October 2011

Real Life
Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1/2) Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (Republic, 2007) and the Shangri-Las, Myrmidons of Melodrama (RPM, 1964–66). Again and again after Winehouse died, on July 23, you could read her talking about how she’d written the self-mocking, self-loathing, unflinchingly fuck-you songs for Back to Black: “I didn’t want to just wake up drinking, and crying, and listening to the Shangri-Las, and go to sleep, and wake up drinking, and listening to the Shangri-Las.” But she did. That’s why she would let their deathly “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” drift into “Back to Black”—there is a stunning montage of her gorgeous performances of the two-pieces-in-one on YouTube. That’s why, in “Rehab” and especially in her irresistible, unreadable 2008 Grammy performance of“You Know I’m No Good,” Winehouse was her own leader of the pack, but without a pack, without even girlfriends to ask her if she was really going out with him, if she was really going all the way, on her own, perhaps with nothing but the satisfaction of getting it right, saying what she had to say, adding something to the form that brought her to life as an artist, adding her name and face to the story it told. Yes, she wrote “You Know I’m No Good,” and like any work of art it was a fiction that bounced back on real life, maybe the author’s, maybe not; as she sang it on the Grammys, you could hear her listening to the song as well as singing it, hear the song talking to her, hear her asking herself, as she sang, “Is that true? Is that what I want? Is that all I’ve got?”

“She could not stand fame any more than I could,” Mary Weiss, the lead singer of the Shangri-Las, said after Winehouse died. “I wish I could have helped her, even if she never sang publicly again. My hairdresser told me that is just ego, thinking that maybe you could possibly make a difference when others could not. I thought about it, long and hard. I do not think so. I would have only spoken about her pain, not drug usage, until (if ever) she was ready. I related to her so much it is a bit scary… I will never understand why people get off kicking people when they are down and need help. How could that possibly make you feel better about yourself?”

With anyone else but Mary Weiss as a lead singer, the doom in Shangri-Las songs might have turned into a joke, but it never happened: every time, whether in “Remember,” “Give Us Your Blessings,” “Out in the Streets,” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” or “Past, Present, and Future,” the singer was a different person, starting from the beginning, telling her story as far as it would go, which was never very far. Their songs, like Winehouse’s, were all locked doors, doors that locked you out or that you locked yourself from the inside. But maybe because she is still here and speaking plainly, inside Weiss’s words you can imagine other lives for Amy Winehouse: a junkie on the street like Marianne Faithfull, who finally walked away, back into the career she never really had the first time around, first recording in the same year the Shangri-Las first recorded, this year covering their ghostly “Past, Present, and Future” on a new album; a grimy singer with a guitar case open at her feet, like anyone in your town; a social worker with years of shock treatment behind her, like June Miller; a music teacher for kindergarteners; an old woman with stories nobody believes.

(3) Amen Dunes, Through Donkey Jaw (Sacred Bones). The music here—less abstract than vague—may be trying to live up to its cover photo by Deborah Turbeville, which could have appeared in Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip: a dark-haired woman with glasses, a hand held to her open mouth in alarm, and frightened eyes—eyes frightened by something behind them, not in front of them.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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