Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney, joy, death, and pleasure

New Orleans, 1987. A buddy had lucked into tickets to the Final Four and we spent a long boozy weekend on Bourbon Street. Late one night I went for a walk and came up on a sax player who had drawn a good-sized crowd. He was taking requests. Somebody hollered out, not a song, but a name: Whitney Houston.

The sax man started to play, and we locked arms and swayed, and at 4 in the morning we made the most beautiful alcohol choir, Syracuse basketball fans and Japanese tourists and maybe a hooker or two, singing one of those great pop songs that there's no point in resisting and why would you want to:

But each time I try, I just break down and cry
Cause I'd rather be home feeling blue
So I'm saving all my love for you...

Up until last weekend that was a memory of pleasure. Now I wonder who in that crowd was drunk for the eighth night in a row, who in the crowd had a worried spouse and a crying baby at home, who in the crowd was just starting to feel the addiction lock in like a grappling hook.

Whitney might be the last singer we could all agree on. When her first record came out in 1985, I was mostly listening to rap and indie rock -- I remember a summer of Run-D.M.C. and the Smithereens -- but I had the Whitney cassette, too, because no amount of street cred could deny that voice. It melted you.

For the next few years you could count on a good-to-great Whitney single every few months, "How Will I Know" to "So Emotional" to "All the Man That I Need." (Really, check out that last clip. It's from a concert she did in 1991 for troops coming home from the Gulf War. My favorite shot is at 3:23, where a group of guys in the front row stare up at her in unvarnished awe. As in, yeah, THIS is what we were fighting for.)

"I Will Always Love You" was the biggest hit of all, part of the "Bodyguard" movie with Kevin Costner, and right around here was where I jumped off the bandwagon. Part of it was that the song was everywhere, and even the best ice cream starts to lose something after 27 helpings. But also the song felt like a technical exercise, more a gymnastics routine set to soul than soul itself. It spent 14 weeks at Number One.

She had more hits after that, made a couple of movies, made a ton of money... but by my account we got eight years of great music from Whitney. That's a lot more than most singers give us. But that voice was built for more. That voice was made for comeback hits and sold-out tours and a jazz record in her 60s.

That voice made a hit record out of the national anthem. Twice. Look at her as she belts that last verse -- that power, that control, that confidence. She raises her arms at the end. Champion of the world.

Drugs suck. They suck for every too-young addict who ends up in the obits, everyone shivering in rehab or sitting on another folding chair in another meeting, fingernails dug in, trying to hold on. But imagine having more money than you could ever spend and unlimited free time. It's a junkie's dream.

We don't know yet, of course, if drugs killed Whitney Houston. But there's no doubt that drugs ruined her. The last 15 years added up to ashes: canceled concerts, odd interviews, disheveled tabloid photos, and that heartbreaking show with Bobby Brown where, apparently, they sat around and talked about poop. That's what I heard, anyway. I could never bring myself to watch it.

She fell so far that it soured me on the music. It was hard to listen to the songs I loved; all I could see was her coming out of some club dead-eyed and cackling. But now her death has cleansed her life, and you can choose to remember the parts you want to remember. She can't ruin herself any more.

It's a comforting thought, for about two seconds, until you remember that she died at 48.

You can reduce everything we do as human beings into two or three deep desires -- the need to chase pleasure, the longing to create, the search for something bigger than ourselves. Not many people in this world provided more pleasure than Whitney Houston. She built towers with her voice. That voice, in a lot of ways, was bigger than she was. Now I wonder if that was too hard for her to take.

It's cruel, isn't it, how so many things bring us joy right up to the point where they start killing us.


Leprekhan said...

Her rendition of the national anthem is still the standard by which all others are measured and I doubt many have gotten close (Marvin Gaye is in the conversation as well). Has anything been written that talks about the various times the national anthem has been sung from a positive standpoint? (reading about the terrible attempts like Roseanne isn't exactly what I'm looking for)

Jeff P. said...

Best voice, while she was in her prime, that I have heard during my lifetime. I am 41, and I know some who are older will probably throw out some names that I have seen (or at least not in their prime) whom they feel are better. I can only go by what I have seen and heard. There are many great singers out there now, but Whitney is still in her own class. She made the difficult look effortless. No strain or stress in her face, just clean pure beautiful precise notes.

Chris Sherrill said...

Thanks for the heartfelt thoughts. She was something else, wasn't she.

Timothy Whitson said...

It seems as though forever, our brightest stars will supernova the quickest. RIP Whitney.

Anonymous said...

I hear you on the "I will always love you" being overplayed. Unfortunately, we will be subjected to it again - and even worse, every time some news or entertainment program is on the tube - it will be belted out by its new standard bearer, Jennifer Hudson. Surely for all the tragedy of her final years, she could be remembered for something better!