I recall sending this clip to a friend (see below) who agreed that it was indeed a profound moment and he was sorry for Amy Winehouse’s need to crash into the same brick walls Billie Holiday crashed into previously. We hoped she wouldn’t die. (This was back when we both always hoped more people we loved didn’t die.) I recall looking at this video of her performance at the 2007 Mercury Awards, and somehow Billie singing at the end of her career, clavicles so sharp and so vulnerable above the decolletage, the epitome of a kind of “don’t carish,” hip (as a little girl, Billie’s elders called her “don’t carish”), converged with Amy singing here, her clavicles so sharp and vulnerable above her decolletage and maybe caring just a little. And it was during this performance that I first recognized Winehouse’s seriousness as an artist, and how the audiences one cultivates to show one’s artistry off generally ends up being too much–the body can’t handle that much attention. As a result of success, you either crumble, or become a machine, like Madonna, or The Rolling Stones, or U2. No amount of good or bad parenting, or shrink work, or, indeed, rehab, can prepare your being for the amount of adulation that comes with popular success. If you’re an artist, you want to reciprocate this adulation with some form of intimacy outside of a song, outside of a performance, but what? You cannot kiss the world. To the singer, singing is as natural as breathing, but to the audience the effort feels super human, and it is, since it’s the projection of one’s soul. I didn’t see Amy Winehouse’s soul until she made the video for “Tears Dry on Their Own,” where she projects what I find completely charming: a white girl who can hang in a multicultural world. Winehouse’s multiculturalism was not self-conscious, or another role, but evidence of how she had grown up: in a world of difference, a girl who sang in her local synagogue as a teenager, and who hung with displaced Jamaican dudes along the way, sometimes sucking on a spliff. Music brought all these strains together, and then her greatness isolated her–a cliche no one wants to come true, but it does, time and again, encased in different and then the same stories, whether in the jazz clubs on W. 52nd Street that Billie Holiday more or less owned, or tripping along in your bloody ballet slippers in NW London. After Winehouse Fielder-Civil sang at the Mercury, I watched her ask Jools Holland what to do next. As he cheered her on, Winehouse went off with her then husband, Blake Felder-Civil, and her security guys to maybe obliterate the honor she just picked up, which was already in the past as she walked away. Looking at all this, another friend said, I hope she doesn’t die. But she did.
Archive for July, 2011
One of the very best exhibitions you can see in New York just now is on the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue, at the Hearst Building, and it’s free. There, on the building’s street level, one can view work by the late artist Andy Warhol, who, for many years, earned a living as a commercial artist, sometimes doing illustrations for the Hearst-owned Harper’s Bazaar. Warhol’s Hearst show illustrates how the artist’s popular work, and “real” art, sometimes converged, and in 1964, during the time Warhol’s fame as a “fine” artist grew and grew, he publicized/”photographed” young artists and other up-and-comers who were making a significant contribution to New York culture in a photo booth–the same machine he took Ethel Scull to, and had her perform for, so he could create his incomparable 1962 portrait, “Ethel Scull 36 Times,” which remains one of the best images about portraiture–the art of being seen–ever produced. In the Hearst piece, one finds several of Warhol’s then associates–the late curator Henry Geldzahler, a soulful Larry Poons, and poet Sandra Hochman. Particularly striking is Warhol’s take on the artist and writer Rosalyn Drexler, whose name I first recall seeing as a credited writer on an early Lily Tomlin special. Drexler has always distinguished herself as an artist who is not restricted by form. Whether working as a novelist, sculptor, painter or performance artist (she has also wrestled for a living, an experience she captured in her fine 1972 novel, “To Smithereens”), Drexler inspires by her sheer invention, and productivity. She came of age when male contemporaries like Warhol were making a name for themselves, but she wasn’t restricted by the lack of imagination and verve the art world showed and continues to show when it comes to women artists. As I looked at Drexler’s self-presentation in the Warhol piece, I wondered what the art world would make of the dark-haired beauty if she came along now. To pretend that that rarefied world is increasingly not an extension of fashion is absurd, given how a number of today’s older artists who outlast their economic value are being jettisoned by gallerists who feel they’ve outlasted their time, and how those social fixtures who once dressed this or that table are absented once they fail to amuse. In the art world, mess and confusion and self-discovery–the very stuff of art making–is out, as are discussions of difference that threaten to add calories of thought. As with any society based on hierarchy, where the status quo and fashionability are sometimes protected and upheld by those who have the least to gain from it–gay people, people of color, and so on–today’s art world replicates the normative family structure, wherein the patriarchy dictates those rules that the mother carries out: keep the gallery tidy, and the insurrectionists out. Currently, institutions are feared, not challenged, and dissent leads to expulsion. In her work as a thinker, Drexler breaks rules to remake them in her own fleshy image.
Diana Vreeland once described style by saying “It helps you get down the stairs.” What if you have to get down the stairs with a limp? The brilliant Jane Bowles (1917–1973) walked with a limp–the result of a teenage illness. To call attention to it–and remind herself of her difference–she wore a band aid on her permanently locked leg–an accessory like no other. As in her utterly original work, Bowles looked like no one else. There was her leg, of course; added to that was her close cropped hair, and spectacles, and indecision–thinking as another accessory. To really understand Bowles, Alice Toklas once observed, you had to watch her try and cross the street. But no one followed her. A much respected writer friend who has taught Bowles’ work told me there was “no way into,” her writing, meaning it defied critical analysis. Which is another definition of style, that which trumps fashion: it is yours, no one else can own it, let alone chart it’s process. The stylish are generous in this respect: their originality allows us to dream about our own, if we can achieve it.
In 1975, I was fifteen years old and a frequent babysitter for my sister, Lulu, now of St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. In those days she lived in a large apartment in Brooklyn; she shared it with her then husband, a native of Dominica. I loved going to her house, because you could listen to Richard Pryor there and, unusual for a black girl, Rod Stewart. I’m almost positive that I first heard David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” in that house that was so different than my own. I couldn’t stop looking at the album cover. Bowie looked like any pretty deracinated girl. Had he been yanked from some Ronald Fairbank inspired garden? His hands looked like tentacles stretching towards an atmosphere that was spiked with longing; his cigarette was his breath. And his hair! I had seen black men–pimps, sometimes, or old time-y gamblers–with a ‘do that was similarly side swept. What did he want from us? From me? Well, a clearer understanding of one’s sexuality; his music–the propulsive beats, the endless narrative of difference–called one out. His sexual ambiguity frightened me because it wasn’t so ambiguous after all: he was equal parts male and female, and all parts star. Who was I? The album was confusing, too, especially because of what it sounded like: a black soul inside a white body. In an interview Bowie referred to the piece as “the definitive plastic soul,” record, and the “squashed remains,” of soul in the age of Muzak “written and sung by a white limey.” How could he do that? Be black and white at the same time, and articulate all parts of his fracture? My West Indian descended sister and cousin danced to “Young American,” knowingly; in our black neighborhood we were outside of American culture like that white limey. There were voices that helped give him voice: back up singing stars Ava Cherry (Bowie’s then lover) and Luther Vandross, whose success amused the competitive Bowie, but not the now dead Luther: his body could not handle it. The first step in understanding difference is knowing that you are, and placing yourself in the delicious muck of not-your-perspective from time to time, over and over again until you disappear, but not entirely, being present to the experience just enough to articulate it, in speech of song.
She knew me as I was. And she knew, too, the artist I’m writing about currently: the late filmmaker and director, Bill Gunn. The two Bills. Companeros. She of the beautiful mind and skin, he of the same. I met her or saw her, first, when I was no more than fifteen years old, at the poet and raconteur Owen Dodson’s house; that was in the nineteen-seventies; she had been a star on the black and white theatre circuit for quite some time by then, performing in “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” as a young woman, understudying Diana Sands in “Raisin in the Sun,” being mentored by Ethel Waters. At one point during our recent conversation, Billie discussed a man I met through Owen–the late performer Gordon Heath, whose skills as an actor Billie, the actress par excellence, described one recent afternoon with cutting relish. Gordon had a bar in Paris called L’Abbaye, where he and his lover, Lee Payant–whom he was very cruel to, according to Owen–sang folk songs. “That’s where he belonged,” Billie said, rolling her eyes. Heath was a deeply cruel man–I experienced his shocking internalized homophobia and racism first hand, at his little apartment near Lincoln Center, he was living there with a much younger lover. As Owen and I left the flat, he said–I don’t want to repeat it–and then he slammed the door. Was he jealous his old friend and rival–rivalry kept his love of Owen fresh; new blood in old bodies–I wondered what made him so evil, and what made me myself, but Billie told me about each when I went to visit her and talk about Bill. In her beautiful light-filled flat, the skillful actress drew me out about myself while studying who I might be–and what I’ve become. While doing so, she told me why it was clear to her very early on why I couldn’t stay with Owen, or those friends he argued with out of a kind of mirroring, like Gordon. Sometimes it is too late and love does no good until you find those who revel in its attentions, like Billie.
There had always been the dream of collaboration. As she lay dying, she had to write a letter. Her friend suggested they do it together; the letter would be better that way; their collaboration would result in a third person who would write the best kind of letter. She looked at him, quizzically, and then submitted to the experience. The letter was better. That was his dream, always, to make this third person with someone, someone who was better than either individual. Sometimes this happened for years, and then not. Sometimes, looking at programs about David Bowie, and the years he spent touring with Iggy Pop, or living with him in Berlin, making music, he would remember that feeling–of creating the third person who wrote better than either individual. He would close his eyes against the break up part of the memory because he wanted to see that third person, always, as whole and pure. Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.