Books: A Point of View: Snoop and Amy |
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Snoop and Amy : on self-destruction

(S03E09, broadcast 2nd and 4th May 2008)

" Does Amy Winehouse have a duty to her talent?"

When the American rap star Snoop Dogg gets into trouble, he goes from strength to strength. When the British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse gets into trouble, she goes from weakness to weakness. This is especially sad because, whereas you might think that Snoop Dogg has a talent from hell, Amy Winehouse clearly has a talent from heaven. Already it has earned her millions of pounds, so you might say that her worries are working in her favour. But even the press is by now realizing that it’s callous to say so.

Last weekend a voluntary visit to the police turned into an overnight stay and the story was instantly in all the papers, but there was a new note detectable, as of a farce finally being recognized as an incipient tragedy. If there was ever any fun to be had from reading about her troubles, the point has been reached where there is no fun left even in writing about them. Probably the best we can all do for her is not to mention her name except when buying one of her albums, so perhaps I am making a bad start. But I remember too well the first time I heard her sing and was so moved that my heart hurt.

And I also remember the first time that I saw her in real life. It was last year, in downtown New York. We happened to be staying in the same hotel, and I passed her in the foyer. She looked so frail that my heart hurt again, but in a different way. When that young woman sings, it’s the revelation of a divine gift. But when she behaves as if the gift were hers to destroy if she feels like it, you can’t help thinking of divine wrath. Can’t the same force that made her so brilliant give her strength?

Which brings us to the aforementioned Snoop Dogg, who has all the strength in the world. Whether he is brilliant is another question, which I don’t presume to answer. As a lyricist who has made no more than a few hundred pounds over the course of a whole career, I try not to speak ill of any lyricist who makes thousands of pounds a week, even when I can’t understand what he is talking about. In Snoop Dogg’s case I’m not sure that I’m meant to. At about the same time that Amy Winehouse was emerging from a police station again to be greeted by demands from her own father that she be sectioned as soon as possible, Snoop Dogg was being cleared by a British judge from a no-visa order imposed on him in 2006 when there was a dust-up at Heathrow, that venue where so many memorable performances take place.

You will notice that I continue to refer to him as Snoop Dogg. It’s easier than calling him by his real name, Cordozar Calvin Broadus. I hope I have pronounced it correctly. I’m not one to point the finger, because I myself found it convenient to abandon my unpronounceable original name, Balthazar Wickerwork Bruce-Barrymore. Nor do I hold against him his self-confessed earlier career as a pimp. As any female sex worker will tell you when she has a knife to her throat, pimps perform a useful function.

Anyway, he grew out of it, and became famous as a rap star. You can see, however, that the rapper’s reputation might have been against him when he and his entourage were told that they were to be demoted from the Heathrow VIP lounge to life among the ordinary people, whereupon a fracas ensued and Snoop Dogg found himself face down on the carpet, an audience unresponsive to his charm. Subsequently he was denied a visa, despite his assurances that his purpose in this country would be to warn against private firearms, and not to glorify them. The rapper took the rap.

But recently a senior immigration judge overturned the decision, after viewing a tape of the incident. Those of us who don’t like to be videotaped wherever we go might reflect that in this case a videotape served justice. Upon close inspection, the tape revealed, according to the court, that some of the staff involved might have been at fault. One can’t help feeling that a rapper’s reputation for condoning violence might recently have been overtaken, on the scale of notoriety, by the reputation of Heathrow staff for doing the wrong thing on a massive scale at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, Snoop Dogg deserved a hearing for his contention that one of his reasons for wanting to be free to enter Britain would be to counsel this country’s disaffected youth against guns. Snoop Dogg’s argument is that he has seen a lot of people blown away and that the use of guns by ordinary citizens should therefore be discouraged. There is no reason for thinking that he does not feel this now just because some of his lyrics previously seemed to say the opposite. When I listen carefully to one of his songs — a lot more carefully than I would like to, if the truth be told — I seem to hear him say that he’s from the streets and he hangs with killers, by which I think that he means that he hangs out with killers, not that he suffers capital punishment in their company.

In the next line he seems to be saying that if he and his killer friends got problems then they’re gon’ bust them triggers. I think that means that they are going to fire so many shots that they wear their guns out, but it could just mean that they intend to voluntarily decommission their weapons. Or it could mean anything, it’s hard to tell. I’d be surprised if it meant anything conspicuously non-violent, but we must remember the artist’s right to invent a character. It might be just the narrator talking, while the man who invented the narrator is a philanthropist. Charles Dickens, after all, invented Bill Sykes. Dickens wasn’t himself a psychopath, and Snoop Dogg could easily argue that he is fundamentally a businessman.

He’s certainly got the money to prove it, and if people are going to be shut out of this country for once having seemed to condone violence, I can think of a long list of candidates that I would put ahead of Snoop Dogg. Whatever his street-smart origins, he has become a prosperous taxpayer manufacturing a legitimate product people want. It isn’t a product I want. Watching someone making gang-signs at me with his fingers while his snarling mouth confuses loquacity with eloquence was tough enough when Ice T did it. But Ice T turned into one of the best actors on television, and Snoop Dogg, if he manages to dodge all the drive-by shooters who were stupid enough to take his lyrics literally, will probably end up with his face on Mount Rushmore.

And then there’s Amy Winehouse, whose best songs really are works of art, no question. And she can actually sing them to you, in a way you would rather remember than forget. And yet she looks as if she can’t wait until it’s all over. Billie Holiday, by the end, had reasons to feel like that. But at the start, she guarded her gift. And Ella Fitzgerald sang on into old age as if her gift belonged to the world, which indeed it did. Amy Winehouse, if she wished, might build up an achievement that could be mentioned in the same breath as those two: perhaps not as varied, perhaps not as abundant, but just as unmistakably individual, and even more so because some of the songs would be composed by her, and not just handed to her on a piece of paper.

It could be that she does wish to fulfil her vast potential, but she has another wish that conflicts: the wish for oblivion. It’s hard to speak against that wish without sounding like an advertisement for a package holiday. As this world goes, there are ample reasons for wanting to be out of it even if your personal history is a comfort, and I imagine hers has been the opposite. But she knows all this. The proof is in some of her songs. The proof is in her voice. You don’t get to sing like that unless you can give a shape to grief.

Not long before he died last week, Humphrey Lyttelton said that he admired the way Amy Winehouse sang and would have liked to meet her. Some commentators have wondered what he would have said. There’s no telling. He was the prince of joy, and he might have told her that he was glad to have lived out a long life in music. The Old Etonian would surely have admitted that he had begun his career in conditions of privilege, as she had not, and that he had always had the gift of happiness, which she plainly hasn’t, or anyway does not have yet.

But he could have added that he only had to listen to a few bars of her singing to realize that she had been given the greatest gift a musician of any kind can have, and that a gift on that scale is not possessed by its owner, but does all the possessing. Maybe that’s what she’s afraid of. When people say that you have a duty to your talent, they all too often mean that you have a duty to them. But they’re misstating the case. The duty of the greatly talented is to life itself, because what they do is the consecration of life. I could end with something that Pavarotti once told me in his dressing room before I interviewed him. He wouldn’t say it on air, for fear of sounding immodest. He said he knew his gift was from God. But perhaps a better ending would be what Philip Larkin said to the ghost of Sidney Bechet. ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should, like an enormous yes.’ Come on, kiddo. Give us a song.


Snoop never did get round to writing a lyric on the theme that anyone who would kill for ‘respect’ had the brains of an amoeba. But he was already too busy graduating to the status of film star, a rank which any rap artist was eager to attain, for the obvious reason that rap music could last just so long as a fashion before the market realized that it had only novelty value, like the hula hoop or bits of string with coloured light in them. Amy Winehouse, one need hardly say, was on a different track. A greatly gifted singer bound for glory if she wished it, she could be stopped only by her inner demons. Unfortunately they were very resourceful. For a while they could depend on the press for an ally, but it must be said that the British press coverage showed signs of restraint when it became clear just how sick she was. In fact she got less coverage than Lindsay Lohan. Perhaps (and I don’t really believe this, I just hope) there was a general realization even among the press hacks that Amy was carrying a precious cargo, which might still be saved. Finally, with the popular singers, what matters is their ability to convince you that they sing the way you would like to speak. That strangely familiar quality — strange because it seems to be already inside your head — can survive anything except physical damage. Matt Monroe’s voice, as purely conversational as Frank Sinatra’s but with even better control of overtone, could hold your undivided attention even when he was wearing a brown safari suit. Similarly, Amy would be able to thrill you if she had to sing through the window of an isolation cell. But not if a poisoned blood-stream ruins her throat.


Amy Winehouse died while this book was in the final stages of preparation, but I could have rewritten the postscript had I wished. Somehow it seemed wiser not to. Left as it was, it was at least a record of how one of her admirers had felt about the danger she was putting herself in, and of how much we all stood to lose. Brought up to date, it would have been a claim to prescience. The truth is that I thought she could still be talked out of it, if enough people could combine to persuade her that there were rewards waiting for her even more satisfactory than those offered by intoxicants and narcotics. Alas, she was short of ambition. So I left what I had written as it was, as a kind of wreath. Several times in my own lifetime I have seen people with great talent destroy themselves, and on top of my professions of regret I have always asked their retreating shades the same silent question: couldn’t you have left me some on the way out? Poets, you sad young men, what you have to ask yourself is how you can make your voice as thrilling as hers.