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Monday, April 30, 2012


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Sunday, November 27, 2011

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New York, December 2009

For no apparent reason, I was just remembering the following exchange that occurred between myself and a nightclub DJ while I was out at a rather trendy venue in New York in December 2009 - after I took my friend Andy up on a rather silly, but harmless, drunken dare:

Me: (as a dare) Excuse me - could you play Mariah Carey, All I Want For Christmas is You?

DJ: (not listening, or looking at me) I don't do requests.

Me: OK, that's quite rude.

DJ: (suddenly vicious; turning on me) Would you like it if someone came to your place of work and told you how to do your job?

Me: (aggressive; rising to the bait) No, because I'm not a fucking DJ!

DJ: Would you like me to get you thrown out? Because I can.

Me: (after thinking for a moment) OK, go ahead. It was free to get in, I've almost finished my drink, and I'm certainly not going to stay for the music.

Sadly he didn't follow through on this threat, but we left anyway. I realise you may well think this exchange makes me look rather aggressive and arrogant (in which case, we have probably met), but I'm strangely proud of it. Some blue touch paper within me is lit whenever I encounter what I consider to be genuine unabashed rudeness - which is actually a rarer occurrence than we might expect. What made me see red with that New York DJ was not his refusal to play the song I requested (I didn't actually want to hear it, after all), but his hostile dismissiveness, and the disingenuous way he tried to insist that asking a DJ to play a certain song was not a well-established cultural concept. He could have attacked me for being drunk and/or irritating (both of which would have been perfectly valid) but instead attempted to make a point of re-writing the history of accepted nightclub etiquette. I mean, declining requests is one thing (and perfectly justifiable), but do you think he gets that angry every time anyone attempts to make one? The man must be exhausted, because no matter how dedicated he is to his re-education campaign, he's never going to slow that tide.

Notice how quickly he gets so angry in this short exchange. His three contributions to the conversation represent the qualities: 'dismissive'; 'aggressive'; and 'threatening'. My four on the other hand represent the qualities: 'silly'; 'mildly indignant'; 'counter-aggressive' and 'smug' - not exactly a roll-call of honour, but in my defence: a) I started off friendly, and b) I was not the one operating in a professional capacity at the time.

But I think the thing that ultimately made me feel justified in this brief confrontation was my realisation at the end of it that I didn't care if he 'got me thrown out' - the place was lame, and after talking to him I now definitely wanted to leave. All of his power, and the reason he felt he could be so nasty and contemptuous, was invested in the idea that he had a high status - 'You want to be here, I am the DJ, I choose the records, don't fuck with me or I'll get you thrown out.' It was good old-fashioned bullying. How liberating it was for me (and how undermining for him) to realise that the Emperor had no clothes, and I had no desire to be a part of his miniature fiefdom.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fade to Black

When Frank was released in 2003, I was living in a shared house in south-east London, and working in a handbag shop in Greenwich marketplace, trying to find a way to break into television production. We would play the album in the shop during long shifts, congratulating ourselves on being into a 'jazz' artist, and relishing the beats and bad language that made the album feel contemporary. We played that CD (CD!) so many times you could see through it, but ultimately it was part of our cultural checking-in; our staked claim to be young and part of the music scene, and the album was always 'one of' those we liked - genuinely admired, but no more so than those by Scissor Sisters, Franz Ferdinand, Kanye West, or The Thrills.

I remember specifically the first time I heard Rehab. Three years later, and Amy Winehouse had more or less dropped off the radar. I was sitting at my computer in my flat in London Bridge, with my back to the television, on which was playing one of the free-to-air digital music video channels - probably The Hits. I was concentrating hard on what I was doing, and the constant music had faded into the back of my mind - but this song wormed its way in within a few lines and grabbed my attention. The smokey voice was familiar - who was that, Lauryn Hill? Turning round to the TV and seeing the singer in the video, I still couldn't work it out. The skinny girl in the beehive didn't look like anyone I recognised. One thing I did know was that the song was amazing. That hook; those beats, those horns. No-one was doing anything like this. As the song ended, the caption came up on screen: 'Rehab, Amy Winehouse'. Amy Winehouse?! The jazz singer? It didn't look or sound anything like her. But no time for that. The next evening I went over to my friend Debbie's house, and thrust my ipod earphones into her hands: "You have to listen to this song, you'll love it". All over London people were asking each other "Have you heard that new Amy Winehouse song?" "Amy Winehouse? Hmm I don't like all that jazz stuff." "No seriously, you really, really have to listen to it..." Clearly my own personal campaign was unnecessary - within weeks the song was massive, and so was the album, Back to Black (Winehouse's profile was so low at the time, the album had been quietly put out before any singles were released).

When you're young and an artist you love goes stratospheric, it's often the cue to cool your affections. The Scissor Sisters were my FAVOURITE BAND IN THE WORLD after I tagged along with my friend Jon to see them at the Astoria in early 2004, not knowing anything about them. But a few years later when they were playing arenas - well, I still liked them, but I didn't go on about it. But Winehouse was different. Me and my friends were obsessed with her. The previous year, we'd all had the Zutons' Valerie on our ipods, but when Winehouse re-recorded it with Mark Ronson, it became an essential track, never leaving the radio for months, played at every party. Out on the town with my friends Nick, Hayley and Liz, we would never get tired of requesting and dancing to her music, and would incessantly quote not just her song lyrics (was there a tragic outfit, a bizarre news story, or an unopenable jar in early 2007 that wasn't met with "what kind of fuckery is this?"), but also her appearances on television shows - repeatedly accessible to us thanks to the emerging website YouTube. She was already a notorious drinker (although the hard drugs - or at least public knowledge about them - didn't come for a few more months), but her wit and vivacity was clear to see. We adored her, and constantly spouted nonsense about having a 'billboard time!', or how we would 'rather have cat aids' than do X - always in a rolling approximation of Amy's harsh north London accent (she was from Barnet, the same place I had been born, and where I had lived until I was seven). It was no doubt irritating to casual observers, but we were bonding over a shared passion, an artist who was not just exciting, but who really felt 'ours'. I guess we were just the right age, and living in the right city.

The music conquered America with ease, but due to drug-related visa issues around the time of the Grammys, she had to perform and accept her five awards via satellite link from London. Like all great stars, somehow she made this awkward situation feel like an advantage. She was an outsider - staying put in the town that made her, despite the laurels Hollywood was throwing at her. As she took trophy after trophy - Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist... - she made reference to the freak fire that was at that moment raging through the pubs and market in her beloved Camden. Her success always came hand-in-hand with drama in bizarre forms.

Nick and I snapped up tickets to see Winehouse perform live at Brixton Academy, but (within a year of Back To Black's release) the tour was abruptly cancelled part-way through, as the tabloids detailed Amy's spiralling drug addiction, shambolic performances, and devastation at the imprisonment of her husband Blake. Strange as it seems, from the moment she hit the big-time, she never put out another album.

Although years passed without her releasing any significant new material, she remained a massive star, and an object of our fascination. In June 2008 I was sitting around my kitchen table with friends drinking wine (shortly before moving to Australia) when Nick texted me: 'Turn on ITV'. It was Amy Winehouse in an unannounced performance at Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park. Bizarrely, she sang Free Nelson Mandela, and the performance was less than spectacular, but she'd still had the star power for Nick to instantly prompt someone in another city to make sure they didn't miss seeing her. The following day she performed at Glastonbury, but made the headlines mainly for punching a member of the crowd halfway through one of her songs.

Right up to her death (nearly five years after Back To Black's release), she remained present in our everyday consciousness. Last month, we mounted a parody show at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival called Amy Housewine, Back To Crack. This Friday night at the pub, I was telling my friends to look up her appearance on Never Mind The Buzzcocks on YouTube. On Saturday, DC referenced her version of Valerie when describing to me a track he'd just recorded. On Sunday morning I woke up to the news that she was dead.

Is it melodramatic or narcissistic to suggest that with Amy Winehouse dies a part of my youth? Her death couldn't seriously be described as totally unexpected, but it was still shocking. Like everyone else, I played her music as I went about my business today. Although we'd practically been carrying out drills for years on how we'd feel if and when Amy Winehouse OD'd, it felt not just strange that she was gone, but wrong. I didn't want her to be dead. The music was just too good. Sympathy for the personal tragedy goes without saying, but it's also justifiable for us to consider her death in relation to our own lives. Eric Idle once said that when people told him they wanted to see a Monty Python reunion, what they meant was that they wanted to feel young again. Amy Winehouse's music was such a big part of my identity as someone in my late twenties. If there's no more of her music, then I'm not that same person anymore.

"Life is like a pipe, and I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside."
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black

Saturday, May 28, 2011

And why not?

"On the erection of Cleopatra's needle in London in 1878, a time capsule was concealed in the front part of the pedestal. It contained: A set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby's bottle, some children's toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in erection, a 3' bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker's Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers."