Tag: RIP

Darling George

photo via

I have known and loved the music of George Michael for almost as long as I have known and loved opera. The sound of that creamy tenor has been as omnipresent in my life as the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. It was strange, and strangely satisfying, to see the idol of my youth aging and growing as an artist, cultivating his talents while expanding his range, repertoire, and sound with quiet determination.

The grimness of 2016 intensified with news of his passing on Christmas Day. I learned the news as I imagine many others did, on Facebook, noticing the update, “RIP to the best pop star of my life” from music writer Maura Johnston. I didn’t need to click on the link she’d posted to realize, with an awful sinking feeling, who she was referring to. Maura and I share a deep, abiding love of George and his music; we had traded tweets and notes about it over the years, and I had even contributed a piece to her magazine about that passion, which became part of a multi-issue, George-Michael-focused release. Maura has penned a perfect tribute for TIME and another, more personal piece for The Guardian; the latter is filled with smile-worthy memories and brilliant observations, this one striking so many recognizable chords:

While I was initially drawn in by Ridgeley’s cheekbones, I stuck around through Wham!’s breakup, and Michael’s eventual solo career, because the songs were thrilling, spinning like tops perched on a ledge, ready to fly off in another direction at any moment. Michael displayed reverence for all the right things – compositional craft, searing vocals, kindness, writing pop songs to make the world feel, briefly, like everything was OK – while also feeling ambivalent toward the aspects of his job that distracted from them.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect I am the only classical writer who contributed both to that all-George issue of Maura, and to Torontoist, in the form of a live concert review — which strikes me as funny and quite delightful, especially since one of George’s most memorable concerts in the last decade happened at the Palais Garnier. Indeed, George (it feels strange for me to call him anything else, though I never got the opportunity to meet him) was the first contemporary artist to play the historic opera house, and, all things considered, he seemed eminently suited to it, not only because of his then-recent Symphonica release, but because his deep and continuous cultivation of musicality, music history, the ever-changing pop idiom, and his place as an older artist.

(photo: Caroline True, via)

As a current opera writer with a pop-loving past, I tend to live in multiple sonic worlds that embrace rock, funk, R&B, hiphop and country right alongside classical. My current work and the way I’ve grown to listen and pay attention to performance and voice have opened the door for a broader appreciation of the musical gifts George Michael offered over his almost four decades of output. That magical tenor of his was far more agile, sensitive, and expressive than has been sometimes been acknowledged; over the years I’ve heard it called “flat,” “bland,” “too smooth” and “devoid of emotion.” Such criticism always struck me as facile at best, and snobbish at worst; they pointed to a kind of passive-aggressive whisper of, “that music isn’t real music” and “he isn’t a real musician.” As a teen, I’d hurriedly point out he played all the instruments on Faith and even did the backing vocals; it wasn’t vanity, I said, it was talent, an intentional exercise in creative control. What is “real” music anyway?! There are any number of overwhelming examples to point to that might explode such a ridiculous accusation, but more potent than all of them was the live experience.

My first big stadium concert experience was attending the gargantuan Faith tour in the late 1980s. Outside of hearing my favorite singer with tens of thousands of other cheering fans (I recall it being overwhelming at times), hearing that voice, live, was  —and there’s no other way to say it — life-changing. Even amidst tends of thousands of screaming teens, with amplification and effects, that voice was incredible; it swung, it swooped, it mewled, it roared. Having seen Pavarotti and Domingo live at the Met as a teenager, I knew the effect a beautiful voice could have — on me, and on others. I didn’t understand technique back then, and I didn’t fully appreciate what I was hearing, but listening back to both his live and album material now, as an adult, I am, more than ever, struck by the myriad of ways George could shape and bend his sound, to say nothing of the length and power of his vibrato to make a sound that glistened, floated, soared, or roared, cut, slashed; George did it all, with class, style, and elegance. He wasn’t a screamer, and he didn’t feel the need to be. In an era where “soft” was equated with weakness, and “sensuous” with vulgarity, he became the object of ridicule. Throughout my high school years, when being out wasn’t even an option, he was laughed at, his music met with eyerolls; George wasn’t “macho” enough for many of my fellow students to like (or at least admit they liked) —but it was always the lack of screaming, the lack of roughness or aggression that I liked.

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The fact he was also blessed with good looks, great style, and a clear need to move to a beat helped. When acts like New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli cropped up, I curled my nose. How were they more acceptable (or even better) than George? Aside from their music holding no appeal, respective choreography seemed forced and joyless; by comparison, George’s hip-shaking, arm-waving, and bum-wiggling seemed fun, sexy, and frankly, familiar. He seemed like he’d be so much fun to go out dancing with. Also, I couldn’t listen to either Kids or Vanilli for very long; those voices were, to my ears, not good.  I’d been so spoiled. The way George had performed Black Cherry’s classic “Play That Funky Music” live, for instance (as part of the Faith tour), was saucy, playful, and very funky, with all of the original’s bounce intact, but a keen awareness of pace and rhythm. It was deeply musical and fun and smart and… you could dance to it! The combination was intoxicating, and remained so, through many decades.

However, the past few years deepened my appreciation of his vocal gifts. George had a warm, wheaty timbre he could expertly wield to accommodate any number of styles, including classic ballads, soul, funk, rock. His skill with balladry was on full display in the astonishing “One More Try” from Faith; he lived the words of that song, lovingly infusing each one with a profound, personal meaning that makes listening to it almost unbearably personal. The halting quality in his voice as he sings “stranger” and then “feet” in the second verse, then the sharp, biting contrast with singing “danger” and “heat” in the second couplet, reveals a world of heartbreak and thwarted hope that colored so much of his later work. It was one of George’s most famously soulful moments, and I feel, one of his most operatic.

(photo: 10awesome.com via)

Similarly, many will recall his soaring performance of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” in 1992. Who else could have realistically stepped into the shoes of the great, opera-leaning Freddie Mercury, and done such a bang-up job? He wasn’t Freddie — but he didn’t aim to be. “I work hard,” he declares at the start of the second verse, improvising a higher melodic line and threading it in with the main melody. Simultaneously buoyed by a monstrously wonderful backing choir and a regal authority, his was the performance everyone remembered from that tribute concert. (It was lovely to come across a video recently showing David Bowie smiling at that rehearsal.) Near the song’s end, George soars into a smooth if equally impassioned falsetto with the ease and grace Mercury excelled at, bringing a raw vulnerability to a raucous, jaunty rock and roll classic.

Years before this performance, he’d caused shock with “I Want Your Sex” but I suspect it wasn’t solely the title or song’s content that caused controversy. The way George sings it is just deeply, deliciously dirty. His is a throaty, pushed kind of growl, one cleverly combined with whispers, shouts, and whimpers. One of the supreme pleasures of re-listening to the entirety of Faith over the last few months has been how nicely the material, and this song in particular, translates into adulthood. We (us fans) all merrily sang along to “I Want Your Sex” as teens, screamed it back at its creator live, winked and giggled and may have done some theatrical pelvic thrusts on the dance floor on Club Med vacations, but hearing it as a woman, the reaction is (for me at least) less outward, and more quietly confident, a seduction delivered in slow smiles, eyebrow raises, lingering stares. The subtleties of the song — and they are myriad! — reveal themselves in George’s exquisite vocals, which are brilliantly contrasted by the repeated, organ grinder-esque synth lines and a squishy, pumping rhythm. The simplicity of the arrangement echoes that other perfect synth masterpiece, “Everything She Wants” but contains its direct opposite in experiences, while holding the same musical tension and intensity. Near the song’s close, as his own backing vocals provide a rhythmic, staccato-like declamation filled with a sort of hip-thrusting jubilance (“Hua, SEX!“), George’s knowing vocal punctuates the line:

I’m not your father
I’m not your brother
Talk to your sister
I am a lover

These lines are delivered as statements, full stops, declarations; the confidence of the vocal is breathtaking, to say nothing of the beautiful howl that erupts at the end of that, followed by a carefully-pitched, descending moan. Every time I hear it now I think of Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from the opera Samson et Dalila — each being, for me, a delicious, potion of desire, fever, seduction, even romance — a fervent paean to being alive, a shiny talisman against despair.

(photo via)

And this, in the end, is George Michael’s catalogue to me. I haven’t even mentioned the many beautiful collaborations he did with favorite artists — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many others — or the sparkling cover versions he did of of songs new and old. His music (whether it’s specifically his, or music he has made especially his own) isn’t so much a tie to a rosy, cozy pat as it is a flowing river connecting that past with a harsher present, and ever-shifting future. He was magic, he was opera, he was a legend, but he was also defiantly, utterly himself — and in that act, he whispered, moaned, shouted, crooned, and pleaded, with that magical voice of his, for me to be myself. We never got to go dancing (something I’d dreamed of as a teen) and I never got to shake his hand (something I dreamed of as an adult) but he showed me how to listen for the beat, to create my own steps, to choose my own partners, and to walk off if things weren’t working. I owe him so much. We all do. George, you have been loved.



Thank you, Jimmy

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A wave of deep sadness washed over me as I learned the news of Jimmy Scott’s passing. After that, gratitude. I am so blessed to have seen Jimmy Scott sing live.

It was a steamy June evening in 2012, in the basement supper-club of the popular Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem. Amidst the distant clattering of dishes and the clinking of wine glasses, Scott entered, humble, and clearly moved by his ecstatic reception, wheelchair-bound and physically frail, but with a fierce determination and passion that flickered across his smiling face. A microphone was lowered, and for the next hour or so, Scott closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and had the intimate room spellbound.

I first stumbled across the recordings of Jimmy Scott as a teenager. Some of the artists I admired had mentioned him as an inspiration in interviews, and, trusting them as great arbiters of taste, I followed their advice. This time period coincided with my discovery and embrace of a lot of jazz sounds: Ella Fitzgerald (whom I saw live a few years later), Miles Davis (who I’d already seen live, scant months before his passing), Dizzy Gillespie (who again, I saw live before his passing), Billie Holiday (alas), and Frank Sinatra (who I wish I could take a time machine to see live in the 1950s). While Little Jimmy fit within that jazz world, to say he was a “jazz singer” would, for me, be sticking him in a bin that was a bit too narrow for what he did, and really, who he was. Just as he himself defied norms (not at all by choice), his voice — and the way he used it — defied conventional categorization. He belonged in an ornate church the way he belonged in a smoky jazz club; that is to say, he was a bit of everything, embracing, synthesizing, integrating influences and styles, but then re-making, re-creating and expressing something wholly and entirely his very own. As Anthony Hegarty put it to The Quietus in 2011, he “sings like a sobbing diamond.”

It’s this very individuality and subsequent beauty that so astonishes and quiets us.

And yet, some might argue it cost him mainstream success. Jimmy’s name isn’t as well-known as say, Sinatra, or Dean Martin, or Tony Bennett. He doesn’t have the cachet of his jazz-singer brethren. But again, Jimmy wasn’t just one thing. He worked with Lou Reed and David Lynch; he was in a Hal Willner-produced tribute concert for Harry Smith; he was name-checked as inspiration by a variety of artists, including Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, the latter saying Jimmy was the only singer “who’d ever really made me cry.”

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Lou Reed had said, “we all bow at the altar of Jimmy Scott.” Lou, I think, understood Jimmy in a profound way; both of them appreciated the deep relationship that has to exist between identity, artistry, beauty, and authenticity. Lou got it; Jimmy got it. And, in the brief moments the world had them, we, the audience, got it.

To say the experience of seeing Jimmy live was special would be far too reductive and trite; to say it was akin to going to church would be too predictable. There was something other-worldly, haunting, and wholly transcendent about hearing him live. Recordings may flit at the edges of his greatness, but, like a great opera singer (Pavarotti) or a wondrous instrumentalist (Gillespie, Davis), the nature of art, to say nothing of how we, the audience, experience it, changes in a dramatic way within the live realm. Never mind style; Jimmy Scott’s whole soul — in life, in love, in art, in sound and fury — was expressed in the blessed short hour I and the rest of Ginny’s Supper Club had with him that night. Experiencing Little Jimmy live re-affirmed the centrality of music and culture in my life, and reminded me of my responsibility to the authentic in everything I write and do. Sometimes we are all motherless children; Jimmy made us know, understand, and find the beauty in the pain, the pain in the beauty, always, unquestionably, unapologetically himself.

Sinatra & Seduction

Fourteen years ago this week my life changed. Frank Sinatra died.

I don’t remember the exact moment I became a Sinatra fan. I started listening to his work in the early 90s, inspired by more contemporary singers who looked up to him than by any sense of music-history know-how. Having been raised to an eclectic diet of opera, Elvis, Abba, Olivia, and country gold (Cash, Jennings, and Cline, mainly), there was something vaguely … dangerous about Francis Albert. I couldn’t put my finger on it but his voice, even at its sweetest, had a hint of something that both scared and delighted me. Only many years later did I understand that quality to be sex appeal -not the smooth, suave, safe sort, but the rough-and-tumble variety, where passion came before pronouncements.

Sinatra never had to be smutty to seduce through song; it could be a slight pause, a tiny added grace note, a lingering phrase. He deeply understood how tied up creative power was with sexual power (and vice-versa), and he used it, grandly, carefully, proudly and loudly, as he got behind the wheel of The Great American Songbook, flashing a smile, a dark stare, a cocked eyebrow, cruising by, leaving a wispy trail of cigarette smoke in his wake, and enough baritone reverb to echo through eons. Since his passing that Songbook has been reduced to a series of pieces that are mere vehicles for a bland, safe, PC-style seduction, souped up in a red hot convertible and tinkling horn. Sinatra would never be so obvious.

Though he had an undoubtedly operatic approach, and knew a thing or two about a romantic tune, Sinatra’s sound let in the darkness through time; his voice became full of shadow, of color, of subtlety and suffering and self-doubt. It reflected life experience, of course – and what a life it was. James Kaplan’s exhaustive 2010 biography of Sinatra’s early-to-middle years is a mighty tome that rivals Ulysses in sheer size and detail. Until Kaplan publishes the companion piece, we won’t know about Sinatra’s final years – but I have my own specific memories of today, involving comforting older women in a shoe store, whose lives, memories, and perhaps even passions, were so tied up with the man and his music.

I Get So Emotional, Baby

The news of Whitney Houston’s passing went around on Facebook like wildfire, probably mere moments after the first murmurs of her demise began circulating on Twitter. Whitney became famous before the advent of social media, but it seems as if her debut album was issued to every household in 1985. Tonight everyone’s sharing a memory of their younger selves: seeing one of her videos, dancing in their bedrooms, running to buy her record at the local mall. I’m pouring over my own memories too. Whitney was the first female pop star I outright adored.
At the time it wasn’t totally cool -at least in my super-Wonderbread neighborhood -to admit you liked Whitney’s music, so I’d covertly hide my cassette tapes in coat pockets and big bags. There weren’t too many twelve-year-old girls in the ‘burbs who loved opera, Abba, Johnny Cash and Whitney Houston with equal passion. I remember so many snowy days, sluggishly making my way to school, bright red wool cowl around my head, pointy-toed winter boots on my feet, sunglasses in place, making my way along the grey dull suburban streets, with Whitney sweetly singing through the headphones of my Sony Walkman: how will I know if he really loves me? how will I know? Whitney’s music inspired me to investigate gospel. Eventually the LPs of Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin appeared next to the Duran Duran ones. Whitney Houston was my gateway drug to soul and Motown – and to brighter visions of a better, more exciting life, one where being loud, bold, brilliant, and female were rewarded and celebrated and encouraged. I’ve found the greatest love of all…
When 1987’s Whitney came out, I immediately gravitated to the dramatic stuff, with “So Emotional” becoming my mantra, though I had no one to sing it to except the fantasy boys in my head. But Whitney’s vocal urgency, her drama, her sense of excitement, and enjoyment, and sheer joy of singing, were and remain astonishing to listen to. To paraphrase the saucy title character from Bizet’s Carmen, “I’m singing for myself, and there’s no law against it!” Still, as Maura Johnston of The Village Voice notes, “Houston’s voice was criticized by some for being too much—too strong, too showy, an exemplar of the excess that epitomized pop music in the ’80s.” My mother used to crinkle her brow whenever she heard her music pumping out of my bedroom: “That isn’t singing -it’s shrieking!” Her cover of a beloved Dolly Parton classic grated, and the movie it came from, though a massive success, was horrendously bad, a soppy, maudlin embodiment of the gigantic music industry- machine she seemed to never quite fit in with.
As the years passed, she became simultaneously less interested and more desperate to fit in to that world. It was painful to witness. Marriage, addiction, bizarre interviews, bad live dates, frightening photos – it was like a laundry list of public humiliation, made all the more horrifying because of Whitney’s refusal to never, ever play the role of the simpering, whimpering victim, even when she was clearly suffering. There were highs, lows, exposures, embarrassments, headaches, heartaches. It couldn’t have been easy trying to dim your light around a man clearly threatened by your success, or attempting to throw a determined monkey off your back amidst the snide smirks of a public who once worshipped you awaiting your next fall with claws and fangs exposed. I think few knew or understood the nasty nature of fame and the “industry” side of the music industry the way Whitney Houston did.
There have been many, many candidates for the throne of Ultimate Soul Diva. But might look it, but they’ll never be it. Whitney poured her whole life into that voice, sounding sweet one minute, steely the next; she was as confident with the saccharine balladry of “The Greatest Love,” as she was with the survivor sass of “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay).” It would be too easy to assume she’d made some Faustian deal in order to have a voice like that, but she did have demons. Regardless of who put them there or why they stayed is no matter. Her demons were hers. Right up to the end she seemed determined to remind us of that. We were blessed to have had her voice in our midst, serenading us through all of life’s moments big and small, leading us through the snowbanks and into a place less dull, more bright, more beautiful and big and exciting, where being female didn’t mean being soft, quiet, meek or comforting. Dear Whitney, make you shake the heavens the way you shook this earth. Make thee a joyous noise.

Thank You, Ken

I’m shocked and saddened to learn tonight about the death of one of my favorite food personalities, Canadian host Ken Kostick.


I interviewed Ken along with his TV partner Mary Jo Eustace two years ago, as they were preparing for another season of He Said, She Said (related Mary Jo-centric blog here). Their salty banter and biting commentary made for a lively interview, and I’ll never forget Ken’s kindness toward me, and the immediate interest he took in my own cooking endeavors. I’ll always remember us trading tips about spicing and roasting. He made me feel truly at ease.
His death is a big loss not only to Canadian food TV but to the worldwide market, and to every budding chef. Thank you, Mr. Kostick. You will be missed.

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