Open Mic

Would We Have Ever Accepted a World-Weary Whitney Houston Whose Voice No Longer Soared Like an Angel? Plus, Oprah's Revealing Interview With Houston

Chuck Ross Posted February 16, 2012 at 8:31 AM

Try this paragraph on for size:

The only haze surrounding Whitney Houston now is cigarette smoke, but the singer retains an air of sublime mystery. The No. 1 wonder is how Houston, with a voice cracked and frayed from years of strife and just plain life, can convey such a wide range of emotions. In her stunning performance Sunday night at the Bacchanal, the last stop of a month-long American tour, Houston was equally compelling dealing songs with hopes and fears, dope, and tears.

With a voice that once soared with the angels, and an image to match during her first decade of hits, it’s doubtful that fans would have ever accepted Houston as the world-weary chanteuse the paragraph above describes.

That part of the Houston story is just plain bad luck.

The paragraph I cite above was written by Mikel Toombs in the San Diego Union-Tribune. It was NOT a review of a recent show by Houston, but actually of a 1990 gig by Marianne Faithfull -- I have substituted Houston's name in place of Toombs' references to Faithfull.

Faithfull was 17 years old in 1964 when she met Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham at a party. Within weeks she had recorded “As Tears Go By,” the first song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Faithfull’s voice on the song is reed-thin with a limited range, but it quickly became a hit both in the U.K. and here in America.

Soon Faithfull was Jagger’s girlfriend. As part of the hip music scene back then, it began for Faithfull a life full of that cliché of clichés -- sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

For years smack was Faithfull’s drug of choice, and she became a major junkie. That it never killed her is a miracle -- especially since along the way she actually made two bona fide suicide attempts.

By 1979, ravaged by drugs, Faithfull's voice was virtually unrecognizable as anything close to the voice of her 17-year-old self. Now, she sounded almost as raspy as Tom Waits. Most of us hadn’t heard about her in years.

Then, out of the blue came this album, “Broken English,” and Faithfull the world-weary chanteuse was born.

Faithfull claims that she’s been clean for a number of years now.

In her 1994 book “Faithfull: An Autobiography,” she writes in the last chapter, “I run into Keith [Richards] a lot at airports lately. He’s no longer the Byronic lad I once knew [and slept with]. More a Shakespearean character, a combination of Prince Hal and Falstaff … The subject of drugs inevitably comes up.

“ 'What we really need is the next great chemical truth,' says Keith enthusiastically. 'I’m still waiting for the pharmaceutical companies to come up with the fucking BREAKTHROUGH molecule of all time. Most of the stuff they cook up just fucks with your head.' "

Faithfull then writes, "It IS in the great alchemical tradition, this quest for the ultimate potion, but I have gone beyond the point where I think drugs are the Holy Grail.

"Drugs are like a mask. When I finally got clean, I was horrified to find I had built up such an effective front I couldn’t get it off. It was as if the mask had been glued on me and had stuck. It had to be peeled off layer by layer. I was afraid I was going to be trapped inside it for life."

You can see part of the mask that trapped Houston in a remarkable interview Oprah Winfrey did with the singer in September 2009 that is being repeated tonight on OWN at 9 p.m. PT/ET. If you can’t watch it at that time, set your DVR.

For my money, Oprah is the best interviewer we have, in any medium. She brings her A-game in this interview, and Houston is clearly ready to talk -- something she clearly was NOT ready to do with Diane Sawyer in a 2002 interview that was remarkable for how much Houston was not willing to say.

In the most harrowing part of the interview with Oprah, Houston talks about how devastating her marriage to Bobby Brown became.

It got to the point where Houston was praying to God to give her the strength to leave him, which finally happened.

Later Oprah asks, “Why did you think you couldn't leave without that prayer? What was holding you there?"

Houston: "Habit. Conforming to a way of life. Thinking that it's all right, that it will get better."

Then, after a commercial break Oprah asks, “So does that mean you're drug-free?"

Houston: "Yes, ma'am. Don't think I don't have desires for it. There are times it takes a minute to cleanse, get off. Get off me. Just leave me alone. Get off me. I have to pray it away. I'll have a drink every now and then. Don't get me wrong. If you see me at a bar, having a drink, don't think ..."

Winfrey: "Don't say she's gone back."

Houston: "No, please don't do that to me."

Winfrey: "Cause drinking was not your issue."

Houston: "No. That's not an issue for me. No weed. No coke. No."

Winfrey: "Do you think you ever will again? Be tempted?"

Houston: "Oprah, I can only take today. One day at a time. Right now, no."

With Houston’s death, I found the following to be the most heart-wrenching part of the interview:

Winfrey: "Are you enjoying being a mother?"

Houston: "I love it. I love being a mother and watching [Bobbi Kristina, who will be 19 on March 4] become a woman. There are times where she's going through that young womanhood where there's the boys, and there are little things and you got her little feelings being hurt. I love her to come to me, and she trusts me. She trusts me and I can tell her the truth and say: 'Listen. It's going to happen, but we're going to get through it. We're going to make it.' "#