I wanted to write about Amy Winehouse and what her death means to me, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what I wanted to express at all. Aside from which, I don’t want to turn this blog into an obituary site for every celebrity that passes way before what I may consider their time.
I think what I’ve decided to say, whether through fault or design (both, if I’m honest) will be more of why her death matters to anyone who has loved her music that isn’t a personal friend or family member. As a person Amy Winehouse spent far too much time getting shit faced in Camden to deserve all our unquestioning respect. Many people over the last few days have said that she had choices to make, and she made them; pity they turned out to be the wrong choices. Save your pity for those who die without a choice, was almost the message, indicating I should have concentrated by public lament on the tragic dead gunned down by a maniac in Norway (as if it was impossible and uncouth to share two lots of regret at the same time). True, they had no choice, and words don’t come easy to express how mind and heart numbingly shocking that has been.
In Winehouse’s case, she had already made an emotional connection with many of us through her remarkable music; and perhaps there is the difference. We felt we knew her through her frank and auto-biographical lyrics (her first album was, quite appropriately, called “Frank”). We wanted her to overcome and survive to see that sunnier day, somewhere on the horizon. The media loved this tragic soap opera, and pursued her for the next iconic image or quote (or just the next scandalous public disgrace). Perhaps in the end they pursued it too far, although how much influence they had on her death is debatable. She courted the media as much as they used her to sell their papers, but she never seemed over bitter about their intrusion, even making journalists cups of tea when they camped outside her door. This was not a soul diva with an ego; perhaps that didn’t make her a real diva at all, and perhaps in that consideration are the reasons why many of us loved her brand of celebrity and the heartfelt music that went with it. She was no fake. She meant every last word. Celebrity was a by product of her talent, but it wasn’t something she relentlessly chased. For an NME ‘Cool List’ photo shoot in 2007 numerous music stars turned up with huge entourages and demands. Amy turned up last, the biggest star of them all, on her own. She then asked, with a complete lack of ego, if anyone wanted to have a drink with her in the pub afterwards.
I know several people who did not like Amy’s image or her music. The first I can sort of understand, especially if you’re of the more straight laced persuasion. A tattooed, mini skirt wearing, beehive haired Jewish girl with a perennial cigarette prop might not be your thing. Yet, what a beautiful and unique sight it was to the rest of us; the unexpected shape true pop stars come in, the iconography on the way to immortality; no one looked like her. The latter point about the music is less easy to accept- even those who didn’t take to her sound must be deaf if they couldn’t discern the natural talent and verve in those tracks. Winehouse’s music was often gloriously lush but very rarely pretty, and in that was its appeal and its power. Amy was a woman and sang about being one, but that was not to say she was quite like her innumerable contemporaries. She was fashionable and had a London accent but was certainly not another Kate Nash; she could sell millions of albums but she was nothing like Dido. This was not music bought just to play as background music. Her blend of Soul, R&B, Jazz and ’60s girl group sass was given a 21st century make over (particularly with help from her friend and producer Mark Ronson). It retained all the class of a bygone age, with something contemporary and relevant thrown into the mix. Winehouse sang of her everyday life and loves; heartbreaking Spector-esque walls of sound accompanied by her down at heel heartbreak lyrics about life in the local pub, in the bath, in bed with her beau, eating fries and drinking Stella. But this was no Lilly Allen (and no disrespect to her); She was Motown and Stax reincarnated. Winehouse was also like the voice of Bessie Smith or Ethel Waters, returned to resurrect soul for the new century. Her voice carried soul alright; it resounded with heartbreak and a yearning for a better tomorrow through songs where regret was a constant danger and the past casts a shadow. She sang of female desire (far removed from any cheeky or sanitised vision seen and heard through magazines and re-runs of Sex and the city) and of glorious bliss so swiftly turned to shit, often evoking an unforgettable and original line (“You shoot me down like Roger Moore”…”what kind of fuckery is this?”) Yet a strength came through her songs, which makes her death all the more surprising, even after years of public addiction. These were often songs of strength and potential retribution. Her “No, no, no” in “Rehab” is simple and so iconic and memorable; easy to lampoon yet so self deprecating, so quirky, so stubborn, so Amy.
She was always going to find a willing audience with a talent like that, combined with a willingness to work through her self esteem on wax; her remorse was a regular feature (“and life is like a pipe, and I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside,” she sings in what may become her greatest epitaph; the 2006 single “Back to black”). Tales of love that has been lost and found again, of huge mistakes that might be put right. Inspiring songs.
Those are some reasons why she’ll be missed. She said that music was the only part of her life where she had complete dignity, and where no one could take it away from her. That will remain true for as long as we have the pleasure to hear her.