Friday 29 July 2011

FRAN, AMY, CHERYL And All That Jazz...

Amy Winehouse

“Funny business a woman’s career, so many things you drop on your way up the ladder just so you can move faster, you forget you may need them again, when you get back to being a woman. One career all women have in common, whether they like it or not, being a woman, sooner or later, we have to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve wanted.” 
Bette Davies - All About Eve

Fran, Amy, Cheryl And All That Jazz…
I’d like to tell you a story about three female performers that kicked ass. I’d like to tell you a story about three ladies that had pepper and spice and didn’t always play nice. Three female artists that have just left us for the great gig in the sky: Fran Landesman, Cheryl Burke and Amy Winehouse - Our three Graces, just add a few of my favourite things: jazz. poetry. hedonism. sex. guts. humour. Be it London or New York, these were trail blazers, each in their own time and their own wicked way. And don’t we love our female leads to have fire, spirit and kick? These women did not mince their words. During their lifetimes they influenced and inspired both love and envy. People copied them, loved them, wanted to be them and they were each known to be more than a little feisty or visceral, on or off stage. Each at very different stages of their careers and the career of being a woman, and it is this and the sorrow and loss I feel today, that drives me to speak up and write this. I’m not writing about feminism here, but the fact is IT is different for girls and different for boys. I will even stick my neck out and say I really do believe its a harder crowd and a higher tightrope for the female artist, harder to please everyone and further to fall. 

Fran Landesman
I want to thank these three women for all they brought to the table. Thank them for being bothered, for not just talking about it, but doing it. For kick starting more than a few conversations, for raising the bar, empowering and inspiring so many people. We just lost not one, not two, but three really good ones, class acts: Jazz poet and songwriter Fran Landesman, New York poet and author Cheryl B and of course the brilliant R&B jazz singer Amy Winehouse. We lost all three, here and now, all gone, three very different women, but at three stages of the career of being a woman, also split by three defining decades:- Born in 1927 Fran Landesman was very much part of the swinging sixties, my friend and peer Cheryl B was born in the hazy seventies and Amy Winehouse born in the eighties.

Cheryl B
All three were no stranger to controversy, obviously Amy, but decades before her Fran advocated free love and in 1984 Fran appeared in a BBC documentary about open marriages called The Infernal Triangle. On another occasion the BBC received complaints after Fran appeared on Desert Island Discs, requesting a supply of cannabis seeds as her luxury item. Cheryl was active and vocal in the New York gay community, she was often shocking, outspoken about lesbian sexuality and also brutally honest about the battle to get sober, more to the point her good reasons to get sober. Drugs, alcohol and all that jazz…I’d rather focus on the output than the intake, focus on what somebody gives rather than what somebody might have taken. Creativity can be obsessive, addictive, and it can be lonely and isolating too. Step into their shoes: Imagine how it feels to silence a room with the opening line of a beautiful song; Or how wonderful it is to deliberately make an audience gasp, cheer or laugh…applause….and now picture the flip side, how harsh a so-so gig can be. How crushing it is to misjudge it. There are sacrifices all artists makes along the way. You need armour and protection. This living can be hazardous, this path is harsh, jagged with rejections, criticisms, jealousies and knock backs, highs and lows. Success isn’t comfortable, popularity is a prickly seat and luck is fleeting – And the business of going about this business a lady, well, that’s an art in itself. 

Have you ever heard of Little Miss Cornshucks? She was a game changer, back in the 1940’s she originally performed ‘Try a little Tenderness’. The original lyrics went more like this “I may be weary, women do get weary, wearing the same old shabby dress, but while I’m weary, try a little tenderness…” She shocked polite society by ripping her wig off and throwing it across the crowded room at record company executives. And tragically she died penniless and in obscurity. And who doesn’t smirk at the rumour of Nina Simone aiming a gun at her manager in a busy diner to ask nicely, for the last fucking time, for her royalty cheque? The true meaning of the word Diva is so misinterpreted, it has nothing to do with entourage or blue m&ms in your dressing room. We must never underestimate the pressure, the discipline and hard work it takes to get good at something and the concentration it takes to maintain that one thing, how to do it like you mean it, with all your balls, until it takes all your balls. This woman’s work is never done and its all eggs and balls…its like spinning plates whilst juggling eggs…keeping your eye on the ball…keeping the ball in the air…you got to break shells to make omelettes….the goal posts move…balls…bouncing way out of the ball park.

I met Fran Landesman when I first moved to London in the early 1990’s with grand plans to be both a writer and a musician. I remember those early Apples and Snakes gigs and the first time I saw Fran perform, with lyrics like “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke” what wasn’t to admire? She was a firecracker. Back in the sixties archives you’ll see she was often the only girl on the male-dominated circuit featuring alongside the likes of the Liverpool poets. She was also a big part of hippy happenings - from Greenwich Village to Bohemian Soho –she probably hung out with the likes Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Burroughs, to name just a few of the reasons I felt I should salute her when we met. In 1999 we recorded the first ever Saltpetre CD, an audio-magazine, produced by the brilliant composer Peter Coyte. The CD was an aural collage of live performance and studio recordings by poets such as John Cooper Clarke, Jock Scot, Tim Turnbull, John Siddique, Martin Newell, Francesca Beard, Cheryl B, Tim Wells and of course Fran Landesman – Fran’s track was titled ‘Bustin’ Our Arses Gratis’ - The CD's proved difficult to place in shops but The SaltPetre Radio show developed into a free-for-all weekly radio show for almost four years at Resonance FM.  Fran Landesman died peacefully at home last Saturday, July 23rd 2011, she was 83.

I briefly met Amy Winehouse in and around 2003. Peter Coyte and I were riding a wave with our band SaltPeter, we had a number one in the dance charts with a remix of 5AM by Different Gear: A song with lyrics boasting the merits of all-night benders in Soho and booze black outs. I was also co-hosting a weekly Channel 4 chat show - Heavy TV - with Normski, Antonia Windsor, Antonio Marrese, Dotun Adebayo... we looked like this.

 Initially my role was to be the weekly bard, to write a topical poem for each show, but the poetry slot was axed, as is so often the case with poetry. I’m sorry to say, poetry is still the poor and misunderstood cousin at the wedding of entertainment. However every week there was to be a performance by an up-and-coming star and one week it was a very young and self-assured Amy. She was charming and when she sang needless to say it was breathtaking. Back then my friends and I often spent lost afternoons in Camden – magic mushrooms were for sale on the market stalls then – and we’d idle the time away, drinking pints in the Lock Tavern, The Hawley Arms, but more so The Good Mixer because it had a pool table. There was a buzz about a girl called Amy, a Camden whipper-snapper, I remember a tiny tattooed girl with big hair, ballet shoes, black eyeliner, a fag hanging from her lips, as she pots the black. One afternoon the Mixer was quiet, it was mostly just girls in there, drinking pints of lager, having a hair of the dog, we had a banter about having a big night the night before, we laughed. Everything was very hazy, laughs came easy, the pool balls clicked and clacked, the smoke and the fizz, it was a good feeling, like bunking off school. It was one of those random afternoons you cannot repeat, but you bank it, you think it'd be nice to run into her again…she’s a good laugh…you think you will…you know what I mean? Last Saturday, June 23rd 2011, Amy Winehouse was found dead at her London home, she was 27.

Tribute to Cheryl B

It’s your red lipstick 
I remember first
and how privately 
I thought of you as my own 
Dorothy Parker.
Your sharp Manhattan wit
brutal honesty and
a heart that spilled and splashed
and silenced a room.

Your eyes were two black orchids
in smooth pale moonlight,
but your mouth was blood 
scarlet and dark as the words 
that hooked us, quick

Your writing always made me wish,
that people were more 
so it goes like this…
We met in 1995 or ’96 
with Tim Wells, of course
Mr Wells connected us all:
The Heart of Darkness crew
Rising and rising
you rose and rose.
But who can remember that first gig?
Was it at The Enterprise with Lyallsy?
Perhaps with Tim Turnbull, Ivan or Francesca?
Ivan Penaluna? Paul Birtill?
It is for sure we would have gone to the Marathon for afters,
chips and beers and Johnny Cash and jack and coke.
Back then when it was still OK to smoke fags indoors
and we would ride the milk float home.

Then late in '97 or 98
there was dirty snow along the gutters of the Bowery
We read together at CBGB’s and 
Steve Cannon’s Tribes Gallery
Blue Stockings, the Telephone Bar and St Marks
We demolished jugs of frozen margheritas 
with Aimee Bianca
in a place with a name like Mexican Hat.
I remember skidding on icy Brooklyn sidewalks,
snowball fights and high times and
sucking beer up from polystyrene cups 
at The Green Point Tavern.
Remember that stinking hot summer of 2001? 
And the disastrous gig at The Cornelia Street Café?
You were right, Cheryl, when you said
poetry is full of mad people.
But that was the summer the world went mad too
We witnessed 9/11
and things haven’t ever been sane since.

The last time I saw you was 2007
I was returning from a writing bender in Cornwall
I arrived in Waterloo in the nick of time
for us to read together with Adele Stripe and the crew
You were a non-drinker by then
but you winked and tipped me a knowing smile and said
Have a good time did you?
Now you have gone too young and too soon
And it is snowing in June and
poets are still mad
focussing on prizes and celebrity
instead of guts and truth.

But you Cheryl,
you were a pearl
and it feels like the world is running low on grit,
Its gonna be nothing but a clatter of empty oyster shells
without you, my friend.
© 2011. Salena Godden

On Saturday June 18th 2011, Cheryl Burke (Cheryl B.) died of complications from chemotherapy treatment she had been receiving for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she was 38.

1990's /  Francesca Beard, Cheryl B and Salena Godden

Further reading, quotes and links

Fran Landesman: 
“On the way to the stars, everybody has scars.”
Fran Landesman was the poet laureate of lovers and losers: her songs are the secret diaries of the desperate and the decadent. No one could convey the bitter-sweet joys of melancholy or the exhilaration of living on the edge like Fran. The jazz world's answer to Dorothy Parker, New York born lyricist Fran Landesman's acid wit and penetrating insights first emerged in her 1950s collaborations with composer Tommy Wolf. Songs such as “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and “The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men” soon became standards boasting recordings by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan and Bette Midler. read more here Fran's website

Cheryl B: "Why couldn't Sylvia Plath have been 
licking my clit that night on route 35?"  

 Cheryl Burke (known as Cheryl B in the community) was a poet, writer, editor, and organizer who burst out on the slam poet circuit back in the 90s at the Nuyorican Poets Café. More recently she was the organizer of the raucous NY reading series, Sideshow: A Queer Literary Carnival, with Sinclair Sexsmith and was at work on a memoir about her life. Her poetry has been widely-published and anthologized in volumes like Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution (Seal Press, 2007), Pills, Thrills, Chills and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person (Alyson Books), and others. Cheryl's work garnered many awards, including an Honourable Mention in 2009 from the Astraea Writers Fund. This year Cheryl was featured as one of GO Magazine's 100 Women We Love. Cheryl was also a beloved poetry instructor at the Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC. Go Magazine for more links See Cheryl B live youtube here

 Amy Winehouse: “What kind of fuckery is this?”

Amy Winehouse ‘Back to Black’ led to six Grammy Award nominations and five wins, tying the record for one of the most wins by a female artist in a single night, and this made Winehouse the first singer from the United Kingdom to win five Grammys. In 2007, she won a BRIT Award for Best British Female Artist; she had also been nominated for Best British Album. She has won the Ivor Novello Award three times, once in 2004 for Best Contemporary Song (musically and lyrically) for "Stronger Than Me" once in 2007 for Best Contemporary Song for "Rehab", and once in 2008 for Best Song Musically and Lyrically for "Love Is A Losing Game"…The internet is swamped with farewells and articles, but the piece that resonated with me the most this week was this in the Sabotage Times written by Robin Lee, Playing Pool With Amy’


"We are all fighting the good fight - but we are way too harsh in the way we measure success and failure, the way we reward and penalise ourselves. Perhaps loathing and punishing ourselves enough to convince ourselves we will not be sorely missed by every person's life we touched. We may not remember what people say or do, but we do remember how they made us feel." 
excerpt from Springfield Road by Salena Godden

'Tribute to Cheryl B' one of over eighty poems from 'Fishing In The Aftermath Poems 1994-2014' by Salena Godden published in July 2014 by Burning Eye Books, Order it here or please ask for it in your nearest and dearest bookshops…


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