“Just for a moment she rained tears like the spring thaw, and then she glinted radiance like the spring sun. There was so much to grieve over, and so much to celebrate, she did not know which to do first, and essayed both together, like April. But her age was April, and the hopeful sunshine won.”
-Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many, page 42
My God, this album makes me sad.
Amy Winehouse, of course, died of alcohol poisoning back in July of 2011, leaving behind a lot of unfinished material. Just in time for Christmas, her estate compiled and edited some of that work and released it as Lioness: Hidden Treasures. And every time I listen to it, it makes me ache a little.
Everything about it is sad. The vast majority of the lyrics are filled with sentiments of loneliness and aimlessness. The few exceptions, like the breezily optimistic opening track “Our Day Will Come,” are darkened with merciless irony. Not only is the album’s content wistful and forlorn, everything it reminds me of is tragic–that is to say, everything about the life of that blazing, erratic dynamo that was Amy Winehouse.
We were all constantly exposed to this poor girl’s gradual self-destruction. By the way, don’t think that it’s just a bleary post-mortem nostalgia that’s prompting me to talk about her this way. Yes, she was often a vicious, profane figure; no, her freely chosen lifestyle decisions were not wise, godly, or beneficial. Yes, she was, in other words, a broken and dangerous young woman. But people have been loved out of a lot worse, and there was still an image of God smothered beneath those phony eyelashes and beehive hairdos.
As our culture reaches deeper into its collective past for artifacts to brush off and revive (maybe as a form of escape from dreary modernity), two major pop music stars particularly embodied the resurgence of classy mid-century aural pleasure: Michael Bublé and Ms. Winehouse. But while Mr. Bublé’s voice is like a comfortable leather seat or cream spreading through a rich, dark coffee, Amy Winehouse was fire and smoke, sometimes curling and wispy, sometimes bold and smoldering. As unruly as her personal life might have been, the control she exerted over her voice box was just masterful, and it shows in every song on here.
But, as we all know, her own life was a mess. We know this because it was constantly subject to the pitiless glare of the tabloids and entertainment “reporters”, whose brand of petty, unremitting pseudo-justice wouldn’t let so much as a fashion faux pas go un-mentioned, let alone a disintegrating personality. And–also by way of this sort of seamy “journalism”–we know that Ms. Winehouse had successfully kicked her drug habit in rehab.
That’s maybe the part I find so heartrending. She might, just might, have been on her way towards a full recovery. If she was able, by God’s grace, to beat drugs, could she have conquered booze, too? Plugged In sums it up perfectly
when it calls Amy Winehouse “a lost woman who simply ran out of time to be found.” “Simply ran out of time.” I don’t usually like this sort of maudlin cliché, but I can’t do any better this time: The saddest word in the language is “almost.” And that’s what Lioness
is, the last known photograph of someone who almost made it. There have been a lost of posthumously released albums, and some of the most powerful are from Johnny Cash. But while his last few albums show an ever-looming awareness of his approaching end, not to mention a sometimes crippling sense of guilt, they’re also as affirmative as a blazing sunrise. Especially “Ain’t No Grave”, off the final addition to his discography, American VI
, features him sounding like an ancient but untiring Rottweiler, defiantly growling at Death.
Lioness never has this note. In both lyrics and in life, Amy Winehouse seemed adrift amid the lights and the noise. I hear this most obviously on the fourth track, a cover of the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, which is a song I just find terribly sad in the first place. The title alone is so plaintive and desperate that we can only imagine the song’s narrator has nothing left emotionally. She’s so hopeless she’ll even accept a guy’s silky seduction even while, in the back of her mind, knowing the odds that he means a single syllable are slim at best. It doesn’t help that, in my opinion, this is her best vocal performance on the whole album. Every time she belts out the chorus tears spring to my eyes and a shiver rushes up my back.
Yes, there was a lot wrong with Amy Winehouse. The last place for such a person was the wasteland of temptation and unforgiveness that is the pop landscape. It’s no wonder, honestly, that she’s gone so soon. Being a rock star is an inherently high-risk lifestyle. This is partially because all art is inherently a little dangerous (it’s a sort of self-mutilation), but particularly in our day, with its heightened nihilism and unprecedented access to wealth and indulgence, being a celebrity is dancing through a minefield. And it isn’t just that you’re prone to fall: It’s that there’s no mercy for you if you do. The media certainly will never take your side or offer you help, and will discourage any of your peers from doing the same. The Christian conviction is that the world will be healed by grace, and few groups are less prone to extend grace than the paparazzi–until after you’ve died, of course.
Back in 2008, Marco Perego created a sculpture of Ms. Winehouse lying dead in a pool of blood with an apple off to the side, while a bemused William S. Burroughs sits in a chair across the room from her with a shotgun on his lap. It hearkened back to Burroughs’ drunken accidental slaying of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a drunken game of “William Tell.” Perego explained that his controversially-titled work “The Only Good Rock Star is a Dead Rock Star” was a statement about how musical entertainers are society’s “sacrificial animals”, which is both valid and relevant, but it ended up being, in my view, faintly prophetic about his subject’s actual death. No, she wasn’t shot, but, like Joan Vollmer, another female artist with mental problems related to her drug use, she was caught up in a whirlwind world of creativity and collapse, and it spit her back out as a corpse. The title, too, takes on new significance in the wake of her passing. Is it a straightforward statement: All rock stars are scum? Is it an ironic commentary on how a rock star’s mythic status is only solidified after their death? Maybe it’s even simpler and quieter than all that. Maybe “good” is just a synonym for “safe.”
Nowadays, the acronym “R.I.P.” has become a flippant, meaningless bit of well-wishing in the direction of the grave, more for the benefit of the living (and what little benefit it is) than the dead. But it once meant something deep and serious: May the soul of this person finds its way into the eternal Sabbath rest of God’s kingdom. The Eastern Orthodox tradition emphasizes that all, at the moment of death, are enveloped in God’s unrestrained love. Heaven just means accepting this love, while Hell is resisting it. This is the cause of our hope for all of Adam’s race. Amy Winehouse is now wrapped in God’s love, and it’s up to her whether God’s fire will come to her as a purifying agent or as a source of anguish.
Until eternity–and perhaps not even then–we’ll never know how she’s responding to it. But we can say this with authority: Jesus identifies with the suffering.
He is to be found among prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners, and the Pharisees of his day clucked their tongues at him for dining with the Amy Winehouses of Jerusalem. And, whether she intended the symbolism or not, it is worth closing this piece by noting that one tabloid photo of her wandering the streets half-naked and mentally unhinged showed a Rosary tangled up with her bra. On that note, let’s remember these prayers from the Rosary:
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death…
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy…
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we sigh, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…
And, after this our exile….”