Remember when Janis Joplin died?
I don’t, but take my larger point as I set it up for you, please:
Today the world learned that singer Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her London flat. She was 27. And almost instantly, the cyber-verse was alight with cynical commentary about it. So far, Scotland Yard has not ruled on a cause (one can only assume that, had it not been shuttered, News of the World would have immediately begun hacking into her cell phone to find out what she last said and to whom she last spoke). But the conventional wisdom is that she died of a drug overdose, or drank herself literally to death.
I’ll go along with the theory.
A lot of who we have come to regard as amazing talents died at 27 from drug and alcohol problems. Hendrix. Joplin. Belushi. I wonder… if there had been Facebook and Twitter then, would everyone have been so cynical?
You can argue with me that Winehouse is not a name that belongs in the above group. You might be right. Frankly, I don’t know her stuff well enough to say for sure, although I do know she did have a great deal of talent, and a tortured soul: two things required for admission to that club. And I would remind you that Joplin’s biggest hit, “Me and Bobby McGee,” wasn’t released until after she died, at 27, with the whiskey-and-smoke voice of a woman who had lived far beyond her years. In “Just Kids,” Patti Smith waxes both plain and nostalgic about seeing Joplin in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, a relative unknown but for the artists’ circles in which they both traveled. She was nobody then. A rebellious girl with attitude and a gift not everyone cared to hear.
Like Amy Winehouse.
I wasn’t around when Joplin and Hendrix died (I was for Belushi). But if the collective consciousness of cultural memory serves, they were regarded more as up-and-comers than entrenched legends then. Hendrix might have been a little more established; he’d already done the National Anthem on his guitar. But we tend to sanctify the dead after they’ve gone. We don’t know what legends they would have become if they had lived beyond their late 20s. They could have flamed out and been forgotten. It’s the romantic tragedy of their deaths that catapulted them to their culturally contributory fame, really. Though their talents and heft of legacies varied, the same could be argued for all who have died too soon: Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Patsy Cline, Robert Mapplethorpe, even John Lennon. They were sainted in death. In life, they might have wound up merely played out.
We live in different times now, certainly. In the convictional chaos of the 60s and the experimentation that lived through the 70s, it was easy to find depth and poignancy in the gone-too-soon nature of an artist’s death. Did those not belonging to the chaos – those standing outside that particular cultural fire – not regard those artists’ deaths in the same way? At the time, I’d venture the answer is that they didn’t. But now, they probably see it differently, with the glow of history surrounding it and the knowledge that they were part of that revered and reviled generation, whether they were at Woodstock or not. Now, in the digital age, news travels even more quickly than it did then, and universally– to those who don’t share the convictions of the ones who bring them word. Our reactions, now, seem to skew farther toward the wry than toward the gut-wrenched. Amy Winehouse probably won’t be a legend in death. But it would be nice if we valued her life a little more.
Featured image from burgernoodle.com