An Ode to Struggling Musicians. And the Time I Turned Down Amy Winehouse..

Amy Winehouse, drinking onstage

The ‘turning down Amy Winehouse’ bit is admittedly a slightly misleading title.

What I mean to say is that one of my lingering regrets in life is that I once turned down the chance to see Amy live in Camden Town – at what would’ve been a tiny, intimate venue, and before she was famous.

I mention this now only because yesterday was – remarkably – the fifth anniversary of her very premature death at the age of 27 and I wanted to mark the moment.

I think her first album, Frank, hadn’t even been made yet. I don’t remember exactly when it was, but it was around 2002/3-ish, and at that time I was going to a lot of gigs in and around London: partly because the band I was in at the time was playing a lot of gigs in London.

In this particular instance, we had played in Camden – I think at some place called the Dublin Castle. Someone I knew from another band who’d come to watch us wanted to go see this North London girl-singer doing a lot in some tiny cafe-type place, but couldn’t get anyone to go with him.

He kept asking me to go; but I was tired, it was late, and having just played and then also watched three other acts, I’d had enough music for one night.

Besides, I didn’t know who this Amy person was anyway. Neither did he – he wasn’t interested in her specifically, just in staying out longer, drinking more and finding more music going on. And as a result of me not wanting to go, my friend didn’t go either.

I was never that big a fan of her first album, but her second album, Back to Black, was one of the best pieces of work that’s ever been put out in my lifetime; she subsequently became probably the most special pop music icon of this generation. And whenever I listen to that record (for the fiftieth time), I chastise myself over and over again that I was too tired or uninterested to go watch her perform in a tiny place long before anyone knew who she was.

It reminds me of a guy I once spoke to who said he’d walked out of a Bleach-era Nirvana show to go to the bar and get drinks, missing most of the set and not imagining that those “shabby sounding” guys would ever amount to anything.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that we should remember that today’s anonymous performer in a tiny bar can be tomorrow’s epic artiste: and we shouldn’t become so switched off or jaded that we miss potentially special moments in time.

When I was a little younger, I did understand that better.

And I have entirely lost count of the number of genuinely talented, earnest and compelling artists and performers I used to watch in tiny venues, where hardly anyone showed up, or where those who did show up were busy talking, drinking or trying to score, instead of taking in the performance.

I’ve lost count too of the number of genuinely talented, dedicated performers and artists who spent several years or more doing all the little venues, struggling to continue scraping the resources together to keep going, pay for the cabs or rehearsal spaces, or to manage to make a little CD: but who ultimately didn’t get anywhere and ended up kind of just vanishing back into the ether, utterly anonymous.

That being said, the last tiny band I took a chance on was a band called ‘Clunge Plunger’. And it’s safe to say they will not be filling out venues any time soon. Or ever.

Saj Awan, onstage with Chimanko, 2001 

But one of the most vivid of these I remember is a kind of anonymous, glasses-wearing girl with an acoustic guitar, whose name I don’t even remember. But I remember she had played a genuinely amazing twenty minute set in front of around 30 people, most of whom weren’t paying that much attention. I spoke to her for a minute or so later on, and she told me she had been playing shows for about three years, virtually bankrupting herself to keep going, working at a job cleaning rabbit hutches, constantly failing to make her rent. And she told me was quitting music soon, because it wasn’t going anywhere and she couldn’t afford it anymore.

At virtually that moment – once all the performances were finished – the venue started playing random pop/chart songs over the PA: and suddenly all these people, who had mostly been only vaguely attentive to the actual on-stage acts, came to the dance-floor and were happily dancing to the non-live music. This was a pretty brutal slap-in-the-face to her and the other acts: she pretty much told me so, but I understood perfectly, as I had played gigs like that too and experienced the same thing.

What was most extraordinary about that conversation is that, when I asked her if she had a CD or tape I could buy, she told me she had never recorded any of her music.

She’d had limited resources and had just never gotten around to recording a proper CD, having decided to focus on live performances instead. Which means – assuming she did quit and never got around to a recording – that that music doesn’t exist anywhere except in those moments of time in which she’d performed them in those little venues – in which most people appeared not to be that attentive anyway.

I think about her, and any number of other talented, earnest performers, over the years, wondering what happened to them and what they’ve ended up doing with their lives. I swear – although I’m not 100% percent certain – that I saw a homeless guy begging on the street once who I had previously seen performing as the opening act for one of my friends’ bands.

And reflecting also on how much genuinely good music and how many very good artists over the years have simply disappeared before even being able to make an impression.

Amy Winehouse – though she died tragically young and didn’t get to play out what would’ve been a rich, interesting career – was at least was one of those fortunate ones who got the backing and the favorable circumstances that allowed her star to shine for that brief moment: that brief moment was in fact all that was needed to ensure that her work echoes for decades.

But that other girl – again, whose name I never remembered – is a nobody.

And, in some weird philosophical way, the fact that none of her music was ever recorded feels like the music never existed.

That’s a question I’m flirting with: if music doesn’t exist in permanent form and was only ever played live a few times, can it be said to even exist? Or does it exist only in some vague dimension of unfulfilled or unmanifested potentiality; kind of like a river of discarnate souls, but for ideas, unfinished art and unlived possibilities?

Have I gone too far with this post and ended up in a weird place? Probably.

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.


  1. I’m still having a go and getting a bit of independent airplay – visit http://www.songcity.co.uk for more info… An album that attacks ALL sides of the political spectrum because they are ALL LIARS. Topics covered include Tony Blair (War crimes & more), David Cameron (Pig abuse). ET’s, Artificial intelligence, Vaccinations, 9/11, 7/7, Moon landings and more! We can turn this around…

    • Martin, retweeted ‘you/this’ earlier, now seen you here. On the r/tweet wrote:

      ‘What the poppers all givin it the tough and real, wimpy won’t say… not even up-and-comers. Martin rocks and rages.’

      best to ya, onwards and pioneer on…

  2. For some reason, I can’t continue the thread so I have to comment down here. Pro trolls in the US are probably in the thousands, but that may be an underestimation. I know the UK government has paid trolls too. The FBI DEFINITELY has a troll army. I mean, in some ways, it’s a sweet gig. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to patrol comment forums and stir shit up? Get paid to be an asshole, with paid vacation and overtime, plus job security! Rest assured your job won’t get outsourced to China or Bangladesh! That said, it’s so pathetic that this is what it’s come to. Create art you love (whether or not it’s any good is another story altogether) and starve halfway to death, do your part to destroy society and get rewarded with financial stability and some measure of status.

    I sincerely hope you’re not planning on becoming a paid troll. Yes it pays well, and I doubt it will come under austerity cuts (fucking with the hoi polloi is always an essential govt expenditure). Well, if you do decide to rent your soul to the devil for a short period of time (does he accept short term leases, or is he the marrying kind?) at least have the decency to tell us about it!

    • Fuck, no! I was just curious – because some comments I see on other platforms or YouTube (particularly very extreme comments) make me wonder if they’re legit or not.
      But no, seriously – I would rather starve and be clean than prosper as dirty.

  3. Music is a sad racket. I was in it my whole life. I remember playing in Camden. Not bad for a bloke from Texas 🙂

    But you make some excellent points. It is a wistful remembrance…reflecting on years and decades of hard work. Most of it seems for naught. But we never know what nuggets will be unearthed by some quirk of future curiosity.

    Great writing, mate!


    • You’re from Texas and played in Camden? That’s awesome 🙂
      Camden did have – and still does to some extent – a great music scene, so I hope you had a good experience.
      Yeah, it is a sad racket: and I’m pretty sure that talent/quality is only about 40 to 50 percent of the ingredient: the rest is either connections or pure luck. Sincerity, passion or joy is everything at the start – but, in the end (as time pushes on), if you’re not able to support yourself, it becomes unsustainable.
      How much truly great music has never been heard?

      • Yep! I’m amazed by all these private press vinyl that’s been found in the last few years. Stuff that was printed in maybe 50 to 100 total run. Great psychedelic and folk and outsider weird recordings. Kinda like cassettes and CD-Rs with homemade artwork. I wish the best karma on all those neglected acts and performers who put the years in and got very little recognition.

        I hope someday I can help bring some long-overdue smiles to those who dreamed so big and lost it all.


  4. Right to remind. When had a few, always start on, “doing the fight for this… aghhh…” That/in – freedoms to rock ‘n roll. Gooey-eyed, surveying the happy smiling people – helps me, stir-on. Think, might be the best, wake and wage war promo: “Love ‘this’? – how much?”. Doesn’t seem to ever stick enough and action-stations but hey, makes sense, ‘least – gain an amen.

    How blessed culturally this last few generations? To live, like you have us appreciate. Here in your wee, life-affirming, write. All about, the rest of the posts. Why the what.

    And if what looks, could’ve been a dodgy death and Amy – expose those who do that kind of thing. Catch the gig-spoilers and whole-whole whole lot worse. But at best, art is anti-empire/crimes and Amy, looked to me hunch-wise, one rare un, who might’ve gone ‘public’ in agreement about. Perhaps…? Ahh, leave her be. Never got to really listen to her, but from a distance – someone not seem so tame and sanitised by Babylon. Just heard a clip of Hendrix. Bit like him.

    • Hendrix is a music god, no doubt. Dead over 40 years, yet kids today still discover him as if he’s contemporary.
      ‘How blessed culturally this last few generations?’ – not sure I get your drift on that?
      On the subject of anti empire/crimes, etc – it does seem there’s no ‘protest music’ anymore, and in general most musicians – certainly those with high profile – are completely switched off politically/socially. I know you get Radiohead or Rage Against the Machine, PJ Harvey, Public Enemy, etc, doing stuff – but those are all previous-generation artists. As far as ‘modern’ acts and trends go, it seems to be complete silence (and ‘Illuminati’ hand/eye symbols).
      Even rap/hip-hop, which used to be all *about* social/political issues, seems to have had its claws removed and just been turned into a soulless billion-dollar industry.

      • How pop(ular) music has been used and abused to knock the political out of us is an underwritten number. As for ‘blessed’ = the abundance. Expressions of free-er than not youth and like. Which mostly remains as – commented below – a ‘sad racket’ but says something about what life at best, can or could be? Perhaps, because I lost my heart for rock ‘n rap and all the life and dope goes with it, I try to see it as some people’s motive for living. Was mine for donkeys years. Should I grieve for its at-best and under threat, or see it for the tool to con? What I know, is some of those makers and sounded like they accompanied the rise-up and better life, have given-up… Anyway, thanks again for article and reply. Gets me thinking. Paradoxically appreciation and outrage.

  5. I think the main thing that’s so sad about this is that we have created a system where people have to starve because they would rather create than work at a soul sucking job. You can make some seriously good money spreading human misery, but you have to starve just because you want to make music and you were unfortunate enough to be born without the proper connections or a rich enough family to support your passion. You can live very nicely working as a drone operator, killing people who look like ants on a giant computer screen–you can make up to 6 figures, with full retirement and medical benefits, plus lots of overtime. I hear professional trolls live very well too, lots of financial benefits for ruining public discourse and destroying targeted people. OK, I’ll be honest, I did wonder if I could handle being a professional troll if I could get 2 paid vacations twice a year. Is my soul really that cheap? All kidding aside, I think this post is sad because it shows how far human society has fallen.

    • Well, I’m pretty much one of those people too. I don’t want to divulge too much personal info on this platform, but I worked very hard in the music racket for years and have done so periodically ever since – but have never come close to being in a situation that was financially viable. You lose way more money than you can ever really regain, and while most of the time you’re riding on your sincere passion or inner urge/drive, you do end up demoralised a lot of the time.
      It’s actually gotten worse in modern times, because of the Internet – you would think the Internet would actually make things BETTER for musicians and artists: and in some ways it does, in terms of getting word out and having platforms and being able to widely distribute. But it has also meant that most musicians and creators aren’t going to be able to turn it into their ‘living’, especially as CD/product sales are way down and most mainstream outlets, including radio stations, are no longer bothered with looking at ‘alternative’ genres or acts or grassroots musicians, but now just rely entirely on whatever’s coming off the corporate conveyor belt.
      I could go on about this subject for ages, so I’ll stop. But you’re spot on about the ‘system’ that has people having to choose between starving or creating.
      There’s someone I know, as an example: he was in a band around the same time as I was playing a lot, and he was so passionately into it – music was everything to him. But within a few years, he was so broke, had failed his rent so many times, and was so demoralised with doing the circuit, he ended it up letting it go. I met him again about two years ago and he was a completely different person: he was working a steady city job, but was on anti-depressants. The personality change was enormous – he had no personality anymore and was almost like someone who’d had a lobotomy, which was probably the medication. But this guy used to be the life of a party; full of energy and jokes and mischief.
      I obviously didn’t say any of this to him: but it was kind of depressing to observe.
      On another note: how you become a pro troll? It’s not like they advertise those positions, is it?

      • Being a pro-troll has to be a think tank or government gig. I mean, who has the spare capital lying around to pay you to scan comments and post fast responses? I can’t speak for UK government employee requirements, but here in the US you are disqualified if you have bad credit. Well, I suppose they can make an exception if you are recommended by someone, but you really have gag your soul, hogtie it, then lock it up in the basement if you’re going to do that kind of work. I suppose there are many people these days who can handle doing that for material comfort.

        I do think the system was created this way on purpose. How else can elites “convince” people to dedicate their labor to advancing their interests if they make it easy for the proles to do what they want? If they have to “make a living”, then they have to prioritize serving the elites just to keep their head above water. How does it serve elite interests to allow the proles to pursue their true passions and achieve their true potential? Fuck that, the only people who deserve to achieve their potential are the upper crust, and everybody else just needs to accept that it’s their lot in life to serve their betters just to put food on the table! Their inner life, personal interests, and natural talents don’t matter, only their ability to serve their masters truly matters, and once that’s gone, off to the trash bin with you!

        I always wondered why people never questioned the so-called value of “work”. I mean I’m not anti-work, but in general society tells you that you are worthless if you don’t work or are not doing anything that produces money. What if you can’t work? What if you can work, but no one wants to hire you? Who says you even have to justify your existence by working? Well, I”m certainly not a bum, but I do believe you shouldn’t risk homelessness just because you don’t want to work. We really have to let go of this BS value that work is so inherently meaningful.

        I’ve never been considered for pro-troll work, nor have I ever applied. It piqued my interest when I read up on it, and I did think seriously about trying to apply. I told myself, “it’s gonna be temporary” “don;t knock it til you try it” “you’re not applying to be a drone operater” (not that I had the skills to be one anyway, but I swear if I did have the skills I still wouldn’t do it). Like so many silly side gig ideas I had before, it thankfully died on the vine.

        • M, just out of interest – because I’ve never looked at this subject much – how *many* paid trolls do you think are active out there? I mean, if you were to approximate a percentage of contributors to comments-sections or websites who are full ‘trolls’, what would you guess?

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