Back to Black: The Brilliance of the Broken-Hearted

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By Brian Bowers

Artists seem to exemplify contradiction and paradox. The beautiful, the ugly.
The order amidst chaos. Born drenched in love, yet living broken-hearted.
Art and creative passion: an intangible love.

My 1st year in college, I was on my bed listening to Donny Hathaway forecast his evolution as an artist. It left me tremendously inspired. I remember sitting up wondering what happened to him. In his music, I’d found shattered reflections of myself. But when I actually read what had happened to Donny Hathaway, I broke down and I wept. To be an artist and to bare one’s soul is not for the faint at heart. My mother keeps a fortune cookie on her console that says, “there is more to genius, than being a genius.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.

If misery loves company, what is to be said of the soul stirring genius? While many focus on the late Amy Winehouse as a singular figure, something is to be said about the larger framework of tragic brilliance she is a part of. Her passing has truly affected me as greatly as the death of any lovely artist that touched my life. Like so many others, it is as if her brilliance was swallowed by the flow of life itself and ultimately, she was lost in the current. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and now Amy Winehouse—all dead at the age of 27.

The struggle of the artist is a peculiar one that doesn’t always end in tragedy. But when it does, I find it so strange that one person’s pain becomes another’s pleasure. It almost seems unfair and bizarre, really. With tears and a smile, many artists wrestle with demons that seem too great to bear. With that being said, it is pretty clear that the price of genius is as high as it has ever been. And after the shows, the fawning, and the adulation and of course the scathing reviews, the artist is left footing the bill. Perhaps Lynn Crosbie (article here) stated it best:

Geniuses, however, were not put on this Earth in order to function like well-oiled machines for our pleasure. Geniuses, like Amy Winehouse, are tormented most often by having to feel and think more deeply and differently than others.

A friend once told me that “every gift can be a curse,” and perhaps this true. Something is irresistibly beautiful about a sensitive soul gifted with expression. It is almost as if Artists have two hearts. One, we will wear on our sleeve with pride (and sometimes shame, admittedly). The second, well God only knows where you’ll find it. Maybe a stroke on the canvas or a chord with a flat 5. The strength of a plié or the flash of a camera. Perhaps even scattered through a few lines of prose. Sometimes healing, broken or bruised, that heart still beats on with intensity and passion.

I always know a great artist by how they make me feel, don’t you? Even when they are descending and falling from their peak, it seems so noteworthy and…well, artistic. That stumble, full of grace. That missed note, Avant Garde. That breakdown, it seemed like a breakthrough. Always the edge of something, the public thrives on the suspense.  Sometimes artists are on the verge of something magnificent. Sadly, sometimes they are not.

I sincerely bid Amy farewell and I am grateful for her contribution to music. I remember discovering her in college and forcing her music down the throats of everyone I knew while shouting “she’s going to be big.” And didn’t she take the world by storm!

As a young artist, I am sad to see another brilliant, blossoming creative lost. Artists can have great understanding for one another, especially during times like this. Many times, our inner worlds can seem so familiar, despite how things appear. In hostile industries that commerce art at the expense of all, many wind up feeling alone and alienated. Once again, we are left with a few hours of timeless music that gives us a glimpse into the sometimes dark inner world of a broken-hearted soul looking to maintain in this existence. I don’t care how much of a mess people feel she was. I don’t care how many albums she had either.  In the words of the incomparabable Nina Simone, that “…ain’t got nothing to do with nothing except show business, and I’m not about show business.” In the end, the art is what matters. And what exquisite art we have that will continue to live on.

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