Winehouse, The 27 Club and Addiction (NEH Magazine)

Below is an opinion piece I wrote for the August/September Issue of NEH Magazine. It weighs in on Amy Winehouse and addiction, as well as the illustrious 27 Club of musicians.

Winehouse, The 27 Club and Addiction

Recently, singer Amy Winehouse passed away.

Some have expressed their condolences and R.I.P.s. Others have sarcastically played dumb to the idea that she may have passed away at the hands of her vices, while others have taken the opposite approach of name calling and accusation hurling. (However obvious it may appear given her documented personal problems, as this piece goes to print her cause of death is still “unexplained” and “unfounded”, and there were no drugs found in her North London home).

Many tributes have positively highlighted her successful singing career. They compare her to the great soul singers of the past and recount the hip-hop-meets-punk-meets 60’s soul attire and attitude that became her trademark, how she’d been branded. They recap her reaction to landing a Grammy award and reflect on how it’s a shame she wasn’t able to release more recorded material.

As expected in a high profile situation like this, pertaining to someone who’s no stranger to media scrutiny for past indiscretions, other tributes have been rather negative, bordering on tasteless. Days after she passed, I saw a Facebook photo album titled “Amy Winehouse’s Last Binge” where two sisters from Canada reenacted the course of events they assume led to the singer’s last breath. Dressed in white wife beater tops and sporting the winged, cat-eye makeup she was known for, the photos also reveal Winehouse-esque knock-off tattoos drawn in pink marker displaying the words “slut” and “slag” temporarily adorned on their arms. The sequence of 32 pictures takes the viewer through a binge drinking session leading up to passing out on a fire escape, and ultimately, her passing.

Nevertheless, how you want to pay your tribute or remembrance (respectful or not) is your choice. Personally, I’ve always appreciated her music, even when it wasn’t cool to be a fan, and have accepted the flack flung in my direction from others for admitting it. That however, is not what I am interested in writing about.

There are two things I find interesting about the Winehouse saga:

1) What’s up with the age 27?
2) I believe some people make better music when they are up against addiction.

Winehouse is the newest member of the 27 Club, aka Curse of 27. In my younger, classic rock influenced years (60’s and 70’s classic rock, not the 80‘s and 90‘s stuff that some consider classic now) fellow stoners and I would discuss this phenomenon amidst incense smoke and lava lamps. Listening to the hot CD of the moment, or dusting of an LP when feeling nostalgic, we’d ponder the anomaly: Rock icons Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison (not to mention Brian Jones for the Stones fans and “Pigpen” McKernan for you Deadheads) — how could you all have died at the age of 27?

It was during this period that one of our own joined the club. The difference this time? Kurt Cobain took his own life. It’s believed that Joplin died of a heroin overdose. Hendrix suffocated on his own vomit after chasing pills with booze. Morrison of heart failure.

In the book Heavier than Heaven (which is a must have for any Nirvana enthusiast; I have read it twice), Cobain’s sister mentions that he joked about joining the club as a child. With that in mind, does his self administered cause of death change your thoughts on him compared the others on this list? Does it cloud the mystery surrounding this fraternity of musicians? Is it possible that inclusion in this exclusive club, obviously coupled with some pretty extreme personal problems, led to him sticking a shotgun in his mouth? Who’s to say the others didn’t off themselves as well, just in a less conspicuous manner?

As we wait for the results on Winehouse’s cause of death, one can’t help but wonder the circumstances that lead to her demise and consummate inclusion in this illustrious group of influential musicians.

Side note: Something else I saw on Facebook following the Winehouse death was a reference to the members of the 27 Club having been murdered by the Illuminati, followed by the statement, “THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE”. Seems reasonable to me.

To tackle the second statement, a quick brainstorm will shed light on why so many musicians end up with substance abuse problems. Performance anxiety for example. The need to take the edge off before stepping on stage to entertain a crowd of paying fanatics has been well documented. Think about it. How much more comfortable are you in the NoRaeBang (karaoke room) after you’ve been drinking? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Then there’s the money. What else are you supposed to do when your last tour results in a grip of merchandising cash and an endless supply of groupies? Snort coke off a stripper’s ass, stay up for weeks on end and count the days until the album drops — that’s what.

Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll. It all goes hand in hand. I’d go so far as to say it’s expected.

I don’t condone substance abuse and wouldn’t wish addictive, unhealthy and destructive behaviors upon anyone. However, you can’t deny the fact that some musicians make amazing music when faced with addiction. To even get into listing them feels absurd. How could you even do it? Once you start, you can’t only include some of the greats and leave certain others out. You would have to keep adding to it, and adding to it. The vast quantity of notable artists would simply take too much space.

To take this idea a step further, one might even say that some artists have made better music using, than not using. This list too may be immense, but a quick few come to mind. Anyone who prefers “Living On The Edge” Aerosmith to the “Train Kept a Rollin” version of the early ‘70’s needs to have their head examined. The new version of what once was a blues based rock n’ roll juggernaut makes me want to vomit the cotton candy and lollipops I was forced to consume while giving it a listen.

Consider the acid-jazz, sample heavy, beatnik electro-experimentalism genius of Soul Coughing. Drugs tore the band apart. But now we’re left with an optimistic Mike Doughty. I heard him chastising fans in the year 2000 at a show at Berbatti’s Pan in Portland for smoking weed. Don’t get me wrong. I love him, a lot, and have seen him perform solo at least eight times. But I can’t do it anymore. His first solo outings, selling home made “Skittish” CD’s out of a guitar case, still held up. But the recent music isn’t cutting it. As horrible as it may sound, a sunny Doughty doesn’t interest me. Good for him and his lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean I have to spend money on it. “Golden Delicious”, well, it tastes like shit. I’m waiting for the new electronic music he’s been promising, maybe that will turn my frown upside down.

This brings me to one last idea: can we ponder the phrase performance enhancing drugs? The term is typically reserved for athletes using substances to get bigger, faster and stronger, resulting in a more dominating performance on the playing field. Why not also use it when referring to musicians who crank out the hits while saddled with addiction?

Try to overlook that drugs and alcohol can impair your responses, limiting your physical abilities. That’s too logical. I’m not concerned with the mechanics required to pull off a technical masterpiece. I’m talking about the heartfelt music from your soul, that can only come from a place of loneliness and despair. For the people creating extraordinary music from that dark place, how they arrived there was often addiction.

All this is not to say that good music can’t be composed in sobriety. Unfortunately, because of the negative effects of drug abuse, we were never able to see what might have been produced by a Lane Staley, Bradley Nowell or Kurt Cobain practicing self restraint (can you tell when I grew up?). To go along with that, obviously there are artists who have recovered, or who never started using, that make great music. Remember the “straight edge” movement?

Come on though, Winehouse just died. What else am I supposed to write about?

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on September 30, 2011.

One Response to “Winehouse, The 27 Club and Addiction (NEH Magazine)”

  1. The Happy Mondays are definitely an example of a band that made terrible music when using! To be fair, they were using drugs like ecstasy when they made their first, successful album, but the record label had an expensive waste of time trying to coax a second album out of them once they moved on to harder stuff.

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