The trailblazing web site Salon.com celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. I was proud to have been on staff for its debut in November 1995, and it was my regular gig until 2001. From the beginning, traditional media didn’t know what to make of this “left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker,” as Rolling Stone called us in 1996. Since we actually did think of ourselves as a left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker, the line felt like a compliment — as long as we ignored the rest of the review, which likened Salon (then called “Salon1999,” because we had not yet been able to wrest the Salon.com domain away from its owner) to the doomed “flying boats” at the dawn of commercial air travel in the 1920s.
Salon’s demise was predicted early and often. And yet, it’s 2015 and Salon lives on. Sadly, a lot of the content from its early years as a webzine has vanished into the ether. It’s still possible to find early issues (Salon published weekly at first) via the Internet Archive, but it takes some sleuthing. [The Internet Archive is in the process of building a search engine for the Wayback Machine, but it won’t be ready until 2017.]
I was Salon’s TV critic from 1995-01, which coincided with some great television; I was privileged to have been able to write frequently about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue and arguably the finest cop drama in TV history, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, which was adapted from David (The Wire) Simon’s true stories from Baltimore’s homicide squad.
The first piece I ever wrote for Salon (it ran in the startup issue on Nov. 13, 1995) was about Homicide. The link is gone now, but, pack-rat that I am, I saved hard copies of all my pieces. I guess I didn’t totally trust this Internet thing to be around forever. I’ve scanned the column and posted it below; I’ll try to post others from time to time. For me, Salon was an exciting leap into the unknown. I’m glad it outlived its obituaries.
To say that songwriter, pianist, producer and singer Allen Toussaint was prolific is an understatement. The gentlemanly giant of New Orleans R&B had a list of performing, composing and producing credits that’s almost hard to take in. If you grooved to an R&B song sometime in the past half-century, chances are good that Toussaint had a hand in it (often under the songwriting pseudonym “Naomi Neville,” a tribute to his mother). A partial list: Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” Ernie K. Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining,” Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can,” Boz Scaggs’ “What Do You Want the Girl To Do?,” Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”. He wrote the rollicking “Whipped Cream,” which was recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and became the theme song for “The Dating Game.” He produced Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” as well as albums for Dr. John and the Meters. Glen Campbell had a huge hit with Toussaint’s song “Southern Nights.” Toussaint wrote the horn arrangements for the Band’s “Cahoots” and “Rock of Ages” albums. He produced and recorded a post-Katrina duo album with Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse.”
And that’s only scratching the surface.
My first (unwitting) exposure to Toussaint came through the Dave Clark Five’s cover of “I Like It Like That” and Lee Dorsey’s version of “Working in the Coal Mine,” which I loved as a kid glued to my AM radio in the early ’60s. Later, I wore out the grooves to Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and the Pointer Sisters’ drop-dead funky “Yes We Can,” both released in 1974; I took enough notice of the album credits to connect Toussaint to both of these ferocious expressions of female political engagement, sexual and otherwise.
Toussaint wrote often about race and class divisions in songs unflinching (“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” “What Is Success?,” “On the Way Down”), prayerful (“Freedom for the Stallion”) and uplifting; his inclusionary and triumphant “Yes We Can Can” was a movement in itself, even before it found its spiritual echo in the 2008 campaign that elected the first black President of the United States.
It’s only a small exaggeration to say that everyone covered Toussaint’s songs. Any decent record collection that includes a representative sampling of releases from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s will include songs written or produced by Toussaint. He brought New Orleans R&B to rock and country audiences. Listen to some of Toussaint’s solo recordings today and you can hear what other artists were referencing in their own classic songs: The whooshing, paranoid tremors of a guilty conscience that float through “From a Whisper to a Scream” are echoed on Hall and Oates’ “She’s Gone”; the easy-rolling baseline of “Soul Sister” turned up a year later on Steve Miller’s “The Joker.”
I’m tempted to say that Toussaint’s sudden passing at age 77 on Nov. 10 leaves a great void, except that his work is so pervasive, he’ll always be here, an essential flavor in the savory gumbo of American music he helped create.
Allen Touissaint performing “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”
The Pointer Sisters on “Soul Train”, “Yes We Can Can”
Lee Dorsey, “Working in the Coalmine” (audio)
Elvis Costello and Allen Touissaint, “Freedom for the Stallion” (audio)
Labelle in full otherworldly attire, “Lady Marmalade”
The vibe at FFS’s Oct. 15 tour finale at the Fox Theater in Oakland was equal parts warm and fuzzy. The fuzziness was provided by two furry friends on the terrace dance floor, one in full fox costume, the other in cat, who were spotted dancing, snapping photos and generally living their best lives amid the happy throng of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks fans. The warmth came from the way these two bands — one American, one Scottish; one with a career spanning over 40 years, one formed in 2002 — played together as a new entity on stage. There was genuine love and respect in the way Franz’s Alex Kapranos gave Sparks’ Russell Mael a thumbs up and a smile after Mael nailed the final operatic vocal flourishes of Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” and in the bands’ final communal embraces after the rock-operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work.”
Everything that works about FFS on their self-titled record — the joyful blending of two unorthodox, uncategorizable bands into one pop/rock/glam/disco/cabaret rarity — worked even better live. The brainy, self-effacing humor was evident from the moment FFS took the stage to the grandiosely cheesy theme from the British cult sci-fi series “Blake’s 7” to stand motionless while Ron Mael struck the plummy opening piano chords for “Johnny Delusional.” Then, Russell Mael, resplendent in a black and white striped poncho, and Kapranos, in a splatter-print disco shirt tucked into black trousers with a coy orange stripe up the inseam, began a display of the most awksome dancing I’ve ever witnessed on a stage.
But this wasn’t camp. This was a celebration of dancing to one’s own beautiful beat, and a heartfelt expression of two bands’ love for the same far-flung musical influences. It was as if this tour liberated Franz Ferdinand and Sparks from any expectations other than their own, and Kapranos and Russell used their considerable charm as frontmen to pull the audience along with them.
So, on a glitter-ball mash up of Sparks’ “When Do I Get to Sing My Way” and FFS’s “Call Girl,” the band gave us absolutely un-ironic old school disco, Franz’s Nick McCarthy chugging out Chic rhythm chords, while Kapranos did some swirling, hip-thrusting interpretive dancing that referenced both Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and David Bowie circa “Young Americans.” But on “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” the dramatic lighting, lush synthesizer tones and McCarthy’s twanging Spaghetti Western guitar solo placed Kapranos’ world-weary ballad of a failed terrorist into the realm of Leonard Cohen-meets-Lee Hazlewood. Then there was the candy-bright J-pop of “So Desu Ne,” made even giddier when four band members shared one keyboard, and an indelible image of Russell Mael and Kapranos bouncing up and down in unison (along with the audience) to the meaty, staccato rhythm of Franz’s “Take Me Out.”
Each song took us someplace new, in terms of style and sound, but instead of being dizzying, it was intoxicating. There’s a lot to be said for a band looking like its members are having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.
The emotional high point of the show was a transcendent performance of Sparks’ “The Number One Song in Heaven,” with McCarthy, Russell Mael and Kapranos lined up at the mikes, each dancing their own quirky moves, thrusting index fingers heavenward on the chorus. The lyrics are a kind of pop sermon on the mount, except delivering a reverse gospel that music shouldn’t be taken as The Word to remain eternally enshrined and unchanged: “The song filters down, down through the clouds/ It reaches the earth and winds all around/And then it breaks up in millions of ways.” Music is a gift for us mortals to use however we need it, whether that’s (to paraphrase the lyrics) as a hit tune, an advertising jingle or a child’s playtime taunt. Everything about the FFS project, from its “aw-hell, let’s do this” inception to the uninhibited triumph of the live show circles back to the idea in “Number One Song” that music is both universal and communal, yet deeply and thrillingly personal.
For the first opening act, FFS chose Carletta Sue Kay, the female persona of Bay Area performance artist Randy Walker, who stood center stage in a wig and an Angry Birds costume worn as a dress and blew the roof off. Then, for something completely different, came The Intelligence, a Seattle post-punk band. The diversity of the bill added to the one-big-pop-party atmosphere inside the Fox (the furries didn’t hurt, either), potently underscoring FFS’s vision of musical inclusiveness.
“Just think, a world ruled by weirdos,” was how my friend Charley Taylor affectionately summed up the FFS show he saw in Boston at the start of this short American tour. At the Fox, when Ron Mael stepped out from behind his iconic Ronald keyboard, shed his mask of dourness and burst into a grinning breakdance across the stage on “The Number One Song in Heaven,” you couldn’t help but grin along with him, grateful that, for this night at least, the weirdos won.
The lawns are dead, the hibiscus and bougainvillea are fried and the Sierra Nevada snow pack reserve of underground water is at its lowest in 500 years. We need rain here in California, we need torrents of it (and snow up in the Sierras) this winter to even begin to loosen the grip of the historic, tenacious drought that came to stay. Recently, the temperature hit triple digits in places it rarely hits triple digits, and, frankly, it’s starting to feel a wee bit Arrakis up in here.
Like Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Several times this summer, the Bay Area sky looked promisingly threatening, but, sadly, no rain ever fell. Last night, there was a tiny bit of spillage from on high, enough to make a feeble pitter-patter on the gutters for a few minutes and wet the top layer of dust in the garden. It only left me wanting more. I want buckets of rain. I want Hollywood rom-com rain. I want it to pour down in sheets until I’m photogenically drenched like Andie Macdowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral and I’m saying to Hugh Grant, “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.”
It’s time for drastic measures. It’s time for a rain dance.
A Playlist of My Favorite Songs About Rain
“Only Happy When It Rains,” Garbage. Rain as metaphor for a pessimistic and “difficult” nature. Shirley Manson gives sassy, wry voice to those of us who can’t help looking at the half-empty glass. This has been my theme song more times than I will ever admit. Pour some misery down on me.
“Waterproof,” Sparks. This operetta from Hello Young Lovers opens the musical floodgates, with stately chorale singing, a charming boogie-woogie interlude, a rock break, a Three Stooges “Niagara Falls” reference, and who-knows-what-else, while the lyrics remain nice and dry-witted: “The rain just falls off of me/ The tears just fall off of me/ Cause I’m waterproof, waterproof/ The barometric pressure has no relevance to me.”
“Umbrella,” Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z). Like everyone else in 2007, I succumbed to the ear worm ‘ella, ‘ella, ‘ella chorus. But I have a soft spot for the song on the basis of the title alone. As an umbrella fan, I believe that there just aren’t enough songs about this often-under appreciated accessory. In addition to being a must in wet weather, umbrellas are romantic, sheltering lovers from raindrops and prying eyes. The romanticism of “Umbrella” links directly back to one of the greatest pop songs ever written, the Hollies’ “Bus Stop”: “Bus stop, wet day, she’s there, I say, Please share my umbrella.” (Has anyone done a mash-up of the two songs?) Umbrellas are also cool and iconically British: think John Steed, the Beatles on the cover of Beatles ’65, John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. Mary Frickin’ Poppins! So you can probably imagine my delight when, in the wake of the success of “Umbrella,” Isotoner put out a Totes line of Rihanna-branded ‘ellas, ‘ellas, ‘ellas.
“Rain on the Roof,” Lovin’ Spoonful. A sweet relic from my Top 40 AM-radio youth. The tap-tap of the brushed cymbal sounds like raindrops; in 1966, the Lovin’ Spoonful were aural masters of the musical weather report, as they had proven with their previous single, “Summer in the City.”
“It’s Raining Men,” The Weather Girls. Hallelujah! As long as those dudes give my flowers a little somethin’ somethin,’ I’m cool with it. And I’m not speaking metaphorically.
“The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” The Cowsills. This splendiferous pop song never fails to make me happy, happy, happy — although the Cowsills’ story is often tragic. Another childhood fave from 1967, this video is from a live TV special. (The Cowsills were the real life inspiration for the Partridge Family; check out the heartbreaking documentary, “Family Band,” which isnow available on DVD.)
“I Can’t Stand the Rain,” Ann Peebles. This song was memorably sampled by Missy Elliott in her “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”, but Peebles’ original version (which she also wrote) is still the best. The percolating drip-drops at the beginning of this Memphis soul classic, so much more evocative than cheesy thunderclaps, are one of the greatest sound effects ever to make the charts.
“Crying in the Rain,” The Everly Brothers. The most beautiful two minutes of sadness and harmony you will ever hear. If rain could sing, it would sing this song.
“I Wish it Would Rain,” The Temptations.Pssst, Don and Phil Everly . . . the Temps did their crying in the rain, too. This song features lead singer David Ruffin’s fervid soul man side, and it’s my second favorite of his vocals, behind his sweeter “My Girl.” And, this video! The Temps are singing live here on a TV variety show (it looks to me like the old Hollywood Palace), and they tear it up.
“Walking in the Rain,” The Ronettes. Forget what I said about cheesy thunderclaps. These are Phil Spector thunderclaps, rolling in from Mount Olympus to make Ronnie Spector sound like a lonely, dreaming goddess.
“Let it Rain,” Eric Clapton/ “Love Reign O’er Me,” The Who. The Temptations and Everly Brothers exemplify one recurrent theme of rain-pop — manly tears permitted to fall only in a downpour. And here’s the other recurrent theme: Rain as a manifestation and metaphor for love, be it holy or carnal. These guys aren’t crying in the rain, they’re running around naked in it, blissed out in the gentle shower of “Let it Rain,” horned up in the tempestuous monsoon of “Love Reign O’er Me”.
“Purple Rain,” Prince. Welp, His Purple Litigiousness has removed all clips from You Tube. So here’s Elvis Costello doing an ecstatic cover version during his Spinning Songbook tour. Catch it before the Prince Police sniff it out!
“Set Fire to the Rain,” Adele. I refuse to call this a guilty pleasure. I have no guilt when it comes to this song. Is Adele’s belting a touch overwrought? Yes. Can you actually set fire to rain? No. But I love the song’s shameless celebration of anger and destructiveness in response to a bad breakup, particularly in its torching of the unrealistic expectations one might get from watching too many rom-com lovers reconcile in the rain. Kill it! Kill it with fire, Adele!
“Singin’ in the Rain,” Gene Kelly. “This California dew is just a little heavier than usual tonight.” “Really? From where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place.” Was this the birth of the rom-com rain trope? Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly have zippier lines than Andie and Hugh, though. And then lovestruck Kelly joyfully dances in the puddles, and oh … words fail me. Just watch the clip.
A couple of things I’ve been listening to lately :
FKA twigs, M3LL155X
The British singer/dancer/songwriter/performance artist (birth name: Tahliah Barnett) steps forward as Kate Bush’s truest spiritual daughter with this five-song multimedia project that appeared with no advance notice on Aug 13. Working with producer Boots, twigs continues to make bewitching and confident music that defies easy classification — like last year’s LP1, the new EP is a mesh of electronica and R&B that pulls you into its dreamy drifting logic the more you listen. Like Kate Bush, twigs sounds ethereal but her concepts, and the conviction with which she puts them forth, carry a gigantic echo. Both artists think and perform across art forms, and both artists’ lyrics and videos explore sex, gender, creativity and the inner lives of women with a dramatic flair that marries the beautiful and the grotesque.
The release of M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”) was accompanied by a visually arresting 16- minute video, directed by twigs, that strings a narrative together from four of the songs and hinges on twigs’ explanation that “Melissa” is her “female energy.” The film opens with a regal gold-toothed, tattooed and bejeweled figure (portrayed by Michele Lamy) — she could be the wise crone or a mother goddess — wearing a swan-necked light bulb on her forehead to suggest the esca of an angler fish. Meanwhile, we hear twigs singing “Figure 8,” about learning to be tough yet still womanly by following the example of vogueing men. The lyrics are a sensual stream of juxtaposed maternal imagery and violence: “I’ve a baby inside/ But I won’t give birth until you insert yourself inside of me … I am an angel/ My back wings give the hardest slap that you’ve ever seen.”
As “Figure 8” flows into the staggered, spacy “I’m Your Doll,” the crone’s mouth closes around the light bulb and gives birth to a blow-up doll that uncurls from its fetal position to become twigs with a plastic CGI body: “Wind me up/ I’m your doll/Dress me up/I’m your doll/ Love me rough …” As harrowing as “I’m Your Doll” sounds on the EP, it’s even moreso on video, with twigs-as-blow-up-doll enduring dehumanizing sex while her big fringed doll-eyes stare emptily at the ceiling.
In the next song, “In Time” (the most immediately melodic song on the EP), twigs wakes up with a huge prosthetic pregnancy belly, then dances for a man who watches impassively as she implores him be his best self: “Learn to say sorry and I will play tender with you … I will be better and we will be stronger and you will be greater/ The one that I always wanted you to be.” But when her waters break in a gush of multicolored paint down her legs, the man’s face contorts in disgust. “You got a goddamn nerve,” twigs screams on the jagged chorus.
The male gaze and the female gaze morph back and forth in the final sequence “Glass and Patron,” in which twigs births herself of vogueing, fluidly gendered males, meant to symbolize “Melissa.” They vogue for her inspection, and then she joins them, decked out in breathtaking red on a fashion runway. As a multimedia performance piece, M3LL155X is intoxicating and in-your-face, and FKA twigs executes it all without flinching.
Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?
Hot Chip’s sixth studio album has rarely left my playlist since it was released a few months ago. I’m in love with the humanness of this record, not to mention its mood-elevating dance grooves. From the sampling of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice that opens the lead track “Huarache Lights,” to the funky Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet keyboard sound on “Started Right,” to the slow-jam loveliness of “White Wine and Fried Chicken” (which sounds like a lost Prince tune), Hot Chip infuses its electronic pop with soulfulness, warmth and a tang of wistfulness that never slides over into nostalgia. It’s an album about the anxiety of growing older and obsolete — “replace us with the things that do the job better” goes the robotic-voice chorus of “Huarache Lights” — tempered by the enduring joy of finding human connection, be it through love or music.
Not on the album, but firmly of the album: Hot Chip’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” which they’ve been playing on their Why Make Sense? tour. Everything about this choice is perfect. “Dancing in the Dark” was Springsteen’s first single off 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. and his first attempt at a modern-sounding synth-driven dance song. At the time, Springsteen took some heat from rock-oriented fans over his foray into “disco.” But Springsteen’s vulnerable, yearning vocal, about wanting to get out into world, no matter how grim and restricting, and be alive, counteracts the potential remoteness of the synthesized keyboards. Which has pretty much been Hot Chip’s approach to making music, in their fusion of electronica, Alexis Taylor’s intimate vocals and actual guitar and drums. Hot Chip’s touring version of the song works as both homage to Springsteen and extension of the theme of Why Make Sense? They put the soul into the machine, and leave their audiences, literally, dancing in the dark.
Exactly four years after Amy Winehouse completed her heartbreaking slow-motion swan dive into the void, I surveyed the flotsam and jetsam of her life on the opening day of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Organized by the Jewish Museum of London with extensive input from her family, “A Family Portrait” is a quiet, almost shrine-like, remembrance of the ferociously talented pop-jazz singer who succumbed to the ravages of bulimia and alcohol and drug addiction in 2011 at age 27.
There are only the vaguest references to Winehouse’s struggles in “A Family Portrait”: a 2007 Rolling Stone cover with the headline “The Diva and Her Demons” and a wall label featuring a quote from her older brother Alex mentioning the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a UK charity set up by her family to educate young people about the dangers of addiction. But then, starker references aren’t necessary. Amy’s absence and her family’s grief are nearly palpable in the intimate exhibition space. The loss of her resonates everywhere you turn: in the video of teenaged Amy tearing it up, already possessed of that magnificent voice and eccentric phrasing, in a school revue; in the suitcase full of loose family snapshots that she hoarded; in her brother’s notes on her little collection of Snoopy paraphernalia. “This book was a Christmas present from my mum to me many years ago,” writes Alex Winehouse of a well-worn Snoopy paperback book. “Stolen by Amy, I took it back after she died and always carry it with me.”
The Snoopy anecdote got to me. This is what loss feels like; flesh and blood are gone, but the sadly mundane possessions — the tattered Snoopy paperback, the cheesy cache of refrigerator magnets — remain. They’re woefully inadequate reminders that you can’t put your arms around a memory.
It seems a stretch to call “A Family Portrait” an exhibit; it’s too narrowly focussed and reverential for that. There is little to contextualize Amy Winehouse, the Star. A few of her tiny stage dresses hang dispiritedly above a row of her stiletto heels and her old Regal acoustic guitar stands next to a portion of her record collection, but her singing voice is absent except for that school video. There is one video of Winehouse after she achieved success, a European TV performance of “Back to Black,” but it plays in a loop on a screen outside the exhibit.
And though the show was organized and is currently housed by a Jewish museum, there are only a few overt connections to Judaism (the Winehouses were not strictly observant): a family tree tracing Amy’s ancestors’ emigration from Belarus, Poland and Russia to London; a Jewish cookbook given to Amy by Alex; a few photos from Alex’s bar mitzvah.
But in one respect, the exhibit powerfully justifies its existence and its venue. Visiting “A Family Portrait” is like attending shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) at the home of the departed. It leaves you feeling enormously tender towards Amy; your heart aches with the loss of her.
The CJM is also showing “You Know I’m No Good” as a companion exhibit to “A Family Portrait.” Consisting of works by San Francisco artists Jason Jagel and Jennie Ottinger and New York artist Rachel Harrison, the smaller exhibit attempts to broach the subjects “A Family Portrait” doesn’t encompass: Amy Winehouse’s legacy as a performer, and artistic interpretations of her as an icon.
Jagel’s “What Remains When You’re Not Here” makes a sensitive landing point as you enter the small side room still in a fugue of sadness from “A Family Portrait.” Jagel places an Amy-shaped blue and turquoise empty space in the center of the frame; it’s a perfect complement to the feelings of grief and absence stirred by the main exhibit.
But the centerpiece of the side exhibit is Jennie Ottinger’s “Mouth to Mouth,” a wall-length (and then some) collage consisting of cut-out and painted figures of Winehouse and the black female singers who came before her. According to the wall labels, the artwork is from a stop-motion animation addressing cultural appropriation. The figures on the wall include Nina Simone without a mouth, Billie Holiday, the Ronettes and the Supremes, all surrounded by disembodied lipsticked mouths, some with black skin, some with white. Pieces of Amy — the eyeliner-winged eyes, the ratted bouffant, torso, arms, legs — float around a final image of her with a three-dimensional black-skinned mouth placed over her own.
In the notes, Ottinger writes, “As talented as Ms. Winehouse was, she did not invent her distinctive sound but brilliantly extended what had been happening in black music from Mamie Smith in the 1920s through Lauryn Hill in the 1990s … As amazing as Winehouse sounds, she built on the work of talented predecessors who sadly never achieved the level of appreciation that she did.”
While I doubt that anyone listening to her ever believed that Amy Winehouse “invented” jazz or R&B (or eyeliner and bouffants, for that matter), “she didn’t invent her distinctive sound” is a strange, contradictory phrase. Amy’s sound was, unequivocally, distinctive, because her voice — and what she did with it — was distinctive. It was her own. Of course she invented it — she was born with it. And while it’s clear that Winehouse was influenced by black artists, it seems disingenuous to state that such revered, towering musical and cultural figures as Holiday, Simone, the Supremes and the Ronettes, for example, “did not achieve the level of appreciation” Winehouse did. You could argue that those artists, particularly Holiday and Simone, didn’t achieve the level of monetary compensation that Winehouse did. But “appreciation”?
Ottinger’s is a provocative piece, but Amy Winehouse feels like the wrong target at whom to launch a loaded projectile like “cultural appropriation.” Winehouse was no dabbler in black music; there was nothing manufactured, opportunistic or artificial about her feel for jazz, the blues or R&B. In the main exhibit, her record collection and her playlist of favorite songs (compiled while still a schoolgirl) is heavy on Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan, along with her other avowed influences Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Carole King. Winehouse grew up in a jazz-loving household. She felt the pain and joy of the music; that much was obvious even in the main exhibit’s video of Amy at 14 singing in the rich, near-fully-formed jazz-soul style of the adult Amy.
Was this white Jewish girl influenced by artists of color? Without a doubt. Can’t we leave it at that, and rejoice in black music’s power to bridge racial and cultural divides and speak deeply to universal feelings across color lines?
I appreciate the attempt by the CJM to offer a weightier component to “A Family Portrait.” But the balance feels off, like speaking ill of the dead at a funeral. Maybe the problem is that the main exhibit is so overwhelmingly adoring that, in this context, Ottinger’s piece feels unduly harsh. Still, “A Family Portrait” does seem incomplete. The unanswered questions are glaring. What was it about Amy Winehouse that made her such a singular talent? Why was she so vulnerable to the demons that finally took her life? And where was her family when all of the bad shit was going down?
The best companion piece to “A Family Portrait” isn’t a companion piece at all; it’s Asif Kapadia’s devastating, beautiful documentary Amy, which I went to see right after leaving the museum. In “A Family Portrait,” one of the first objects we see is Amy’s admission essay to Sylvia Young, a London performing arts school, written at age 13. “I have this dream to be famous, to work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just … forget their troubles for five minutes,” she wrote. Those words weighed on my mind as I watched her dreams of fame come true in Amy.
Kapadia tells the story through home videos, news footage, interviews, and Amy’s music. There is no traditional narration, no talking heads on camera, but the tragic arc of her life — from the opening video of the teenage Amy singing “Happy Birthday” in that precocious voice, to the skeletal, wasted figure circled by the strobe-flashes of British tabloid vultures near the end — is shatteringly clear. It’s not a new story: emotionally vulnerable young woman possessed of an outsized gift is preyed on by parasites until it kills her. But the fact that Amy’s struggles were no secret, and the people closest to her were unable or unwilling to help her, make them all the more devastating.
There are gorgeous moments in the movie; in particular, the early career footage of Amy makes a strong case for her genius as a songwriter and for her intuitive jazz-soul phrasing. She recalls Laura Nyro a bit as she soulfully sings “I Heard Love Is Blind” (accompanying herself playing jazz chords on guitar) in an audition tape for record company execs. And the image of a young, radiant, saucy Amy clad in an elegant wrap dress, singing “Stronger Than Me” in a small jazz club, is the one I keep flashing back to, days later, as a counter to the awfulness of her unraveling in the film’s latter frames.
The filmmakers are unstinting in their portrayals of Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse (who initially cooperated with Kapadia, but has since labeled the documentary “misleading”), and Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of her life, as twin negative influences (if not outright villains).
Mitch, a jazz-singing cab driver, was carrying on an affair with another woman and absent for much of Amy’s adolescence. In the film, her parents explain that they thought that Amy was “OK” with the separation and divorce, but Amy tells a different story of being a teen acting out her resentment and her longing for the stability her parents couldn’t give her.
Still, Amy adored her father, even as she laid the roots of her self-destructive impulses and attraction to bad men at his feet in the song “What Is it About Men” from her 2003 debut album Frank. She had “Daddy’s Girl” tattooed on her left arm, and in Amy, you see how Mitch repays her affection: after her first brush with a near-overdose, he quashes her friends’ attempts to get her into rehab, not wanting to forfeit her concert bookings. She defers to him, and backs out of the rehab plan. The lyrics to Amy’s breakthrough hit “Rehab” scroll onto the movie screen: “I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine/ Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go go.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the song countless times and thought that the “daddy” of the lyric simply referred to a lover. And now it’s impossible to hear that song the same way again.
Later in the film, while Amy is on a tropical retreat trying to get sober, Mitch — still capitalizing on his daughter’s success — invades her privacy with a camera crew from his own reality TV show and manufactures drama by dragging a fragile, unwilling (but ultimately obedient) Amy over to take a picture with two fans he met on the beach. (For a deeper analysis of Amy’s father issues, see this fascinating piece by psychotherapist Binnie Klein.)
As for Fielder-Civil, this guy practically had “bad news” tattooed on his forehead. We see Amy fall hard for him, become his companion in booze and ever-harder drugs. It’s painful to watch Amy’s body language change when she’s around Fielder-Civil; without him, she’s lively, funny, brash, but in his presence, she girlishly flicks her eyes up at him, clutches his arm, leans into him. He dumps her, she spirals, but then when she gets hot with Back to Black, he comes sniffing around again and all is lost. Again, Amy’s lyrics — “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” “Love Is a Losing Game” — tell the story. Seeing them placed in context in Amy, makes you hear the Back to Black album anew as a brilliant, immediate and heart-piercing piece of confessional songwriting.
While Amy takes clear aim at Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, her mother Janis is portrayed (in her own words) as an ineffectual mother incapable of “standing up to” her strong-willed daughter. She recounts how, when the teenaged Amy told her that she had discovered a new diet that consisted of throwing up after every meal, she put Amy’s bulimia down to “a phase.” Amy’s lifelong bulimia contributed to her death of heart failure. There are heroes in Amy — Lauren and Juliet, two loyal friends from girlhood, her friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, her final bodyguard Andrew Morris (Alex Winehouse does not appear in the movie) — but their efforts to save Amy from implosion are no match for the perfect storm of addiction, fame, inadequately addressed mental health issues and the scars of family dysfunction.
After seeing Amy, it’s fair to ponder the other emotions that might lie under the grief that infuses “A Family Portrait.”
(“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and “You Know I’m No Good” run through Nov. 1 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.Amy is playing in theaters now.)