It never stops being heartbreaking. We love these musicians-Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Jay Reatard, Amy Winehouse-for their talent, for their apparent willingness to get so close to the heart of rock'n'roll, for the way the turbulence of their lives allows us, like stupid vampires, to believe their art is more real, authentic, deeper. Then they die, and we say we saw it coming.
Sure, Amy Winehouse's rap sheet certainly made it seem as if the singer was either unable or uninterested in ceasing the behaviors that, too often, result in tragedy. Remember, too, that she was singing about rejecting rehab before she was became a superstar, so if we're gonna go down the twisted road of assuming she was singing about her life, then we can also assume that she hadn't been easy to help. (If, indeed, people tried.) Now, though, there will be folks who take Winehouse's death as evidence of something powerful about her art. I want those people to understand this: an early death proves of nothing. For every Jim Morrison there's a Leonard Cohen; for every Janis a Joni, a genius who sidestepped. Amy Winehouse was great in spite of drugs, not because of them. Can drugs be a useful tool for some artists? Perhaps, though we have no idea we how much more productive artists who looked to drugs for inspiration might've been had they kept cleaner.
Drugs and music go together. It's a shady business, full of shady people. It can be hard to say no, and it doesn't get any easier. For a while maybe drugs can help a musician work better. When, as in the amazingly talented Winehouse's case, they get famous and we learn about their drug use, we find it compelling. It shows that they're "tortured"; that they're "artists"; that they're "rock'n'roll." (Not one of those things equates to being human, by the way.) Then, in the worst-case scenario, the musician dies. And we get sad, put the dead in a line with the others who died similarly, and, over time, move on to the next seductive disaster-in-waiting. I hate this pattern. I hate it so much.
Maybe-maybe-drugs can allow some musicians to get closer to the music's flame. But it can also snuff them out, and there is no new after-the-fact lesson to be learned from that. There is only sadness and the hope that, over time, we accept that it's far, far better to fade away than burn out. It always was. It always will be.
Read more at http://www.spin.com/
SPIN's 125 Best Albums of the Past 20 Years http://www.spin.com/spin25/125-best-albums-past-25-years
Search 1,400 Album Reviews http://www.spin.com/reviews