An appetite for destruction

25 July 2011

Written by: Erdem Koc

So Amy Winehouse has kicked the bucket.

It’s a sad but not entirely unexpected state of affairs (and if I hear one more person say, ‘I guess she should have said “yes” to going to rehab,’ I swear I am going to murder a yak with my bare hands).

She’s had a well-publicised battle with drugs, and a career that has been marred by bizarre public behaviour and subpar concert performances ever since her critically-acclaimed sophomore album Back To Black was released five years ago.

Hindsight is always 20:20, but it seems now inevitable that Winehouse’s demise was always going to be tragically untimely, as it was on the overcast Saturday afternoon when paramedics arrived, too late, at her home in Camden.

Fan or not, you gotta admit the world will miss a great set of pipes.

She’s now part of the too-cool-for-school 27 Club, a dark little posthumous society of rockers that died aged 27, where she can down shooters with Joplin and shoot horse with Cobain to her unbeating heart’s content. And although the gloomy ‘club’ is a great example of confirmation bias (think of all the rock stars who’ve choked on their own vomit or decomposed quietly in a seedy motel room who weren’t 27 years of age), its return to prominence raises some enduring questions about music, fame, and burning out too soon.

The Godfather of Grunge, Neil Young, famously sang, ‘it’s better to burn out than fade away.’ It’s an iconic line that’s reverberated with rock stars ever since. It was a line in Cobain’s suicide note.

But what exactly is so wicked about dying young? Sure, you leave the world pretty and the said world will never think of you as a dried-up sell-out version of the glory you once were (hi, Sir Mick). But is that really enough of an incentive? The overwhelming majority of rock star deaths were accidents. Overdoses and premature heart attacks brought on by daily cocktails of Jack and crack.

So perhaps the allure of dancing with devil isn’t losing the end-game, but partaking in the dance itself. When you have a lot of money, success, and hordes of groupies willing to do anything (Led Zep and a mud shark, anyone?), you’ve got free reign to do whatever the hell you like.

It’s three in the morning and you want to sniff coke off a Playmate’s rockin’ bewbs? Sure thing – would you prefer blonde or brunette?

There’s also the torture that comes with the talent. Musicians aren’t all hedonism and debauchery and the 2011 Playmate of the Year. Think of Cobain and the fantastically-underrated Nick Drake, highly talented artists who preferred to end their lives rather than cope with the torment going on in their heads. The tortured genius complex is well-documented with creative minds throughout history: Hank Williams pretty much drank himself to death; English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was addicted to opium; there’s evidence that ol’ Bill Shakespeare loved to get blazed.

There’s been a million and one articles written on the pleasure-seeking lifestyle that goes hand-in-hand with rock ‘n’ roll. But whether you like your rock stars doing rails off $10,000-a-night hotel room coffee tables or quietly contemplating the void through a rosy morphine haze, sometimes it’s too easy to forget that they are fragile meatsacks just like us.

Winehouse is gone, but her music remains. How clichéd is that? And like a good cliché, it sounds hackneyed because it’s true. Their lives may be ephemeral, but their legacies are not. Cobain’s Heart Shaped Box is as fresh today as it was when released in 1993. Hendrix is still lauded as the greatest guitar player of all time. Marvin Gaye is still the epitome of cool. Morrison will always be The Lizard King.

It’s nice for us to think of our idols as pretty, swaggering and in the prime of life. We hear it intrinsically every time we throw on a record. And we’re drawn to the cavalier throw of the dice that hard-livin’ rock stars like to make with their mortality.

But when you dance with the devil, sooner or later he’ll come to collect. Winehouse is the latest in a long line of musicians who shuffle off this mortal coil a tad too early.

And unfortunately, she won’t be the last.

Renee Tibbs is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and is a former editor of upstart. Her blog is called duck down the alleyway.  You can follow her on Twitter: @reneealleyway.