easy display of a natural gift; like a double-jointed child showing off some freakish trick of the body she’d mastered to astonish the assembled.

Winehouse’s voice brings tears to my eyes when I hear it now (just had to leave a clothes store – she’s blasting out of every establishment hear in Brighton today) but it never did when she was alive.

No I never felt, as I did from Kurt Cobain‘s anguished acoustic performances for example, that Winehouse was willing to risk un-beautiful sounds in order to get to the heart of the matter. She had a distinctive and beautiful timbre and was a brilliant vocal actress who positively shimmered with attitude and sass, but wasn’t the tune always delivered with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek wink?

Listen to Kurt’s screams at the end of his priceless rendition of Leadbetter’s “My Girl” on Unplugged, not long before his death, also at age 27.

I guess what I’m saying is – I never heard the howl of pain in Amy’s singing voice and that’s ironic because pain is clearly what she was deeply in. Did she keep her tears to herself until they drowned her?

Or as one of Landesman’s poems goes:

We joke and smoke
And rock and rhyme
Through all the years
But underneath we spend our time

Close to tears

Winehouse may have penned a bouncy top-line to breezily convince us that tears dry on their own but those who indulge depression with solitude often wind up dead, as lost souls like herself seem stubbornly intent on demonstrating over and over again.

I know, I know. The beautiful tortured Kurt is dead too. So clearly getting it all out isn’t necessarily enough to escape inner hell alive, whatever Tears for Fears may claim about primal scream therapy. (Or maybe Kurt just needed to scream a whole lot more?)

I can’t help thinking that lots of attention and money when really young just isn’t good for certain kinds of people, e.g. sensitive artists. I can’t help thinking, especially in light of the recent News Of the World scandals, that the practice of making entertainment out of the private lives of public figures lives is sickening and homicidal and those who cater to it are as vile as the heroin and cocaine cartels that supply addicts with doom.

I can’t help thinking about all my dead friends who never made it past that crucial, exhilarating, difficult post-adolescent decade.

Amy Winehouse is undoubtedly set for big things in the afterlife. She will be eulogized, aggrandized, michaeljackson-ed, made better and more perfect in death than ever she was in life. Just as the bizarre canonizing of a once-disgraced and intrinsically-damaged MJ obscures the far more fascinating cautionary tale that coulda been his legacy, so too will the posthumous elevation of Mz Winehouse to the ranks of the truly great be a disservice both to the other members of that exalted company and the urgent message that her demise might more usefully transmit.

Boringly, attempts to glean lessons from the tragedy will focus on the so-called disease of addiction which this former junkie knows to be nothing more than a symptom of a much deeper void. The dubious and intellectually flawed 12 step philosophy that doesn’t distinguish between psychedelic revelation and heroin suicide will get another boost as will the war on (some people who use some) drugs.

The dis-honourable way talent is commodified by an industry that doesn’t know how to protect its fragile songbirds will be totally overlooked. How the poisonous cocktail of fame, money, and premature accolades destroys innocence will hardly get a mention. That the ways and methods of the tabloid culture and the profit-lust of the big record biz might actually be culpable in the development and exacerbation of their victims’ fatal addictions is not properly considered.

If you haven’t already and think you can stomach it, then watch this footage of Winehouse’s final shambolic performance in Belgrade It makes for harrowing viewing and looks almost like a parody of Midler’s impersonation of a seriously out-of-it Janis-type character in the film The Rose`. I was literally peering from between my fingers, and you will be too, at the sight of an utterly confused and blackout-wasted Amy coming in a half a bar late if at all, emitting weird gratuitous yelps from time to time, as if in desperate apology for the out-of-tune mashed-up way she was murdering her own hits.

An obvious question will doubtless spring to your mind as it did mine.

Who the hell let that woman onstage? Did she herself actually insist or did someone shove her out there, like in that scene from The Rose? It’s obscene.

There’s a heart-wrenching moment when she looks around completely baffled as if she’s just realized where she is and is about to cry…a pregnant pause and then some unseen hand gives the signal and the unmistakeable opening chords of Back to Black chime in from behind. Her reaction, and the look on her face reminded me of a calf in a rodeo being stuck with the cattle prod. The performing monkey jerks to life and for a few seconds, you see a fraction of a fragment of a glimmer of a spark of the natural born performer that was there before it degenerates into a sickening Dali-like distortion, her bump-and-grind dissolving into a revoltingly uncoordinated lurch that evoked a drunk truck-stop hooker hitch-hiking by the side of a dirt road.

Why is the record industry not taken to task for the growing pile of beautiful corpses its CEOs must step over on their way from the corner office to the bank? Instead, you can expect to read much hysterical nonsense in coming days about a human being that was just too good for this world. What rot. We should be taking care of such people.

In my opinion, Amy Winehouse was ever a hair’s breadth – as my friend ‘Q’ would say “just a cunt hair away” – from Greatness with a capital G; succumbing to the shadow long before she could fulfil her innate potential. I don’t dispute that the talent was Great all by itself but Citizen Kane, so to speak, was yet to come.

Amy Winehouse at 50? Now that would’ve been fucking interesting.

Imagine if Amy had matured as an artist to the point that she’d be able to deliver a tone-poem like Landesman’s “Scars” (reproduced in full below, in both audio and text) or even better – actually write a song as deep and multi-layered as that startling and stark, oddly tender ode with its opening lines of:

Don’t be ashamed
Everybody’s got scars
From our various wars
On the way to the stars

Perhaps if Amy had been less ashamed of her scars she might have been able to heal her wounds…

As it is, Amy dead in her youth will be forever stuck now as what psychologist James Hillman called the puella aeterna – never evolving past broken hearts and low self-esteem as subjects for songs. It would be as if the Beatles had broken up before they made Sgt. Pepper’s.

ME

I’m not dead, obviously. But in 1993, age 27, strung out on speedballs and courting my first record deal in New York City, I very nearly emulated those idols of mine who never hit 30. Owing to retroactive amnesia, I’m not really sure what happened but the result was 6 weeks in hospital recovering from meningitis and endocarditis simultaneously. I tell the story elsewhere and some reading this may have been around when it happened, so I won’t re-hash it other than to say that whenever I hear of an untimely death, whether due to dope, depression or disease, it causes me to recall that everything that’s happened in my life for the last 16 years might never have been.

To anyone who still thinks it “cool” to die in your prime or that death is “interesting”, the ultimate adventure, can I just tell you how fucking grateful I am to the mysterious stranger who saved my life and helped me reassess my romantic attachment to melancholy, the wrong drugs and the twisted beauty of doom.

During the preceding months and for a good few years afterwards, I lost a number of friends and friends-of-friends, some famous some not. I also experienced many years in the music industry wilderness, never achieving the goals I’d set for myself (through no fault of my own I’d like to think) ultimately feeling embittered and alienated, which mood had the happy result of leading me back to the written word.

In time, I’ve come to be grateful that the “media stardom” that was practically expected of me as a youth did not transpire when I was at that vulnerable age. And whilst on the subject may I heartily thank fucking goddess that camera phones had yet to be invented when I was croaking my way through a smacked-out set at CBGBs fronting a band called Fiend.

I’m not dead and I’m glad.

When’s the best time to die?

After you’ve done your best work,of course.

This time it’s Amy that’s the odd one out.

****

SCARS Performed by Fran and Miles Davis Landesman, February 25, 2011, RADA, London

(*recorded live at RADA foyer bar – Farrago Poetry event – February 25, 2011)


Don’t be ashamed
Everybody’s got scars
From our various wars
On the way to the stars
Don’t try to hide
Everybody’s got scars
From crashlanding on mars
With these egos of ours
Theres the one on your knee
Where you fell off your bike
Or the bite from a babe
that you love but don’t like
Theres the mess that you made
without counting the cost
Or the cut from a blade
Or the child that you lost

Don’t be ashamed
If your covered with scars
On this planet of ours
Thats the way we keep scores
So I’ll show you my scars
If you show me yours

In the streets and the bars
Everybody’s got scars
On their way to the stars
Everybody gets scars

**