Back to black

For the sixth anniversary of Amy’s death

Sure, for me to write about Amy is like a football journalist discussing ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe.

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good.

A song full of brilliant lines like

And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. If Billie isn’t considered a blues singer, Amy isn’t necessarily linked with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at least since the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. To listen to all her different versions of the same song (with the aid of youtube), no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.

Back to black is one of the all-time great songs:**

Sifting through different versions of her songs seems more instructive, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe:

Amy was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.

Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall:

Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:

A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015).

I’d love to be reincarnated as one of her backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.

 

**  “The all-time great songs” is generally used in the limited sense of “favourites of Anglo-American pop since the 1960s”, but here I am indeed happy to rank her oeuvre alongside the likes of Orpheus, Hildegard von Bingen, or Niña de los Peines.

You don’t own me

I promise I won’t make a habit of this—and sure, there must be thousands more sites where this came from—but here’s a great list of 17 feminist songs that were ahead of their time. All the more important under the current assaults on what should be common sense, and the major role of women in leading the protests.

However can I have missed You don’t own me? (Lesley Gore, 1963) all this time? Or at least, how did I miss the 1964 cover by Dusty Springfield?

I’m finally getting why people get so hooked on Country (like you do on the suites of north Chinese shawm bands. Possibly.)—it’s good to see it featuring so strongly here. Kitty Wells, and Dolly Parton—feminist in, um, plain clothes…

How good to include Ethel Smyth’s 1910 suffragette anthem!

(Hmm, given that one seeks to discard outmoded gendered nouns, the term “suffragette” seems a bit ironic… BTW, you don’t hear much about “usherettes” these days, eh? They were a vital part of the Away from it all cinema experience)

And of course “no” playlist “is complete without” Billie Holiday

But how did I will survive (1978) not get onto the list? Anyway, here it is…

And here’s an updated list “to get you hyped for the women’s march“.

To return to country: of course, the antithesis of all this is Stand by your man (1968, not great timing), but it’s still a great song, somehow—as long as you ignore the lyrics…

Tammy Wynette spent most of her life vainly trying to defend it. Here’s some more “negative teaching material”—with this quote she just digged herself further into a patriarchal hole:

Personally, I’m not particularly fond of the thought of digging ditches or climbing telephone poles. I’d rather stick with something a little more feminine. I wouldn’t want to lose the little courtesies that we’ve always been extended, like lighting cigarettes and opening doors, and pulling out chairs and things like that. I enjoy that. I guess I just enjoy being a woman.

Oops. Retired Rear Admiral James Foleyso retired he’s dead—will be nodding his head wisely and playfully slapping her cute lil’ ass.

At the time I may not have clocked You don’t own me, but at least I was aware of Dusty Springfield (!).* Digressing only a tad from the feminist path, I do vividly remember Cilla’s Anyone who had a heart (1964, her cover of Dionne Warwick’s 1963 version)—but great as both are, you must hear Sheridan Smith’s astounding cover (from the 2014 TV series Cilla):

The sheer creative energy of music in the often-discredited 1960s is an endless topic. But we can always put in wider context—not just civil rights and hippies, but further afield, in Nigeria, or the ongoing struggles of Eastern Europe… And ritual specialists in Chinese villages!

* My friend Rowan points out wisely that I’ve never been aware of anything at the time. Now I’m still living in the past, for all my so-called “contemporary ethnography”…

Billie

Oh all right then. Among our all-time top Billie Holiday songs, this one is strangely neglected:

Apart from her voice, intoxicating and intoxicated (surely this is her ode to heroin), note the brilliant noir orchestration— smoochy strings, wind arabesques, languid swaggering brass interlude…

You’re my thrill
You do something to me
You send chills right through me
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

You’re my thrill
How my pulse increases
I just go to pieces
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

Mmm
Nothing seems to matter
Mmm
Here’s my heart on a silver platter

Where’s my will?
Why this strange desire
That keeps mounting higher?
When I look at you
I can’t keep still
You’re my thrill…

It was also natural that Chet Baker, not to be outdone in the shooting-up department, should perform the song. Generally his singing has an intensity that matches that of Billie, but for this song I’d always choose her.

Lives in jazz

This must be among the most moving videos ever, with Billie in rapture, showing the depth of the rapport between great musicians (for the making of the film, see here). Don’t miss the final trumpet solo from Roy Eldridge!

Apart from the experience of listening, jazz biographies are just as captivating as jazz photos. If only I could bring the Li family to life with such detail as we find in books like

  • Ross Russell, Bird Lives
  • Miles, The Autobiography
  • David Brun-Lambert, Nina Simone: the biography
  • J.C. Thomas, Coltrane: Chasing the trane

I discuss Chet Baker here. And as to books on Billie Holiday, don’t get me started…

More academic, but masterly, is

  • Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz

In books like this, it’s not just the social and personal detail that impresses, but the technical aspects of their constant musical strivings – their obsession with chords, timbre, and so on. From Charlie Parker’s use of the Rico number five reed (Russell pp.10–13) to  Keith Richards’ sheer exhilaration in his Life (no less captivating than the many gaudy experiences throughout the book) of discovering the open five-string tuning (p.270ff.).

We could compile lists of similar excursions in world music, but jazz leads the way…

While I’m about it, don’t forget

  • George Melly, Owning up.

***

Here’s a fun party game. When reading Life, be sure to read it in Keef’s voice—his inclusive conspiratorial chuckle is one of the great primeval sounds of nature.

Whereas Miles’ autobiography should be read in the voice of the Queen, Brian Sewell, or (for yet older readers…) the presenter of Listen with Mother. If serialised on Radio 4, it could be called Listen with Motherfucker.