In the days, weeks and years to follow, you'll hear a lot of stories about Amy Winehouse. Most everyone with a half-decent anecdote will inflict it upon the rest of us whether we want to hear it or not. This isn't new, and it's even understandable. Reflected glory (notoriety) is still glory (notoriety) after all. If you're very lucky, some of the stories might even be true.
I'm not going to tell my own Amy Story now, and I'm not going to pontificate about THE DANGERS OF DRUGS or THE DANGERS OF ALCOHOL or ROCK AND ROLL IS EVIL or any of that bollocks. This isn't even entirely about Amy, to be honest.
How many stories have you already read about The 27 Club? How many lazy journalists have drawn lines between Amy and that clutch of poor fuckers who died 1969-71, whose names we all know so well? I have a Google News Alert set up for Jim Morrison, and I get maybe one or two links a day. On Sunday morning I had rather more than that… because his name is being invoked in many of the Amy Stories. There's a thing on the BBC website which looks like it's almost entirely Copy Pasta from Wikipedia.
It's not fully clear what we're supposed to take from these stories. It never has been. Yes, quite a number of notable musicians died when they were 27 – but the moral 'they' want us to learn is unclear. Are we supposed to just take it as a straight-up tragedy of a dead young person? Or as some would say, are we supposed to learn from their mistakes? Are we supposed to condemn them as dirty junkie wastes of humanity? Are we supposed to laud them for living 'on the edge'? I guess it depends on what you're reading.
There are several problems with the live fast, die young myth. First off, it hurts all the people who love you. Second, you can't make any more music. Third, and maybe to me most important: you lose control over your work and self. You can't defend yourself.
I have never been in a physical fight with anyone, but I've come close several times, and most of those times were related to Jim Morrison. Once, there was a guy who told me that the best thing that ever happened to Jim was to die. He really believed it, too. Another time, a couple of years ago, there was a drunken twat at the London Film Festival screening of the latest Doors documentary. He was berating the quiet audience as we left (quiet largely because of what we'd just seen – the agonised and contrary life of a great artist), telling us that we should rip it up because 'Jim would want it' and basically taking only the hedonism from Jim's work and nothing else. I've had many moments of wanting to pummel people but that was the only time I actually considered doing it. All this because if he can't stand up for himself, then I will.
Dead people cannot sue for libel. Anyone can say basically anything they want about that person and they're untouchable. An 'author' in the 1980s accused Errol Flynn of being a Nazi spy during the Spanish Civil War. There was almost nothing to support this, and indeed most of what EF wrote at the time and later suggested he was left-leaning. Accusations like that stick, and even recently I saw an article which dredged it up again. Like Flynn was ever going to take time out of carousing for espionage! I could accuse Jimi Hendrix of selling nuclear weapons to Kafiristan, or say that Janis Joplin was planning to assassinate Richard Nixon, and there's nothing much to be done. Whether people believe it is a different matter, of course. I could say that Brian Jones was one of the most unpleasant human beings ever to make music and… well, that would be true, actually.
The problem is more than just plain ol' libel. The artist in question loses control of their reputation certainly, but they also lose control over the music itself, and how it is regarded. I recall a Popular Culture class in California where we discussed the image of Bob Marley before and after his death. Before his death he was presented (presumably with his consent to an extent) as a rebel, someone politically dangerous to the status quo. A fighter, if you like. Since his death, he has been largely repackaged as a poet, as a gentle thinker type – look at the album art for Legend. The danger has been removed and because he can't argue, it stays like that.
By a weird quirk of fate, I've been looking into Janis Joplin a little this weekend. I'm not a fan because I don't like her voice, although I would be lying if I suggested she wasn't good (same as Amy, actually). Now, I'd forgotten how massive she was back in the second half of the 1960s. Since her death she has been relegated – in the mainstream – to a cautionary tale, to an example of what happens to the wimminz when they try to live like the guys, to just another member of the rock dead. Example: those of you who aren't already Joplin fans, name me five Janis Joplin songs you've heard. In death, she lost control of her image, of her music. She has been somewhat airbrushed out of history – how many documentaries about that period of time in music really deal with her on a musical level? No, she's been half-forgotten as an artist and mostly remembered as a dead junkie bogeyman to scare the kids into behaving themselves.
Jim, on the other hand… actually, it's pretty much the same with him. He was someone who was fucking with the establishment before he died and since his death he has been reduced to just That Poster and a punchline to a joke about a fat guy dead in a bath. His death has given people the freedom to talk shit about him, to adapt him as they want, to lose all perspective. You might be able to tell that this is the one I care about… I still argue that the Doors are still 'dangerous' thanks to the music, but it must also be accepted that in dying, Jim handed over his power to the myth-makers and the detractors in equal measure.
I haven't really even mentioned the control they lose over the music itself. Do you really think Queen would've released Made in Heaven as it was, if Freddie had lived? Course not – there's tracks on that record which only saw the light of day because there wasn't anything else. A lot of it is to do with the record labels and marketing types, but it is also dependent on who gets control of the Estate. Tupac Shakur has had more music released post-mortem than in his lifetime – did he want it released, and in the mix/arrangement he wanted? We can't know. I'm not knocking Donal Gallagher for a second, but I don't think the recently released 'lost' album Notes from San Francisco by his brother, guitar god Rory, would've been the same record if your man had the choice. I mean, the vocals on 'Overnight Bag' are double-tracked! On a Rory Gallagher record! Would he have wanted that? We can't know for certain, although the fact he dropped the record in the bin is a clue… Without new material, the labels and the estates seek out what they can find to release, whether the artist considered it worth releasing or not. It's understandable, but we don't have to like it. We can only wait and see what will happen with Amy's music, depending on who gets control of it and how much unreleased material there is.
Dying ain't much of a living: maybe record sales sky-rocket, but there won't be new music. The Glorious Rock Dead are frozen in time, unable to fight their corner, unable to respond to attacks, unable to tell their adoring worshippers that they're fucking idiots. They hand those who hate them the freedom to tear them down. Sure, they leave behind good-looking corpses (theoretically) and remain forever young and beautiful… but it seems to me that there is more freedom in growing, developing… and even if they can't fully control what is said and thought about them, they can at least respond and defend themselves.
I don't know what the future holds for Winehouse's artistic reputation. As with the others I suspect it will become a tale of two images: super-artist beyond criticism on the one hand, drunk junkie who pissed it all away on the other. Both are true – to an extent – but the image of Amy now rests not with her but with marketing and record label executives. My money is on her being packaged as a 'Tragic Chanteuse' in the Billie Holiday/Edith Piaf mould. I also expect a shit, cookie-cutter biopic within a few years which will basically be La Vie En Rose in the 21st Century, Walk The Line without the happy ending, or The Doors without the American Indian.
There is nothing good about this 'club' of damaged people dying at 27, and the next person who says so about Morrison near me does run a very serious risk of injury. If he can't defend himself against both the haters and the acolytes, I will.