I can still remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse sing. She was sound-checking for a TV show I was producing for Channel 4 in the UK, and it was to be her debut appearance. There she was: no make-up, wearing sloppy oversized white t-shirt and black-leggings, absentmindedly strumming a Fender guitar put through a tiny amp in a television studio while lighting engineers and floor-staff hustled around preparing for what would be that night’s filming. And because she was (a) unknown at that stage, and (b) demure, no one had even noticed her walk out onto the floor. There’d been no entourage, no drama; just little Amy Winehouse, shy as you like.
But then, seemingly without effort, she closed her eyes, tilted her head to one side and rolled out the opening line of what was to be her first single, “Stronger Than Me”. And I kid you not, everyone—and everything—just stopped, in sheer disbelief. The entire studio-floor, the control room—all the clanking and banging and cursing you get on set. Zip. And the craziest thing was she didn’t even look like she was trying. In that moment, I knew what people in books meant when they tried to explain hearing Elvis Presley or Mahalia Jackson or Marvin Gaye sing in chapel or around the place. Because some rare souls, it seems, are born blessed with the kind of voice to make you believe.
I relate this not to bag myself some history, as Amy Winehouse becomes canonized around the globe and by the hour following her sad passing over this weekend at age 27. But because that day afforded me a view of both the early Amys; one of which would clearly take the world by storm, while the other would sadly get lost along the way. Previous to hearing her blow Channel 4 studios away, I’d also witnessed her walk in as a no-one earlier in the day. All pre-fame and on a budget; just her and my friend Mike from the record company (who’d slipped me a demo CD weeks before) carrying Winehouse’s little amp and guitar.
Winehouse was short, perhaps 5’3”; all sloppy figure-hiding clothes. She possessed a prominent nose, which tended to dominate her face and (you couldn’t help but get the feeling) was a major source for her very obvious self-consciousness. When, if, she spoke, it was in almost expectant, self-defensive bursts; all North London, clipped with the kind of affected Jamaican angularity that suggested she hung out on—and was keen to be accepted on—London’s urban music scene. A realization which almost immediately had me feeling for her; for that was a scene full of front and bullshit, competitive bordering on combative. An environment Winehouse just didn’t seem thick-skinned enough to navigate amongst.
All of which would quickly become odd recollections to have. Because beyond that day and once Winehouse hit it big, she seemed to morph into an altogether different form: that of a pop star; glamorous, filtered through clever photographs angled so as not to stress her nose or lack of height. And as the storm of headlines brewed, grew, and burst into national fame, Winehouse became nothing of the shy girl I’d met and witnessed hypnotize a studio full of impatient people, and more about this fantastical chanteuse character: skirts as short as her heels were high, a ‘60s tart somehow out of time, yet steadily ushering in a very cool fascination with retro sounds and style. But she had the talent, and you absolutely could not begrudge her any of it.
Everything goes in cycles; in contrast to the corporate histrionics of Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and latter-day Mary J. Blige, radios began to sparkle with Winehouse and other less-fidgety female soul vocals. Now a bone fide pop star, she became the allotted leader of a fresh wave of no-shit girl singers with great big voices. Until that point, Joss Stone had been tipped for big things, but almost as quickly as she was hot, she was not; stunt vocals eclipsed by real emotion. Because that’s what Amy Winehouse delivered: feeling, truth—you name it, she brought it. In a world gone plastic, she was the real deal. Like a solarized Dusty Springfield, she’d evolved further into some kind of raven-haired mistreated honey; bruised, battered, and done wrong to—all the better for lady to sing the Blues.
However, if Winehouse’s debut album Frank (2003) had been—for all the archness of its title, hinting at Winehouse’s manner—too polite, it was the Mark Ronson-produced follow-up Back to Black (2006)—brimming with tales of “fuckery”, wurlitzers, and horns finesse—that would hit big. It was a perfect distillation of Winehouse’s ‘60s girl-group obsession, meeting boozie altercations of the heart, all set to beats that suggested something other than cocaine and quantization. As Rick Rubin is to rock, Ronson is beyond; a music obsessive clearly adept with acts, and capable of excising real feel from instrumentation in this otherwise crisp digital age. As a match, Winehouse and Ronson’s Back to Black did the trick, and singles like “You Know I’m No Good” and “Love Is a Losing Game” helped usher both of them into the super-league.
But there was also “Rehab”. And that’s when the darkness began to shift in. Almost as if she and her contrived persona (her handy fantasy, turned outwards reality) had merged to become one and the same. In short, Winehouse suddenly seemed to be living her fallen woman schtick for real: getting drunk in public, looking worse for wear, stumbling out of cabs. Which, given the rabidity of the British tabloid press and sheer ubiquity of celebrity (grades A-Z) these days, is hardly a rare visual. But Winehouse kept doing it. And along with the tattoos and tales of drugs came a dubious looking boyfriend called Blake, the kind of character North London’s Camden (Winehouse’s hometown and the former Ground Zero of Britpop) stocks in spades among its shadows and pub doorways.
After which, everything became a blur of cancelled shows, court appearances, and a virtual flicker-book animation of decline, as tabloid snap after snap caught Winehouse careening through one late-night scenario after another. Yet, in hindsight, to think that Amy Winehouse is now dead at just 27 belies all that happened over the intervening four years between Back to Black and last weekend.
Most obviously, we got Adele and Duffy; all the new breed of young soul singers to dig, as led by Winehouse’s individuality. More simplistic voices, indebted to Dusty and the ‘60s. Yet if Winehouse was anything, she was more a catalyst to an industry style-change, inspiring not so much a cultural but more a market shift. Especially given how Duffy had previously been spied as a pop wannabe, before Back to Black‘s sales saw her paired off with ex-Suede guitarist and ‘60s styled songwriter/producer, Bernard Butler. No, if anything, Winehouse was no leader of a revolution, but more a rare spark of brilliance; a unique talent more an exception to prove the rule that reality—and not the artificial television type—by the mid-2000s was in desperate short supply.
But even given all of the media saturation in our desensitized age, the sheer speed of Winehouse’s demise was still daunting. What once upon a time would have taken an eclipsed, nose-diving superstar the entire autumn of their career to consume, hard-drug and booze-wise, Winehouse compacted into a fast-forward daily soap opera of woe. One played out for being as utterly, stereotypically rock star stupid as it was accelerated. But one which, clearly, was much darker at heart, for being as hardcore as it was tough to disguise.
The simple fact is: fame killed Amy Winehouse. As did her crushing lack of self-worth. Fame’s role being to blow her disconnect up as big-as-billboards, into Benday dots, until all she could see was the chasms in between her substance. And the raging fire of addiction did for the rest.
Thinking back to that day when I first met Winehouse pre-fame, if she couldn’t hide herself in an oversized t-shirt then, what chance did she have as a global star? And once the tabloids had trapped her into her chanteuse’s skin—their daily presence outside her house necessitating she lose herself in the hallway mirror of pop star mascara and the beehive weave, if only to go fetch some milk—where was there left for shy little Amy Winehouse to be?
Nowhere, it seems. And the biggest, yet most basic, tragedy of all this is that Winehouse died because she couldn’t find inner peace within herself. Because something, somewhere inside her didn’t connect; and for all the money and all the fame, she couldn’t find what she needed to get by.
Yet, at the same time as she was struggling on this Earth, she possessed a true, utterly rare, gift of a voice which enriched the lives of others. One which, I can vouch—albeit for only the briefest of times shared with her—was, if experienced in person, one of the closest things to pure, heavenly beauty I’ve ever experienced.
And that’s both the biggest loss, and the greatest shame.
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