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.
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.