Monday, February 13, 2012

The Purest Voice of My Generation Destroyed by Life's Impurities

I have never owned a Whitney Houston album and until Saturday night--after learning of her passing at age 48--I don't think I ever specifically sought to listen to any of her songs.

In the mid-'80s and early-'90s, Houston's numerous hit singles were fairly ubiquitous--and some undeniably catchy. Yet while I know she released music long after the tremendous success of "I Will Always Love You" off The Bodyguard soundtrack, I remain oblivious to any songs she recorded after 1992.

Thus, it would be disingenuous for me to portray myself as a devoted fan who is devastated by her death on some personal level.

But if you were to ask me to name a pop singer in my lifetime who possessed a better voice, I couldn't.

Which doesn't serve to make her death any more, or less, of a shame than that of anyone else--famous or not--who has passed before their "rightful age," as if such a thing exists. But of all the celebrity tributes to Whitney that I've seen since hearing of her demise--including a beautiful rendition of "I Will Always Love You" by Jennifer Hudson at last night's Grammy Awards--one from a similarly gifted singer, Barbra Streisand, particularly resonated with me:
"She had everything, beauty, a magnificent voice. How sad her gifts could not bring her the same happiness they brought us."
Although as of this writing, the cause of Whitney Houston's death has not been revealed, it seems safe to suggest that directly or indirectly her well-documented struggles with substance abuse were likely a significant factor.

This has, not surprisingly, prompted some excessive nastiness across the internet, with numerous commenters belittling the gravity of Houston's premature passing due to her problems with drugs and alcohol. While reports of her behavior over the past several years have been disconcerting, it seems to me that her "demons" having stolen so much from her--including her transcendent talent--makes this more of a tragedy, not less of one.

Yes, the self-destructiveness of her life certainly leads her death to feel less brutally incomprehensible than that of someone randomly slain, killed in an accident or stricken by a terminal disease, but couldn't it be said that her substance issues were just a different type of terminal disease?

To non-addicts--at least of drugs and booze, but who among us doesn't eat unhealthily or drive too fast or work too hard or fall prey to other compulsive tendencies--it seems like something more than a pity when one can't overcome his or her addiction. We tend to judge it as a consciously complicit weakness, a failure to make the right choice or seek the necessary help.

Obviously, for those who can't quit or resist relapsing, or have caused irreparable damage, lucid decision-making doesn't play into the equation. Or at least not enough.

It is also apparent that far too often, artists with extraordinary talent and/or fame are--certainly not exclusively but perhaps exacerbatingly publicly--afflicted by devastating addictions, whether causally or not.

From Charlie Parker to Billie Holiday to Judy Garland to Jimi Hendrix to Elvis Presley to John Belushi to Kurt Cobain to Michael Jackson to Amy Winehouse to many, many others, known and unknown, and now to Whitney Houston, how true do the words that open "Howl," a poem written by Allen Ginsburg in 1955, once again ring:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness"
OK, so some of those cited precede my generation. But Whitney Houston--who is survived by her daughter, her mother Cissy Houston and (I believe) her half-brother, Gary Garland, forever memorable to me as a member of DePaul's 1979 NCAA Final Four team--is very much of "my generation."

And whatever one may think of her lifestyle, or even her music, she has died much too young. Calling her death--regardless of its cause--a tragedy isn't meant to be comparative, nor necessarily reflective of what she meant to one's own existence.

To extol Whitney Houston's gifts is not to ignore her flaws, but one hopes her exquisite voice endures in memory--or at least mp3--long after the lurid tabloid photos have been forgotten.

For the impurities of life are what make us human and those "destroyed by madness" are just as meriting, if not more so, of our empathetic sadness.


Here's an audio only clip of "How Will I Know," a capella, with just Whitney's vocals. It is stunning and chilling at the same time.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Seth, this is one of your best entries. It is sensitive, empathetic, compassionate, and quite insightful. Thanks for this contribution!