They tried to make me go to rehab and I said no, no, no...
-- Rehab by Amy Winehouse
Some 2,500 years ago, Buddha offered the advice that the best path through
life is the middle way. The former prince who gave up his kingdom and
all its pleasures to live naked and alone in the forest prior to becoming
a holy man learned that too much or too little of anything was no good.
In particular, he meant money, fame and power.
We seldom think about the benefits of the middle way here in the West
where songs such as If I Had a Million Dollars by The Barenaked Ladies
and I Want to Be a Billionaire (so freakin bad) by Travie McCoy spell
out the daydreams of millions of people. Winning the lottery, bagging the
cute bachelor on TV, dancing to the stars and the meth-rush euphoria of
being named an Idol are the dreams of our society as expressed in the
media. No one wants to get voted off the island, even though that might
offer a saner, happier life.
But considering the death of torch singer Amy Winehouse, one might pause
to consider Buddhas advice on just how unhappy one can become by having
Winehouse is in the 27 Club now, occupied by musicians who died on or
around that age at the peak of their powers. Jim Morrison -- died of an
overdose in a bathtub in Paris. Jimi Hendrix -- choked on his vomit while
ODing on drugs. Robert Johnson -- poisoned with strychnine at age 26 by a
jealous husband. Hank Williams -- drank himself to death at age 29.
Janis Joplin -- heroin overdose. Kurt Cobain -- suicide by shotgun.
Winehouse picked up the torch dropped in the 60s by British soul singers
such as Petula Clark and Lulu and turned its flame a cool blue. She had a
voice that could snake around a phrase like a python, embracing the notes
in a millisecond and squeezing the agony and anguish from a song straight
into your heart.
Add the beehive doo, the road map of tattoos, toothpick arms. alleycat
attitude and kohl-dark eyes of an ancient Egyptian princess and Amy
Winehouse was certainly a woman to remember.
But a lot of female singers have the ability to wrangle a note, even here
in Northern Michigan, and one could argue that what took Winehouse to the
top was her pursuit of dark material as exhibited on her breakout 2006
album, Back to Black.
On that album, which earned Winehouse several Grammys and critical
acclaim, the theme of the songs tended to be rehab, drinkin and doin
blow. And of course the obligatory broken heart song or two.
One might argue that this would be fertile territory for a singer-surviver
whos been around the bar and booze scene for a few decades -- Lucinda
Williams comes to mind -- but Winehouse was only 21 when she recorded this
material. Obviously, if you feel compelled to dwell on your rehab troubles
at that age, youre neck-deep in trouble.
One could also argue that her get-drunk shtick did more to turn her into
the butt of jokes on Leno and Letterman than it did to advance her career
in the U.S. It seems likely that Amy will sell more downloads from her
coffin than she did while she was among us.
One of lifes great lessons is be careful you dont get what you wish
for. The dream job turns out to be a nightmare; the beautiful woman or
handsome man you pursue and place on a pedestal turns out to be a monster
who eats you alive. The fame shot through your veins like a drug burns
you from the inside out... That last bit is the theme of Eminems albums,
Relapse and Recovery.
Pop music is full of stars who got the keys to the proverbial candy store
but were still basically kids and couldnt keep a lid on their desires.
Members of The Doors reported that Jim Morrison used to line up a row of
screwdrivers on the bar -- his favorite drink -- and refuse to leave them
for fear one would get snatched. Hed piss his leather pants rather than
risk making the trip to the mens room.
Even lesser talents come to doom on the road to fame and fortune.
Members of The Band, for instance, who served as Dylans backup group,
made musical history, and produced some of the most celebrated music of
the 60s. Youd think that with all their adventures, honors and
success that the members of The Band would have been reasonably happy,
but keyboardist Richard Manuel committed suicide while drummer Rick
Danko died in his sleep of a drug overdose.
Then there was Canned Heat, who had a lock on the boogie-woogie blues in
the 60s. When the blues lost its mojo to punk and disco in the 70s, the
resulting depression lead to the suicides and overdoses of three visionary
Successful musicians dont have a monopoly on depression, drugs and
suicide. Author David Foster Wallace who wrote Infinite Jest in 1996
was at the peak of critical acclaim for his byzantine (and to me
unreadable) books with a blank check available on demand from his
But like grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, Wallace lived too high up in his
head, so to speak and never could master his depression. He hung himself
at age 46 in 2008.
Sometimes having it all is a death sentence. For all her glory, Marilyn
Monroe got heartbreak and a barbiturate overdose at age 36. John F.
Kennedy, Jr. had the resources to buy his own plane, but went down in a
fog over the ocean at the age of 38 as night fell with his star. John
Lennon was shot at the age of 40 by a lunatic fan who thought hed sold
out. Judy Garlands emerald slippers couldnt save her from a drug
overdose at the age of 47...
And Amy Winehouse? Farewell to a dark comet that crossed our orbit,
leaving a trail that others will surely follow at their peril.