August 20th, 2012

It’s the 10th anniversary of Clipse’s Lord Willin’. Inspired by my brother’s piece about the album in its time for Stereogum, I dug up this essay I wrote for The Philadelphia Independent on “Grindin’” and drug lingo. It’s not online, so major thanks to B. Michael Payne for this rather unorthodox reconstruction. Click to enlarge and read. 

July 23rd, 2011

When news breaks, we respond. When someone dies, we produce sentiment. When it’s a celebrity, we draw up a verdict for history. When we do all of these things at once, and it falls flat, it’s called Amy Winehouse.

Let’s get the formalities out of the way: Amy Winehouse was tremendously talented, an “artist” with one, two, three, maybe size capital letters if you want. She could be hammy at times, and lent herself to insult in both the things she could control and those she couldn’t. As a singer, though, she was damn good. As a symbol—a crazy, nose-jobbed, Brit-JAP who recreated herself as blue-eyed soul’s answer to both Billie Holiday and Tina Turner—Amy Winehouse was indispensable. That she frequently pulled it off, and made listeners forget what a bizarre fantasy she constantly embodied, is the highest compliment we can pay her. Instead of being a celebrity merely acting out, or playing a role, she was able to convince us that her version of reality was not only worth our time, but maybe altogether natural.

However (and at 3PM ET, I’m hardly the first person to say this), there’s nothing surprising about her death. Unfortunate, sad, a shame that the curtain fell so soon. You would be hard-pressed, though, to find a public figure as blatantly, even smugly, self-destructive as Winehouse. Her big radio-friendly smash decried rehab, a stance that not even Pete Doherty would take that brazenly. He has bouts of remorse, moments of reversal. Winehouse, even if I’m glossing over a quote or two, was bad news 4 life. She was a junkie and a drunk, and made little attempt to hide it. She was slavishly devoted to a worthless man. And, well beyond the normal ravages of dope and booze, she seemed intent on seeing her body fazed out through eating disorders, and the corrosive mask of tattoos, big, wild hair, and a wardrobe whose scarred properties seemed to transfer straight to her actual skin.

Here’s that crucial breach, where I remember that we don’t really know famous people; that our relationship with them is fundamentally external, while the things that drive self-destructive behavior lurk deep within; and that, paradoxically, having any first-hand authority on these subjects might make us even less qualified to comment, since that just exposes us as observers with a personal stake in the perception of Winehouse and others. I don’t understand Amy Winehouse, and even if I choose to sympathize, it’s only slightly more dignified than her biggest fan bemoaning the end of the music. So all we have, as in life, is Winehouse as metaphor, whether for a certain kind of creativity, or the wrong way to live your life.

That said, I feel okay with the following: Being great did Amy Winehouse no favors. We can debate for days whether pain makes for better music, or simply makes people more likely to cry out somehow. I’m pretty sure that saying Winehouse did pain, and nothing else, is an insult. As a performer, she had far more range, and emotional texture; pain done well is almost never monolithic or one-dimensional, which is part of why Winehouse the person could be so clown-ish. She should have known better. She certainly sounded like she did. Of course, that presumes that the voice reflects life. Or maybe life makes the voice. Winehouse was dripping with affect; this much is obvious, whether you go by the records or the queen of the tabloids.

We may never know which one got closer to the real her, and which one was the noise. Maybe it’s best to leave it at this: There weren’t necessarily two sides to Amy Winehouse. But from the outside, she seemed torn between “Jimi&Janis&Jim&Kurt” or “Younger Than Jesus”, and being a vessel for a more mutable, less deliberate, and decidedly universal kind of angst—a proselytizer for what she had become.  She was busy getting rid of herself, while at the same time making perfectly happy people understand why self-destruction was an option. Sadly, it turned out these two goals were at odds.

June 19th, 2011

It’s the 25th anniversary of Len Bias’s death, meaning I might as well get some words out on a topic I’ve been weighing for some time. Or in other words, competitiveness and timing can be important motivating factors.

I dimly remember watching Bias on television in ACC games. I was 8 years old when he OD’ed, hours after being drafted by a Celtics team so badly in need of a Next Jordan, two years into Jordan’s career. He was stupefyingly long, graceful, and controlled despite a surplus of what we would now call “fast-twitch muscle”. I knew what drugs were, sort of, and that cocaine was one of them. They were bad and dangerous, and the Bias tragedy proved it.

I didn’t have a “say it ain’t so” moment, and it neither changed the way I saw the world around me, nor altered my perception of athletes. I was largely unaware of the ways in which his death tainted casual coke use. Cocaine was an abstraction to me; it didn’t, in any form, affect my community as far as I could tell. I was a few years away from discovering hip-hop and learning about exotic places where crack razed communities. Athletes were rational animals first, repositories for sentiment, second. Call bullshit if you want; I was just that kind of distanced child.

It took about 7 or 8 years for me to realized what Bias had meant to me. The first time I saw cocaine, in high school, I was terrified. I was myself beginning to exhibit all sorts of self-destructive tendencies, but this was that line I couldn’t cross. Cocaine was the devil and it could stop your heart cold if it so desired, no matter how healthy or unspoiled you were; that’s what Len Bias taught me. I know I’m not the only person who was scarred in this way by Len Bias. Discursively, that was kind of the point. Crack’s doomsday had replaced cocaine glitz, and if powder was still favored in the courts, eighties babies were still supposed to associate death and destitution with the drug in all its forms.

But by the time I graduated from college, cocaine was back in full force, to the point where it practically defined a particular slice of New York, and the Bias morality play seemed more and more improbable, if not totally irrelevant. Cocaine was almost mundane; even crack just seemed like a scuzzy cousin. Heroin was far scarier, as well it should have been. New facts about Bias emerged: It turned out that Bias wasn’t flirting or experimenting, but doing it up, like anyone eighties athlete might have done after making the NBA. What’s more, generalized coke death took a backseat to the select few who fell victim to it. There was no celebrity plague, especially not compared to the ravages of heroin chic. Other than Blind Melon lead singer Shannon Hoon, no one was dying from yay and yay alone. If previously, even Len Bias was the warning, just like Shannon Hoon was grimly laughable.

Here’s when Len Bias—and I say this out of honesty, not to upset anyone whose relationship with Bias’s death differs from mine—began to look very different to me. I had seen lots and lots of people do lots and lots of cocaine and survive. It was like the eighties all over again, I think, except for a lingering understanding that there was something seedy about it all. Cocaine lost its innocence but came back stronger than ever. Bias, too, went from an angel destroyed too soon by the temptations of Satan, to a profligate bundle of talent who lived (albeit maybe too soon) like a star, and met with some incredibly bad luck because of it. There’s a difference between “died in a car accident” and “died in a car accident while driving drunk and reckless”. Bias is the latter, which makes him both less singular and less generic.

To call Bias heroic now involved a certain leap of faith, and one that might get you shouted at. He’s a tragic hero, the darkest, most conflicted kind of Romanticism. Live fast, die young, and never give an inch, even if the consequences could throw the entire nation into disarray. Sometimes, phenomenal people do things that are probably bad ideas. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that this dynamic is very much a part of sports.

In the eighties, Bias served as a wake-up call—”hey, this stuff can be bad”. Over time, and with new information available, he’s turned from an absolute with no face of his own, to a ridiculously good basketball player who also happened to be an ass-out hedonist. So many of the assumptions that initially gave his story such weight were bound up in not only misconceptions about drugs, but about athletes—especially the false veneer of “amateurism” that served to give Bias his innocence in the media. It sucks what happened, but Len Bias seems more relevant to the current coke revival than the one he abruptly ended 25 years ago.

(My wife just got back from a garage sale and handed me a photo of Sam Cooke on the night he was shot.)

(Not long before I left Philly, I was at a party where someone’s heart gave out from over-indulgence. Everyone stood around confused; a friend of mine knew to keep him from having a seizure. Finally, the host called 911. The paramedics sauntered in, and one, a younger black dude said “Looks like we’ve got us a Len Bias here.” It was equal parts gallows humor, nostalgia, and miscast irony, and no one there was particularly offended.)

May 29th, 2011

Chris Herren, former Nuggets and Celtics guard, and son of the Boston metropolitan area, has a new memoir out called Basketball Junkie. His hometown of Fall River looks pretty nice, so I’ll refrain from pulling out references to The Town, and I’m sure his last name is an unlucky accident. There are plaques around Seattle (a major dope town) to commemorate famous herons, and no one laughs about those. There are two kinds of people in Seattle: oppressively healthy, and virulently unhealthy, and never the twain shall meet. Anyway, about Herren’s book: I read an excerpt in SLAM, and it was gripping enough. The title, though, opened up (ahem) an old vein for me. “Basketball junkie” or “hoops junkie” have always been two of the sillier bits of lingo in the sports lexicon. I wish someone could tell me that they sprang from the streets, where drugs were a real risk.

Alas, I suspect they’re an absent-minded usage in the finest post-Trainspotting/heroin chic tradition. But whatever, I DID NO RESEARCH. Just thinking out loud on ye olde Tumblr, which is way safer than that beastly Twitter. So while this is something of a wake-up call to that expression, it’s also an irony that never should have been possible in the first place. It also makes me that much more uncomfortable at two of my favorite business names: “Bath Junkie”, a national chain, and Seattle’s “Thai Junkie”. Do these people even know what “junkie” means? Didn’t they see the movies? Bathtubs have a very literal place in the literal world of real junkies; it’s where they’re put in case of near-death. Similarly, Thailand is lousy with smack, as both a pipeline and a place where tourists can cop for their pleasure. I get that these are meant as innocent word-play—”What? Us, sleazy?”—but instead of divorcing themselves from reality, they’re sunk in deeper than I think they’ve ever considered. Oh well. At least it’s not “Tie Junkie”, which is what I initially assumed it to be.