Last night on Newstalk ZB we did a three hour tribute show to Whitney Houston who died yesterday, possibly drowning in her Beverly Hills hotel bath, aged just 48. On the programme we had comments from the likes of Simon Cowell, Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie, who said he would speak to Whitney from time to time, worried that she was still battling her addictions.
Lionel’s good friend Ronald LaPread, bassist for the Commodores until moving to New Zealand after the Nightshift tour in 1986, also joined us for a full interview discussing the majesty of Whitney’s voice, her star-power and the tragic decline. Her marriage to Bobby Brown was described by Ronald as “like a fantail marrying a swan”. Like many, Ronald saw that unlikely union as the beginning of the end for one of the greatest and most successful female vocalists of them all.
It was wonderful to hear from so many fans of Whitney to discover why she meant so much to them, but occasionally the conversation veered into not just the obvious dark part of Whitney Houston’s psyche, but of our own. “So are you saying you condone drug use then?” someone texted through. A couple of callers said we should be ashamed for heaping praise on a person who was “nothing more than a drug addict,” saying they have no sympathy for someone who time and time again chose the wrong decisions. One lady had paid big money to see Whitney live in Australia on her ill-fated comeback tour in 2009 and was so aghast at the state of the once, regal, serene star that she vowed she’d never forgive her and even in death, she was still holding to that.
|Whitney Houston in the late 80s.|
What is it about some of us who see everything in black and white and almost revel in condemning people for their mistakes? Because they see everything as either wholly good or bad, the assumption is that if you celebrate someone like Whitney Houston, you are doing so to every aspect of her life. That has never been how I operate and never will be. The flip-side is true and just two nights ago I had a caller who loved Winston Peters so much not only did she not have a problem with the Owen Glenn saga, she’d never even heard of it.
And so of course all of us are flawed. Martin Luther King Junior is probably for me the most influential American of the 20th Century and the fact he strayed in his marriage doesn’t detract from his message or from his work. That doesn’t mean I condone the infidelity, it just means he is deep down, human like the rest of us. Bill Clinton is another. Admiring the most capable President of my lifetime for his philanthropy, his diplomacy, his sense of social justice and his astounding intelligence doesn’t mean I think cheating on your wife is also a fantastic way to go. But unlike a couple of the callers last night, I own a mirror in my house and while you don’t dwell on it, maybe it’s good to be reminded every now and then of the ways we’ve messed up.
As a rebuttal, I mentioned that many of the biggest names in music went through the exact same thing as Whitney Houston with the massive success, the fame, the looks, the adulation and then the drug-fuelled decline. People ask what was different about the ones that made it to the other side and the ones like Whitney. Truth be told, people like David Crosby, like Nile Rodgers, like David Bowie, like Eric Clapton, like Stevie Nicks and countless others, do not know why they are still alive. The point is, it’s not all a simple case of reaching an epiphany and realising it’s time to live your life a different way. Whitney may have reached that epiphany herself had she lived longer. She’d probably done less drugs than most of the people on that list.
Ultimately, I believe you can pay tribute to someone who sold 170 million records, who has the biggest selling female debut album ever (Whitney), who has the record for the most consecutive US #1 hits (seven), who has the biggest selling soundtrack of all time (The Bodyuard), who has the biggest hit by a female ever (I Will Always Love You) and who dominated the charts for 15 years while still ojectively looking at sadder aspects of their life. That’s what we attempted to do last night and it was an honour to do so.
We played the mammoth hits like I Wanna Dance With Somebody and dug out some of the lesser known gems like Exhale (Shoop Shoop), I Have Nothing and even the original Dolly Parton version of I Will Always Love You. But being that Whitney Houston’s life has been tinged with sadness for a long time, I felt it was important to play her 2009 comeback song I Look To You. With a voice noticably altered by drugs; the notes are shorter and more ragged, the tone less pure and as a result, there isn’t the knockout punch to turn it into a radio hit that a younger Whitney would’ve delivered.
In 2009 the song seemed sad mainly because it showed that even in the studio, the magic was gone. However, listening to the song now it strikes me this written-to-order song from R. Kelly (who has had his fair share of wrong decisions too) is almost certainly a straight-up spiritual of someone on the verge of defeat seeking salvation. These lyrics mean something to both the writer and the singer and now they mean a whole lot more to anybody else who chooses to listen. I’m not sure there’d be too many recent gospel songs with anything like the spiritual but still naked honesty of some of these lines:
As I lay me down
Heaven hear me now
I’m lost without a cause
After giving it my all
Winter storms have come
And darkened my sun
After all I’ve been through
Who on earth can I turn to
I look to you
I look to you
After all my strength is gone
In you I can be strong
I look to you
I look to you
And when melodies are gone
In you I hear a song, I look to you
About to lose my breath
There’s no fighting left
Seeking to rise no more
Searching for that open door
And every road I’ve taken
Led to my regret
And I don’t know if I’m gonna’ make it
Nothing to do but lift my head
My levees have broken
My walls have come crumbling down on me
The rain is falling
Defeat is calling
I need you to set me free
(Chorus, repeat and close)
The best call was from a lady who said you have a better shot at helping someone with kindness and compassion than with judgement and condemnation. Alongside I Look To You, the other espceially poignant Whitney Houston song at this time is Didn’t We Almost Have It All, a US #1 from 1987. Written by Will Jennings and Michael Masser, here is the line that got me as a kid that still gets me now:
“The ride with you was worth the fall, my friend.” RIP Whitney Houston.