Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Lionness' Posthumous Rage

If there's one thing a pragmatic upbringing and David Gahan of Depeche Mode have taught me, it's to stop and try walking in someone else's shoes before you think of condemning him or her upon sight.

That being said, I still have never really put together my thoughts about Amy Winehouse. On the one hand, there have been seldom few singers in today's artificially-aromatic pop scene where motherboards nurture questionable voices and return them back to the world carefully processed and prepped for mainstream approval. The trend these days, of course, is to utilize robotic voice scramblers to accent today's good good night pop dreck, reminding us we're on the threshold of bursting into the world of The Jetsons that technology so desperately seeks to crash into. Like, eep opp ork ahh ahh, man...

When I hear Amy Winehouse sing, or for that matter, Adele, I hear a pair of well-rounded vocalists whose interests in revivalism merely serve as the foundation of their craft. Winehouse, to me, was the pillow talk update of classic Motown and Stax, at least on her breakout Back to Black album.

After receiving her posthumous outtakes and miscelleneous goodies album Lionness: Hidden Treasures for Christmas, I realize Winehouse was on to something on a much broader scale. Still chasing the sweet effervesence of sixties soul and retro swing on her calypso-splashed covers of "Our Day Will Come," "The Girl From Ipenema" and her slow marching, rhumba-esque take on "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," it's no doubt Amy Winehouse might've one day issued an entire album full of R&B covers and she'd get away with it, sales-wise. The gal could hammer, no doubt. Listen to Amy belt away with Tony Bennett on "Body and Soul," thrown as a not-so-hidden track (but a cool treasure, yes) on Lionness. Only Bennett's rip with Lady Ga Ga on "Lady is a Tramp" (both songs appear on his Duets II album) outclasses this entertaining square-off. If anything, Amy Winehouse had become an unwitting fashionista of her trade.

Lionness has a number of previously-unheard recording sessions prior to Amy's success (and different takes, such as the original cut of her haunted "Tears Dry" and "Wake Up Alone"), including "Like Smoke," which features some pointless raps by Nas. The song stands on its own, but you see and hear Amy Winehouse branching into the new with a hair more pimp roll reminiscent of seventies funk. Then there's the overt hip hop ply which allows Nas to nestle in, even if I personally could do without him, no offense intended. Amy Winehouse and the Jurassic 5, however? That I would've loved to have heard. "Half Time" on this compilation proves Amy puts the hip into hip hop. J5 would've been natural collaborators.

I think the song that startles me the most and it might be the most revelatory track on Lionness, is "Between the Cheats." While we're only privy to the tabloid version of Amy's rambunctious marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, it's certain there was more drama behind closed doors than any of us could've known. Are we to assume Winehouse's self-destruction was triggered by unshakable despair? We often think performers who abruptly gravitate to the superstar ranks find themselves unable to handle the newfound pressure of fame. Said celebrities fall off the deep end and devolve into public spectacles, i.e. Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and the dukes of debauchery, Motley Crue.

Assuredly "Between the Cheats" is Amy's confessional that something was amiss in her marital life. Moreover, it explains how unshakably bound she was to Fielder-Civil until 2009. Blake-Fielder has become Public Enemy #1 to Amy's fans, as Bobby Brown has to Whitney Houston's. Houston and Brown's substance abuse remains a pictorial of two fragmented souls that are simply toxic for one another, yet something intangible represents the glue. Tina Turner managed to break away from her nihilistic spouse, Ike, yet Amy Winehouse succumbed inside her own miasma. If Fielder-Civil was a man of infidelity as Amy purports in "Between the Cheats," you get why she flushed her life away--at least you do partially.

It's hard for me to scrub clean the image of Amy Winehouse performing at The Virgin Festival I attended a few years back, headlined by The Police and featuring a round robin of rock, alt and pop rock acts such as Ben Harper, the Beastie Boys, TV On the Radio, Cheap Trick, Incubus, The Fratellis and others. Given the strength and bawdiness of Back to Black, I was excited to catch Amy Winehouse at this outdoor concert.

That was, until I saw the poor kid could barely stand up against her mike stand. The beehive was perfectly mounted, but her twiggy legs wobbled beneath a pair of oversized cuff-curled white shorts that would've snugly fit a woman around 120 pounds. Amy's tattoos dripped sweat and her trademark mascara ran, bandit-like from her eye sockets to her ears. For nearly six songs of her set, Amy looked like a foal, one that had gin slipped into its river-run drinking water. She forgot some of her lyrics, she staggered about, trying to find her backup band, who gallantly saved the set. As competent an ensemble as you'll find today, Winehouse's band rescued her until she was able to get it together on the last three songs. By then, the crowd had been murmuring how sorry she looked up there, how stinked-out wasted she was and unfortunately, the venue camera planted an unflattering image of Amy where it appeared a couple of her teeth were missing.

It was heartbreaking stuff, but it was also maddening, considering the fact Amy Winehouse dove for a substance-filled sanctuary after the Back to Black cycle had run its course. Some were laying bets her career was over. Most were wagering she'd never see middle age. She divorced Blake-Fielder, the latter of whom fell into irons. Sadly, those who bet on Amy's demise were on the money.

Even now writing my thoughts in light of Lionness' release, I can't shake the airs of capitalism away, considering Amy's estate swears this is not her final recorded moment. It's to be considered a gift to her supporters and fans, and to be fair, Lionness is a hell of an album for what it is. Whatever's coming next from Amy's estate will be dubious because of the leeriness behind it all. You never can tell if a surviving family's interests lie for the fans or for their own profits. Again, you have to remember to take a long walk, as David Gahan suggests, before passing final judgment.

All I can say in summation is that I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to see Amy Winehouse perform, but I sure wish my lasting impressions had been more favorable. At least we can see Winehouse's spirit carried on by Adele, who will be carrying her own demons as the cruel public and paparazzi get on her case about her weight while touting the praises of "Rumor Has It." Don't you suspect beneath the cheats they too had a hand in Amy's death?

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