Tag Archives: Amy Winehouse

Music critic Greil Marcus’ ‘10 Songs’ will rock Alverno

When it comes rock ’n’ roll journalism, few writers boast a greater pedigree than Greil Marcus — many argue the veteran Rolling Stone contributor invented the genre.

But where the San Francisco native outpaces the pack of music writers and fans is in his view of what rock music means from a cultural perspective. Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll explores the impact of rock on American culture and mythology through the stories of Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. Time recognized Mystery Train in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential nonfiction works published since 1923.

Marcus’ latest book is The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, published in 2014 by Yale University Press. In this history, Marcus selects 10 songs — some familiar, others perhaps not — and dramatizes how each embodies rock ’n’ roll. The songs, the writer says, contain the whole DNA of rock.

Forget Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Marcus says. Listen instead to “Transmission” by Joy Division, “All I Could Do Was Cry” performed by Etta James (and later, Beyoncé) and Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him,” first recorded by the Teddy Bears and covered much later by Amy Winehouse, among others. 

Like a good rocker, Marcus is touring. His road show arrives in Milwaukee on Nov. 20, part of Alverno College’s Alverno Presents series. Joining the author will be Jon Langford and Sally Timms (The Mekons), who will provide additional commentary and musically illustrate aspects of the songs that led Marcus to place them on his list.

WiG recently talked with Marcus about rock criticism, his book, the history of rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs and who and what didn’t make the list.

What prompted you to define rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs? I was asked by Yale University Press to write a history of rock ’n’ roll. I said it was a terrible idea, had been done to death, that there was a master narrative of all the people from Elvis to Nirvana and beyond that you had to talk about, of all the events from Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show to Woodstock and beyond that you had to talk about, and who would want to do all that again?

But I kept thinking about it and the idea of telling the whole story in just a small number of songs — I originally thought of 16, a nice rock ’n’ roll number — interested me. Especially, if you left out everything you otherwise couldn’t leave out. So, no Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tupac or Nirvana. Name someone who had to be there and rest assured he or she wouldn’t be.

That was the premise, along with a kind of secret list. A lot of people have realized that if you could find the whole history of the form in 10 songs, you could also find it in one song, almost any song. I succeeded, except for the Beatles. There was just no way to keep them out. They are the history of rock ’n’ roll in one band.

Your choices are unorthodox, or at least none that I would have expected to be included on the list. How did these particular songs fit the bill? When I started there were only two songs I knew I would write about: The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” and Joy Division’s “Transmission.” The others made their way into the book while I was writing it.

I never would have even thought about “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” an embarrassing No. 1 1958 hit by the Teddy Bears, if I hadn’t heard Amy Winehouse’s version on the radio after she died. I knew I had to write about it. The song sailed into the book from out of nowhere.

The book organized itself around songs I wanted to write about — or songs I’d always loved and had never written about, like the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.” I wanted to see if I could find a story in them that I could tell.

Did you consider lyrics, melody/harmony, social implications or a combination of those and other factors when you made you choices? None of those things. If the history of rock ’n’ roll could be found in any one interesting song, then I could write about any song I wanted to write about, if I could tell its story.

I wasn’t in any way interested in what influence a song might have had outside of itself. “Shake Some Action” has probably influenced a lot of hearts, but perhaps no other songs. The Beatles’ version of “Money” is so big it couldn’t have influenced anyone, unless it was to convince them to quit before they started.

Jon Langford and Sally Timms from The Mekons will be on hand to perform during your Alverno presentation. Why did you choose them to participate? Jon and Sally are old friends. I actually appeared — I don’t know if I can say performed — with the Mekons some years ago at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. We did a show based on my book at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago last year. And we had so much fun we wanted to do it again.

I will talk and read from the book, they may talk and read from the book, but also play songs from it. There will likely be analyses from them directly, but their interpretations of the songs are analyses of the songs. 

Are there any rock songs and artists that people might consider a serious omission from your list? Of course there are. I dedicated the book, “To everyone I left out.” But the 10 songs are not meant to be the 10 best songs, the 10 most important songs, the 10 anything songs. They are a constellation of songs, all rushing off in different directions, bumping into each other, just missing each other, smashing together and coming out differently.

Given your extensive body of work, does this presentation/book represent next-generation thinking for someone who clearly looks beyond the current music scene? For me the book is a kind of conversation, with the different songs and performers talking to each other, listening to each other, as we might hear any of these songs in a single day on the radio. (And there are stations at the back of the end of the dial that might even play Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag” soundtrack).

So for that conversation, I wanted men and women, black people and white people, people from the 1950s and people from the 2000s. I really do believe they all speak the same language and would have no trouble understanding each other. When Jon and Sally play, I think that is what their performance will say.

Greil’s Ten Songs

“Shake Some Action,” by the Flamin’ Groovies

“Transmission,” by Joy Division

“In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins

“All I Can Do Was Cry,” by Etta James and
Beyoncé

“Crying Waiting Hoping,” by Buddy Holly

“Money (That’s What I Want),” by the Beatles 

“Money Changes Everything,” by The Brains and Cyndi Lauper

“This Magic Moment,” by The Drifters

“Guitar Drag,” by Christian Marclay

“To Know Him Is To Love Him,” by the Teddy Bears and Amy Winehouse

ON STAGE

The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, featuring Greil Marcus, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, will be performed Nov. 20 at Wehr Hall, 3400 S. 43rd St., Milwaukee. Visit alvernopresents.alverno.edu for more information.

Celebrity is the villain in new Amy Winehouse film

Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy” is a slow, tragic zoom out. It begins with the intimacy of home movies and ends in far-away paparazzi footage. Our VIP access has been revoked.

First seen as a bright-eyed 14-year-old girl singing a knockout “Happy Birthday,” Winehouse gradually recedes from our view as her renown grows, obscured by a blizzard of flashes and a deadening haze of celebrity. Fame arrives like fate: a destiny foreshadowed by Winehouse’s self-evident talent and her own ominous misgivings. “I would go mad,” she says of fame before its tidal-wave arrival. 

“Amy” is an exceptional, emotional portrait of a pop star who perished too young. But it is, more broadly, a clinical case study of celebrity’s crushing onslaught and an indictment of its tabloid apparatus. It’s a horror movie.

The ingredients of Winehouse’s swift demise (she drank herself to death at age 27 in 2011), as seen in the film, are many: a broken family, her own self-destructiveness, a lack of timely intervention. But most haunting is the film’s close-up of a toxic celebrity culture where out-of-control addicts are merely punchlines for late-night hosts.

Kapadia, a British filmmaker who started in fiction film, eschews talking heads. His tremendous documentary “Senna,” about the Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, who died at 34, relied entirely on archival footage, and he’s done the same with “Amy.” It’s an elegant, uncluttered approach that maintains closeness with the subject and gives “Amy” an unbroken drama.  

Both films replace hagiography with evidence (archival video, audio testimony, even old voicemails), but the purity of Kapadia’s aesthetics shouldn’t be mistaken for perfect objectivity. He and editor Chris King have pointedly, expertly assembled snapshots of Winehouse’s life to lend a particular view of it.

Winehouse’s family — especially her father, Mitch — have publicly denounced “Amy” as “misleading.” That, though, should be taken as a good sign of Kapadia’s independence in making “Amy.”

The film is disarmingly intimate. There is Winehouse, an aspiring singer, playful and flirty in the backseat of a car, goofing around with friends and a video camera.

The rise of this insanely charismatic Jewish retro-soul singer from North London seems a certainly to all who encounter her. The voice, smoky and soulful, is unmissable. “A charmer,” describes Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), immediately infatuated by “a sweetheart” who could drink anyone under the table and roll a smoke.

Her upbringing casts a pall. The divorce of her parents when she was nine (also the age when Kurt Cobain’s parents split, as noted in the recent documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”) after an admitted seven-year affair by her cab driver father, is cited as a turning point for the worse. Mitch Winehouse also figured into his daughter’s autobiographical hit “Rehab”: “I ain’t got the time and my daddy thinks I’m fine.”

Winehouse’s early, friendly entourage give way to more professional and an arguably less protective group of promoters. The missed opportunities to help her slide by. She and her eventual husband, the troubled Blake Fielder-Civil who introduced her to crack, descend into drugs. In a mocking video Fiedler-Civil shoots while both are in rehab together, she’s less inclined to make a joke out of it: “I don’t really mind it here,” she says.

Kapadia has gotten everyone close to Winehouse to speak, and the interviews are more personal having been  taped off-camera. A sense of helpless mounts as Kapadia searches for a guardian for Winehouse. Instead, he finds her father arriving at her post-rehab getaway in Saint Lucia with a TV crew for his reality show, “My Daughter, Amy.”

There may be something a tad callous in seeking blame among those she loved and who loved her, four years after Winehouse’s death. Black-and-white villains rarely suit such tragic stories. But “Amy” is a clear-eyed, deeply empathetic view of Winehouse, whose huge talent and sudden fame made too many forget she was still just a vulnerable young woman in serious need of help. 

British diva Paloma Faith could be one of 2013’s breakout stars

Poised to be one of the big musical breakout stars of 2013, British diva Paloma Faith comes across as a sober and sane Amy Winehouse. Her domestic debut “Fall to Grace” (Epic) is a lustrous showcase for her remarkable vocal range. Heavily influenced by American R&B vocalists from bygone days, Faith can belt like the best of them, infusing songs such as “Picking Up the Pieces,” “Just Be” and “When You’re Gone” with a maturity belying her youth. She unleashes her inner dance diva on the track “Blood, Sweat & Tears.”

I spoke with Faith shortly before the release of the disc.

Your debut disc was released in 2009 and its follow-up, “Fall To Grace,” was released stateside at the end of 2012. What was happening during that three-year period?

I was quite popular in the U.K. I think my first album went double platinum, but only in the U.K. To my frustration, there was no real mention of it in the States. Basically, I spent 18 months touring and promoting it. Then I took a year to write this new record.

You co-wrote most of the dozen songs on “Fall to Grace.” Where do you find inspiration for your songs?

I don’t write music, because I can’t play an instrument. I write lyrics. All the words you hear on the record are from me. I find inspiration from conversations that I hear passing or that I have. I always have a notebook with me, and I write lines or words or sentences down that I think would be inspiring. Then when I go into the studio I read out the possibilities to whomever I’m working with and usually let them choose what they’d like to work with. Then I respond to the music they’re playing.

So is the “agony and suffering” in the song “Agony” a personal statement or something you observed?

It was a personal one. I was going out with someone who was addicted to drugs. I really, really liked him, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stay with him because I don’t want to create a world of hits for myself (laughs). I tend to get out of those relationships (laughs).

That’s very wise.

(Laughs) It was all a bit like, “Oh. I’ll enjoy it for another couple of weeks” kind of situation.

Because your sound has a retro pop feel to it, I was wondering where Lulu and Dusty Springfield fall on your influence spectrum?

To be honest, I think most of my influences are from American music. My all-time favorite singer is Etta James. I grew up listening to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald – Peggy Lee, all those kind of people. I’ve always loved Tina Turner and women who have balls when they sing, but they’re all American.

Your music videos are wonderful productions. Are the costumes in some of the videos a carry-over from your theater days?

Probably, but I’ve always kind of dressed up. I’ve always dressed in a kind of contemporary vintage way, ever since I was about 18.

You make good use of your acting in your videos and have also been acting in motion pictures. What do you like about acting?

I like the escapism of acting. What I do as a musician is very personal and autobiographical in a way. When I’m acting, I remove myself from it and I’m embodying another character or another person, really. I find that part exciting for me – it’s the escapism.

“Blood, Sweat & Tears” is a house music anthem that is sure to appeal to your gay fans dancing in the clubs. Have you made appearances in gay clubs?

Yeah, I have played in the big London gay clubs. Gay radio stations, as well.

Do you feel like you have a strong embrace from your gay fans?

Absolutely.

Earlier this year you recorded a video backing the Out4Marriage campaign, saying that you are “proud” to be a supporter. Have you had the opportunity to sing at any same-sex weddings?

No! I wish! When I recently performed in a gay club, I was saying that I really hate heterosexual marriages. If anybody wants to invite me to their same-gender marriages, I prefer those.

Is there a specific song you’d like to sing at a gay wedding?

I’ve sung at weddings before and usually I sing “At Last” by Etta James.

Is there anything else you want people in the States to know about you?

I mean well (laughs).

To purchase “Fall From Grace” from Amazon, click here.

Singer Amy Winehouse dead at 27

Amy Winehouse, the soul-jazz diva whose self-destructive habits overshadowed a distinctive musical talent, was found dead Saturday in her London home, police said. She was 27.

Winehouse shot to fame with the album “Back to Black,” whose blend of jazz, soul, rock and classic pop was a global hit that won five Grammys. It made Winehouse – with her black beehive hairdo and old-fashioned sailor tattoos – one of music’s most recognizable stars.

“I didn’t go out looking to be famous,” Winehouse told the Associated Press when “Back to Black” was released. “I’m just a musician.”

But in the end, the music was overshadowed by Winehouse’s demons, AP reports. Tabloids broadcast her erratic stage appearances, drunken fights, stints in hospital and rehab clinics. Performances became shambling, stumbling train wrecks, watched around the world on the Internet.

Winehouse, who acknowledged having sexual relationships with women, was widely reported to be bisexual. Her two-year marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil ended in 2009, when he filed for divorce claiming that his life with Winehouse was “intolerable” and citing her admission of adultery in April 2008, while he was in jail.

Winehouse had a large gay following, according to WiG entertainment editor Gregg Shapiro.

“Because of her distinctive look she was very popular in the drag community,” Shapiro said. “Her songs were original and there was something very camp to her stuff. She had a great voice, she was a great songwriter. Who knows what could have come next? She only had two full-length records. That’s her legacy. It’s sad. It’s a great loss.”