Tag Archives: death

Back to Black

The first I remember of Amy Winehouse is seeing her on Popworld with Simon Amstell, around the time of her first album Frank. She was immediately memorable: funny and fresh and down to earth. There was a cheekiness and cleverness about her that shat all over the media-trained popstars that Popworld (much missed) regularly took the piss out of.

Well I bought the album, and I liked it, but it was her second album Back to Black that really got under my skin. Passion and defiance, good times and pain, all wrapped up together on one intoxicating disc. I’m listening to it now. It’s the pain that shines through.  That record got me through some terrible times. I’d fallen for a guy who turned out to be a criminal, the police caught up with him, he went to prison. Sequence shortened, as they say in the iPhone ads.

I stood by my boyfriend through the best part of a year. Everyone’s good, underneath it all, aren’t they? Everyone has their problems! I went to see him in prison a lot. It was awful. Amy stood by me. She went through some similar shit. She seemed to understand. He left no time to regret! Me with my head high! Get on without my guy! I died a hundred times! I really did.

Well he came out of prison eventually. And we split up. We still hung around one another though. It was hard to let go. Then he did some more shit and went back to prison again. And in 2008, while I was still mooning over my ex, I finally met the love of my life. I was DJing at a karaoke night on Saturdays. He walked in and he sang You Know I’m No Good. Brilliantly. At the end he called “Shout out to my boy Blake in Pentonville!” Yeah, he’s an Amy fan too.

“Hey,” I said, sidling up to him on a break. “I’ve got a boy in Pentonville myself, sort of.” We’ve been together ever since. That’s what I’ve got to thank Amy for: her troubled life and her brilliant work, completely indivisible, providing me with the chat-up line that got me together with the man I love.

Let me share a story with you, via my ex, of an afternoon in the Pentonville visiting room when Amy went to see Blake. It’s not the sort of thing people generally get to hear about, unless you’ve led a complicated life like hers or mine. Amy was trying to spend some quality time with her man, and believe me it’s hard work getting those visits booked, and an upsetting environment when you get there. Every prisoner in North London started singing Rehab at her, the whole room filling with her own words thrown back at her. When you’re powerless, mockery’s all you’ve got. “Fuck you!” Amy shouted back at a room full of hardened criminals. “I’m rich!” And she was.


A Message To Your Heart – The Tao of Ronnie Mitchell

EastEnders characters aren’t generally allowed to enjoy happiness for very long. But even by those standards Ronnie Mitchell’s time on the soap was alarmingly glum and unlucky. You can count the moments of true, untainted happiness she had in Albert Square on the fingers of one hand, assuming you’ve had all the fingers on that hand amputated.

Ronnie’s staggered through her time in ‘Enders like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, blighted by rape, betrayal and the loss of a child (or three). She’s been at the mercy of heartless men, she’s made terrible decisions and she’s been the victim of cruel, cruel fate. Always with the cruel, cruel fate. Even Thomas Hardy would have sucked his teeth in and thought twice before subjecting her to some of the tragic ironies she endured. As Samantha Womack said in an interview recently, she’s had to cry and scream every day for years. Well it’s been a great performance and some unforgettably miserable times, and I’m going to miss her.

In 1991 Samantha Janus (as she was called back then) represented the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest. Let’s let her uplifting message play as we consider how different Ronnie’s life might have been if she’d followed the advice in the song…

Half the world is hungry, just through being born.

And every day is a compromise, for a grain of corn

Despite the world’s booming overpopulation problem, Ronnie’s been characterised more than anything by her obsession with getting fertilised and having a child. Having given away her baby as a teenager, and later tricked into believing her daughter had died, she was desperate to get pregnant again. And she’d do anything from piercing her boyfriend’s condoms to seducing a man convicted of trying to kill his own daughter to get there. Generally it was Jack she turned to for sperm, and fair enough, as he had already fathered children with Ronnie’s sister AND her cousin. It seemed like a good biological match.

And half the world have too much, their only hunger is their greed

Through politics and ignorance, half the world’s in need

It was Ronnie’s dad Archie’s greed for power that did in for her. Whether he was raping her, tricking her, or causing her miscarriage by pushing her into the bar of the Queen Vic, it was always a laugh-a-min when they got together.

A message to your heart – it’s alright

Say a little prayer And sleep tonight, oh…

Tomorrow you’ll still be in paradise

Poor Danielle. The BBC spun the storyline out for the best part of a year — that Danielle was Ronnie’s long-lost, presumed-dead daughter but wasn’t sure enough of her mother’s affections to tell her so — and then concluded the plot with the most affectingly evil masterstroke imaginable, as the truth came out and the two were reconciled JUST as Danielle got knocked over and killed. I didn’t go as far as all the fans who petitioned the Beeb to bring Danielle back (er, how, exactly?) but I did have a little sniffle.

A message to your heart, walk on by

Till you hear the voice of conscience cry, oh…

There but for the grace of God, go on

If only Ronnie HAD walked on by on New Year’s Eve. The baby-swap plot, as Ronnie put her dead son in Kat’s crib and sneaked off with her friend’s healthy baby, was quite possibly the grimmest thing the BBC have ever shown on a festive occasion. It certainly attracted more complaints than any other storyline has ever done. I’m glad everything got resolved so elegantly tonight for Ronnie’s last episode. And I bloody hope she comes back.

They don’t see the children with hunger in their eyes

And the time has come for changes, though for some it’s much too late

A message to your heart indeed. Terry Wogan didn’t see that coming.

What I did at Auntie Steph’s

By Bert, aged 3.9

There is always something going on when I visit my Auntie Steph. The last time I saw her she took me to church and it was a very unusual church but I did not write any homework about that because she told me not to. This week when I went round she was just climbing out of the window because she had done a chip pan fire.

It must have been quite a bad chip pan fire, I said, because there was smoke everywhere. Auntie Steph said yes, she did not really know what she was doing because she does not usually eat chips but she was in a strange mood tonight. I said had she put a damp teatowel over the chip pan as that was what they showed us in the video at school and she said yes and she rushed back in to get it and hang it up to dry as it was Versaatchi.

I asked her where all her friends were because normally when I see her she has about twenty friends with her and they are all having fun together.

She said she had sent all her friends away tonight because she was feeling dangerous and could I feel the rush. I said no I am only 3.9 years old and she said would I like to stand on the ledge with her and I said I had better not because my mum might be angry. Also there was a strange look in her eye and I was a bit scared.

Then Auntie Steph lay down and started kissing the pavement. I said what if dogs had done their business there and she said one day I would understand what she felt like and I didn’t say anything back because I would like to feel like Auntie Steph does sometimes but I do not think I would be able to feel like that all of the time.

Then she said she was going to go back inside and I said what about the smoke from the chip pan and I did not hear what she said because a man started playing the saxophone and the next day I heard that he had died and it made me sad that I had not known the man because his saxophone was nice but I hoped Auntie Steph had made friends with her neighbour before he died.

There’s nothing “only” about being Sarah Jane Smith

Oh I can’t pretend to write a tribute to Elisabeth Sladen. I didn’t know her. But I know Sarah Jane Smith, the character she made real for millions of viewers like me.

Sarah’s a character who doesn’t come across particularly well on the page. Looking at the scripts for mid-70s Doctor Who, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether she had any personality of her own at all. But Lis Sladen’s magical performance lifts the “strident investigative journalist” to a different level. She fills her with warmth, mischief, and a sense of adventure. She makes her completely human. Paired with Tom Baker at his most distant and alien, she becomes the eyes, and voice, of all of us. Faced with the wonders and horrors of the whole universe, what would we do? Don a series of increasingly ridiculous outfits and plunge into adventure with a sense of fun and a sprinkling of sarcasm? I’d like to think so.

Watch any of her classic episodes. Her reactions, her readings, her ‘choices’, as they say in the biz, are always extraordinary. She lifts the most mundane of scenes into something captivating. As a character, she brings the Doctor down to size, and she brings us up to his. Her ordinariness becomes iconic. Brilliant.

Her death feels particularly sudden and awful because she’s been so much a part of the modern Who family recently, brought back to front the excellent The Sarah Jane Adventures on CBBC for the last few years. When she first reappeared in School Reunion she had the opportunity to best Rose in a roll call of the terrors she’d faced: “Mummies!… Robots, lots of robots!… Daleks!… Anti-matter monsters!…. Real life dinosaurs!… THE Loch Ness Monster!” An impressive list to which I’d only add the essential “Been menaced by a giant tentacle in a cottage!”

I can’t sincerely say “R.I.P.” because I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe we live in a random, uncaring universe that’s mostly shit but can be lightened with moments of silliness and joy. We’re all just dogs walking on our hind legs. But once in a while we might be a dog that’s in a street somewhere that’s probably not South Croydon, and someone might pass through our lives briefly, with a playful tap of a tennis racquet, who reminds us to keep whistling in the face of an uncertain future. Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.

If popstars were… the apocalypse

So many ways for the world to end. It’s almost impossible to choose the best one. But some of our most interesting popstars have had a stab, and Britney’s only the most recent…

Jonathan King – Everyone’s Gone To The Moon

I’m scared, hold me! Where better to start our end times tour than with Jonathan King? Sure, this song’s been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to the Flaming Lips, but the desolate lyrics have a special resonance coming out of the wonky mouth of their author, the future convicted sex offender and satirically self-proclaimed ‘Vile Pervert’.

What sort of apocalypse is this? It’s a very 60s sort of Armageddon, with overtones of an ecological crisis but a sense that the worst thing that could happen would be everyone not loving each other any more and just going away. Jonathan wanders the streets of an abandoned earth, rambling oddly about mouths full of chocolate covered cream and arms that can only lift a spoon. No I’m not sure what it means either. Perhaps there are clues in his later work.

Does it sound like the end of all things? Yes it sounds terrible.

Black Box Recorder – It’s Only The End of the World

I’m scared, hold me! Well yes I have skipped straight to the late 90s without including Pet Shop Boys’ End of the World. It’s beautiful and devastating but it’s about the world NOT ending. Think of Black Box Recorder’s song as a bleaker response along similar lines if you like.

What sort of apocalypse is this? I’d say it’s the natural destruction of the earth as a consequence of the sun’s expansion – seen in an especially soporific, bored way, of course. The earth’s rotation slows, satellites break up in the atmosphere and our ashes are scattered in space. Meanwhile the narrator’s thoughts turn to the tatty fairground rides at a departed circus, and the dissipation of love.

Does it sound like the end of all things? Yes, if the end of all things is like going to sleep under anaesthetic in a 50s hospital while a posh, disinterested nurse talks you down. It’s exquisite.

Muse – Apocalypse Please

I’m scared, hold me! It’s no surprise to find these fellas on the list. They’re Britain’s favourite doomsday combo, after all. “It’s time for something biblical!” declares Matt Bellamy with glee as thunderous piano chords and DRUMS OF DEATH smash all around him.

What sort of apocalypse is this? You only need to look at the album cover: it’s the Christian Rapture, and some poor fella’s got stuck on earth. Speaking of which, I discovered today that there’s — oh yes — a video game version of Left Behind, that histrionic series of post-Rapture potboilers that’s popular in Christian bookshops. “If you can’t convert them, you might have to kill them!” players will tell themselves as they struggle to bring God’s love to a world awaiting Tribulation. Amusingly for uptight evangelicals everywhere, you can also play as the Antichrist’s forces.

Does it sound like the end of all things? Yes it bloody does.

U2 – Last Night On Earth

I’m scared, hold me! You can’t blame U2, with their roots in a charismatic Dublin fellowship, for being a bit obsessed with the end times. They’d even already had a dry run with Until the End of the World, a few years before this one.

So, apparently they had to put this song together in a terrible rush on their last studio day before going on tour. Poor Bono had to stay up all night to finish the lyrics! It doesn’t show, Bono. My favourite bit is “She’s not waiting on a saviour to come, she’s at a bus-stop with the News of the World and the Sun.” Given a choice of how to spend the last few hours of existence, I wouldn’t bother with the tabloids I don’t think. Especially not when, as logic tells us, one of them is at least a day out of date, whichever day of the week it is.

What sort of apocalypse is this? Hands on the clock are sticking and slipping (temporal distortion?), the ground’s giving way, and the girl in the song has got to ‘give it away’. It’s all a bit vague (THAT’S NOT LIKE YOU BONO), and Dublin was a long time ago, so let’s plump for something nice and Buddhist involving an advanced perception of time and the cycle of destruction and recreation.

Does it sound like the end of all things? No, it sounds like milky tea.

Britney Spears – Till The World Ends

I’m scared, hold me! Well it was only a matter of time before Britney turned her attention from self-destruction to the destruction of all things. Her sugar-coated catastrophe takes the form of a doom-laden dance-off. It’s that unique feeling when you find a partner on the dancefloor who’s so good you want to grind to the beat until the flesh melts off your bones.

What sort of apocalypse is this? Britney’s assertion that the world’s end will be within her lifetime rules out the dispensational premillennialism you might expect from her Southern Baptist upbringing. I’d tag her as a progressive amillennialist, or even a partial preterist, although with her determined adherence to hedonism in this song, it’s possible she doesn’t see herself as one of the saved.

Does it sound like the end of all things? No-one expected a disco! But there’s that thrilling moment when the end of the world is depicted sonically by a decaying 8-bit crunch. And then it comes back! Of course, if you watch the video, Britney does appear to have actually averted the apocalypse by dancing. The sun shines out of her arse at 3:10 and all! And as it’s set on “December 21, 2012”, she seems to have lumped herself in with the Mayan calendar view of things, so I might just have to rethink my interpretation of her eschatological leanings. But I’ll let Wikipedia have the last word. They’ve got a very important, and amazing, distinction to make.

If popstars were… runaways

Salsoul Orchestra & Loleatta Holloway – Runaway

Where are we? There’s a funky bass, some parping brass, swooning strings, bongos, and the vibes solo by which all other vibes solos must be judged. We have arrived in the golden age of disco.

What are we running away from? You better not hesitate! Loleatta warns us to get running because she’s going to mess around (that’s the way she wants to be), she doesn’t want our love (it’d just slow her down), and she can always find another clown if she changes her mind. What a cow.

Where shall we run to? To be honest, after hearing that big gospel & honey voice we’re going to be running straight back into her arms to be mistreated. :(

Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy

Where are we? A classic wandering bassline pumping up and down the octaves, the best keyboards that the early 80s had to offer, and Jimmy Somerville’s unearthly wailing over the top of it all – it is the golden age of synthpop.

What are we running away from? Disowned… disowned… You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case. We are fleeing small towns full of small minds and their prejudices, especially — according to the video — swimming pool-related homophobia.

Where shall we run to? We will be running to a bedsit in London and hanging around in Soho, on this occasion.

Soul Asylum – Runaway Train

Where are we? We are anywhere in the world, but definitely in the golden age of earnest, angsty rock.

What are we running away from? How on earth did I get so jaded? Life’s mystery seems so faded. The lyrics are as vague as anything, but I guess the band would say ‘universal’. For the video showed a montage of actual missing person appeals, and was released in a variety of locally-relevant versions around the world.

Where shall we run to? Well some of the real life runaways came home after seeing the video. It didn’t always work out for the best and there are some awful horror stories, but there you go. It’s only music.

Devlin (featuring Yasmin) – Runaway

Where are we? We are in the golden age of have-a-go rap. I’m not a big fan of Devlin’s, but there are some nice timpani rolls in this one and getting Yasmin on the track immediately adds a certain class.

What are we running away from? Pain on all the faces of multi-cultural races! According to the lyrics, Devlin’s got a theory that urban violence will end if he leaves the slum behind, and Yasmin’s a bit bored with her job. So it’s a fair swap.

Where shall we run to? There’s talk of of being free and just being yourself, of a path of rediscovery, of the fruits from the lost garden of Eden. They also mention a train from Victoria and the English Channel so I guess it’s a ferry to Calais then.

Kanye West – Runaway

"Your girlfriend is really beautiful." "Ha, thank you." "Do you know she's a bird?" "No I never noticed that."

Where are we? We’re in the depths (or the heart) of Kanye’s twisted fantasy now. The plinky-plonk piano of doom, those gorgeous big rich synthesiser lines, jagged pain coming out as a robot voice, all that territory. And in the video we’re at a surrealist feast with ballerinas, where there’s a terrible misunderstanding involving Kanye’s avian new girlfriend and a roast turkey on the dinner table.

What are we running from? FROM KANYE HIMSELF. Because lyrically we’re back where we started with Loleatta; we should save ourselves because the singer’s full of shit and scared of intimacy. But while Loleatta had an imperious surety about her, Kanye’s just in the mood to squat in his own self-pity and toast his own douchery.

Where shall we run to? As Kanye keeps finding out on his recent albums, there’s nowhere to go when it’s yourself that you’re trying to outrun. We can only run, as always, to music.

This post was never meant to be a tribute to anyone. But Loleatta Holloway died, in-between my writing the text on Monday and sorting out the pictures on Tuesday. So GOODBYE NICE VOICE LADY, I’m sorry I called you a cow, and you’d better have the last word:

Which Seat Can I Take? The Tao of Rebecca Black

7am, waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Seein’ everything, the time is goin’
Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin’

Rebecca Black is 13 years old. She’s got her whole life ahead of her. There’s no need for her to rush.  But she senses it, dimly, the way time crashes in, leaving loss and regret in its wake. We see her family rushing by, senselessly, while Rebecca clings to a moment. We’ve all clung to childish things like a favourite bowl. I had a favourite yellow mug for years that I used to drink from every morning. It smashed. There was talk of it being replaced, but that never came to anything.

Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends
Kickin’ in the front seat
Sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?

As childhood ends and we enter the adult world, we face complexities we couldn’t have imagined before. Rebecca is rapidly becoming a young woman. The front seat or the back seat? Here she is referencing Arcade Fire’s In The Backseat and its use of locations in a car as metaphors for passivity and growth; it’s peaceful in the back seat, but sometimes we realise we’ve actually been learning to drive while watching the world go by. And which seat can Rebecca take? Will her life be driven by others, or will she learn to make her own choices?

It’s Friday, Friday
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend

Partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah)
Partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah)
Fun, fun, fun, fun
Lookin’ forward to the weekend

7:45, we’re drivin’ on the highway
Cruisin’ so fast, I want time to fly
Fun, fun, think about fun

Fun, fun, think about fun’ – it’s a mantra, and a desperate one. Rebecca wants time to fly so the weekend can arrive, but we see the tightness in her eyes, and we feel she knows that every golden weekend of youth is just a stepping stone to future sadness. Does she discern that these carefree Fridays can’t last? At 13 does she picture herself, at 26, spending her Fridays desperately downing drink after drink in a bar, hoping someone will notice her before it’s too late? Can she imagine being 39, grateful just to get to the end of the working week without sobbing in the toilets, and dragging herself home, red-eyed and exhausted?

Yesterday was Thursday (Thursday)
Today is Friday (Friday)
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today
Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwaaaaaards
I don’t want this weekend to end

We never want it to end. But it must. All things must. It’s happened subtly, but at some point Friday has shifted from being a lament for the death of childhood, and become a statement about the pointlessness of all existence itself. All we have left are the days of the week, as the pages of the calendar turn and detach like brown leaves from a wet branch. And then, as the heat death of the universe approaches, even those certainties must pass.

Passin’ by is a school bus in front of me
Makes tick tock, tick tock, wanna scream

The anonymous rapper senses it too, time’s arrow embodied in a yellow bus. All those potential futures in one vehicle, ticking away to nothing.

Is it any wonder that the Friday video surfaced now, in the last week of winter? In many cultural traditions we are about to celebrate the dawn of a new year as the vernal equinox approaches. It is a good time to reflect on the cruel, impersonal patterns of the universe. The cycle of life and death, of destruction and rebirth, continues, for now. Rebecca Black is 13 years old. It is Friday.