Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston: 1963-2012

Today I received an email from my friend Lori.

Subject line: "Whitney Houston is dead."

"What a way to break it to me gently," was my first thought. The second: "No way." I'd just returned from a morning run that Houston's "It's Not Right but It's Okay" (the nine-minute Thunderpuss Club Mix) had helped get me through. She couldn't be dead.

It must be another hoax. In recent weeks, we'd "lost" Jon Bon Jovi and Eddie Murphy. Surely there'd soon be some press release insisting that Houston was alive and well, relaxing at home in New Jersey.

Sadly, there wouldn't be. I logged on to Facebook, and the tributes were already pouring in. One included a link to a story in which Houston's publicist confirmed the tragic news: She's gone.

As I write, the place and cause of her death are still unconfirmed, but many are prematurely blaming drugs because Houston's years-long battle with substance abuse has been well-documented. We've already lost so many music greats in recent years. Some, like Etta James, Teena Marie, Nikolas Ashford, Vesta Williams, Phoebe Snow, Billie Jo Spears, Dobie Gray, had been mostly out of the public eye for years, so we were more saddened than shocked by their passing.

I'd never been able to imagine Michael Jackson growing old, so his untimely death in 2009, while devastating, wasn't completely unexpected. With Amy Winehouse, it had always seemed like it was only a matter of time. There were a lot of parallels between Winehouse and Houston -- substance abuse, tumultuous marriages, erratic concert behavior, frightening weight loss, tabloid reports of impending death -- but somehow I always expected Houston to win her battle.

Her voice was no longer the beautiful instrument we'd first heard in the mid-'80s, but at 48, she still looked fantastic. She was even due to make a return to the screen in August in a remake of the 1976 film Sparkle. I felt like she might be on the cusp of a revival. She had every reason to live. Now that movie will have to serve as her professional epitaph.

Houston left behind many flawless vocal performances, but the one that touched me most of all didn't belong to one of her best-known hits: "Miracle," a No. 9 single from 1991. I discussed the song with its writer, Babyface, during an interview in the early '90s, and he told me about its genesis.

He'd intended it as a firm statement against abortion, a reaffirmation of the sanctity of life. Though she loved the song, Babyface said that Houston was uncomfortable with that divisive point of view, and when she recorded it, in her mind, she assigned a more universal meaning to the lyric. The miracle wasn't just an unborn baby; it was each and every one of us.

"How could I throw away a miracle?" she sang in the opening line. In later years, her voice and her life ravaged by drug abuse, those words would take on a whole new meaning. In a sense, Houston had thrown away hers. The greatest tragedy of her passing is that now she'll never be able to get it back.

Post a Comment