Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back To Black

The news that R&B singer Amy Winehouse died this week came as no surprise to anybody familiar with her from the news.

Tabloid stories of Winehouse's drug and alcohol abuse, her abusive relationship with her ex-husband, and an alleged eating disorder had many sadly expecting to hear of her demise.

A video of her smoking crack surfaced on one of the Rupert Murdoch owned sleaze sites and recently she was forced to cancel a tour when she was booed off the stage for slurring and staggering her way through a performance.

She was just 27 when she died.

She didn't leave much work behind - just two albums, one live album, an EP, and a smattering of b-sides and remixes that have found their way onto reconstituted deluxe editions of her albums.

I'm embarrassed to say that until a few days ago, I didn't know that work at all.

I know, I know, where have I been?

I guess I need to get out more.

Or at least listen to something recorded after 1980.

I think I've just hit that stage in life where I tend to listen to what I listen to and explore particular periods of music from the long-gone past and leave the rest of the stuff to the "kids".

Very middle-aged of me.

Lately I have been listening to a lot of R&B from the late 60's and early 70's - particularly stuff released on the Stax record label.

So Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Sam & Dave, William Bell, and Booker T. and the MG's have been on the heavy rotation list.

I have also been listening to lots of stuff recorded at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals in the late 60's and early 70's - records by people like Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and those first demos by Lynyrd Skynyrd that were recorded there. And stuff by the guys who worked there, like Eddie Hinton.

Very Extremely Dangerously.

I dunno, this stuff passed me by when I was a kid growing up in the early 80's in Rockaway, Queens and I feel like I owe it to myself to delve into some really great music and some really great history.

So I'm reading this book about Stax records by Rob Bowman called Soulsville U.S.A. while I listen to all this great music.

I have a habit of doing this kind of thing with music every summer I've been a teacher.

I tend to build my summer music listening and reading around a particular period and genre of music.

I've done this in the past with reggae (Marley, Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Junior Murvin, the Congos and younger bands like Black Uhuru and Third World, et al.), 60's psychedelic Brit-pop (The Beatles, The Pink Floyd, the first few Bee Gee's albums, the Move, et al.), 70's 2-Tone Ska (The Specials, Madness, the Selecter, the English Beat and their later offshoots, General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, et al.), Motown (especially Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, but also more "minor" Motown acts like the Marvelettes, the Velvelettes and the Supremes post-Diana Ross) - the genres I've spent my summers on go on and on.

One summer I listened to every Beach Boys album from Surfin' Safari to The Beach Boys Love You over and over, with special attention to (of course) Pet Sounds and my personal favorite, Holland. Side projects by Brian Wilson and Wilson collaborators were also on tap that summer, people like Jan and Dean, Gary Usher, the Rip Chords, Bruce and Terry and the Sunrays. I read the Peter Ames Carlin biography of Brian Wilson that year and also read (very slowly) the musical study of Brian Wilson by Philip Lambert. That was a summer's summer, if you know what I mean!

Another year I focused on Arthur Lee and Love after falling heavy for Forever Changes. I allowed lots of Doors music that summer too, since they shared a record label and a city with Love. No drugs for me, but plenty of weird scenes inside the goldmine that summer.

Another year after a rather horrific romantic break-up, I decided the Bakersfield sound was "it" - lots of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart and Dwight Yoakam for me. Oh, and Wanda Jackson too. I was a "lonesome fugitive" that summer, pushing through those "swinging doors" and hitting "skid row." Lemme tell you, the music got me through and even now, whenever I hear Buck or Haggard I get this bittersweet feeling that puts a smile on my face and makes me sad at the same time.

I love my summers when I get to dig into some music and just really hear it. Not once, not twice, but over and over until it enters the core of my being, the very fiber of my soul.


But I guess looking back at the music I have listed, I spend so much time exploring the past, trying to inhabit a particular period and hearing the music like I was back "there" that I miss out on what is "now."

I must admit, I don't have much music in my collection by anybody under the age of 50.

I used to think that the Drive By Truckers were in that category until I found Patterson Hood was older than me (and has a bigger gut too!)

So they don't count.

And really, the rest of my collection of music is by people even older than that.

So I never heard Amy Winehouse's music until just this week.

Not once, not even in a store or somewhere else in public.

I knew her name from the newspaper headlines but just associated it with the tabloid stories and assumed that she was some soulless pop confection created in a corporate office, part Lindsay Lohan, part Paris Hilton, part Blah Blah Kardashian.

Not the kind of person I'm going to listen to or look for in the (gulp!) record stores I inhabit in my spare time.

But after hearing her work all I can say is, boy was I wrong about her and her music.

I have had her album Back to Black on about a dozen times the last two days.

The breadth of the music, the lyrical references to Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles, the horn arrangements that recall Stax and Motown, the vocal arrangements that sound as if Phil Spector or Brian Wilson could have devised them - wow, Ms. Winehouse and her producer Mark Ronson really knew how to put together a record that sounds simultaneously contemporary and yet rooted to the past too.

And the ska EP she released, with the stylized black and white label that pays homage to 2-Tone Records and the Specials - whew!!!

I wish I had heard these records when they were first were released rather than now that she is gone.

I know that I have become enamored of her work because of its ties to the past - the echoes from Stax, Motown, the 60's girl groups and 70's ska bands - that sound familiar and comfortable to me, so I guess in a way, listening to Amy Winehouse isn't all that much of stretch from listening to the Staple Singers or the Carla Thomas.

But what the hell, it's really terrific to hear somebody under the age of 30 knowledgeably dig into music made by people 50, 60, 70, 80 and beyond and reconstitute it into something contemporary while still paying tribute to it too.

I wish she hadn't died so young, but I guess dying at age 27 ties her to the rock n' roll past as much as her music does.

After all, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain all died at that age.

Pigpen from the Grateful Dead too.

I do know that I'll be listening to her two albums for the rest of this summer, as well as that ska EP, and enjoying them right alongside all that music from Stax and Muscle Shoals.

Her music is really that good.

If you're like me and you've been under a rock for the last decade, you should listen to her too.

Here, I'll start you out:

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