Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse, The 27 Club, and the "Crazy Artist" Mystique


I don't think anyone's all that surprised to hear that Amy Winehouse has died at a far-too-young age.

I suspect there are even some cynics that consider her death an attempt--either intentionally or subconsciously--to become a member of the so-called "27 Club", an exclusive group of gifted musicians who all died at the far-too-young age of 27.

Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix ... Amy Winehouse?

There's no question that Amy Winehouse was a talented, arguably brilliant singer and songwriter.  Her death--currently "unexplained" but almost certainly drug-related--is a loss for the world of music, where Winehouse paved the way to a degree for the excesses of performers like Lady Gaga and reintroduced a jazz element into mainstream music.

I should note that one thing that really ticked me off about the media coverage of Amy Winehouse's death is that it got top billing over the horrible attacks in Norway, but that's a tangent I don't feel compelled to say any more about yet because I'm still kind of reeling.

But anyway, back to Amy Winehouse.

I was reminded of a poem by Anne Sexton called "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph", a piece that always reminds me of Cobain and Joplin, of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, of Sylvia Plath and J.D. Salinger.

Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing that strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn
of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!
There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well.
Larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings!
Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually
he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling
into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea?
See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down
while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.
There's an almost stereotypical image of artists (musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, writers, and so on) as being, shall we say, unstable.  In other words, he or she is just a "crazy artist", so there's no explanation for his or her actions.

As a writer myself, I think there's probably a kernel of truth to this.

No, I don't believe that artists are crazy.  However, there is an unquestionably high correlation of traumatic events, of challenges faced from an early age, substance abuse, learning disabilities (and even more so, twice exceptional status), victims of bullying, and so on and so forth among those of us drawn to artistic expression.  

As Anne Sexton points out in her poem, the mythological Icarus took a chance and soared to amazing, dizzying, heart-stopping heights.  He saw things that most of us never will.  Short-lived as it was, Icarus had one hell of a ride.

So did Amy Winehouse.

Do you think it was worth it to her?