Commentary: Amy Winehouse's immense talent and spiraling-down life
“Addicts die.” I remember a friend of mine, a recovering heroin addict, saying those harsh, cold words to me a few years ago, as I was driving over to comfort another friend of mine whose brother had just been found dead of an accidental drug overdose. I, who have minimal experience with drugs, felt like that was an unnecessarily cruel slap in the face given the proximity to time of death, but it is true.
His words were the first that popped into my head when I heard the reports of Amy Winehouse’s passing today at 27 (My colleague, Katie Hasty, will address the odd coincidence of her dying at age 27, as did Jimi Hendrix, Janis Jopin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, in a separate post). Her story, at the rate it was going, had only one real way to end and the conclusion wasn’t surprising or unexpected in any way—though that does not make it any less sad. The public — and press — had a countdown clock on her life from the moment it became clear what a hot, bee-hived mess she was. Remember the summer when she’d trot out of her apartment in just her bra for cigs? Plus, as her disease crushed her ability to create, we all fed on those grist-filled scraps since she was no long providing us with anything else to feast on.
But I want to focus on her talent, which was immense. When Universal Music Group started to introduce the British singer her in the U.S., very few of us had heard her first album, “Frank.” However, “Back To Black” had already blown up in the U.K. and the earworm that is “Rehab,” had embedded itself with its girl-girl chorus of “no, no, nos.”
Winehouse came to play the Roxy, the legendary club on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles just as “Back To Black” was coming out in the U.S in March 2007. The stories about her substance-fueled inabilities to hold it together while performing were already rising. As she took the stage in an ill-fitting, sleeveless dress, what I remember, standing probably 20 feet from her, were all her tattoos, including at least one of a pin-up girl—there may have been a hula skirt involved— on her arm that I found fascinating; it was like she had a secret past as a sailor.
Then she started to sing and on this night, she was on, if slightly jittery and nervous. Whether her handlers had made it clear she had to keep it together in front of all the press in Los Angeles or she had the presence of mind to do it herself, there was nothing to distract from her voice. It wasn’t a perfect show, but there were flashes of brilliance and heartache. Whatever demons drove her to her addictions were the same ones that propelled her to slice open a vein when she sang, such as on the glorious Motown homage, “Tears Dry On Their Own,” the torchy, resigned "Love is A Losing Game," or the confessional shrug of “You Know I’m No Good.” She was a soul singer, jazz diva, and rock star all in one was how a friend of mine described her, and all three were on display that night.
It wasn’t a long show, but it served its purpose. It took the heat off the tawdry tales of her off-stage life and put it squarely back on her formidable talent. She was a mix of so many others before her —including Dusty Springfield, Ronnie Spector and Billie Holiday — but she combined those influences, with the great help of producer Mark Ronson, into something unique. Plus, her songwriting reflected her troubled personality in an honest yet never overly melodramatic way. She was authentic and raw in a world of contrived artifice.
Even though her request for a visa to attend the 2008 Grammys was denied, Winehouse went on to win five Grammys that night, the most by a British artist in a single night, including best new artist, song and record of the year.
Winehouse was part of a whole new wave of British female singers that crashed up on American shores--- seemingly a new one every week --and her popularity helped shine the light on them. Artists like Duffy, Corrine Bailey Rae, Kate Nash, Amy McDonald arrived within the same few years. And then, of course, Adele arrived a few years later.
I never saw her perform again, but frequently covered the canceled tours and the sporadic performances that showcased her spiraling- down life, including the last one in Serbia only a few weeks ago. The performance, which a local paper described as “the worst in the history of Belgrade,” led her to cancel the rest of her 12-date European tour.
Over the last few years, there would be inklings of new music, but she never seemed to get her life together enough to make a sustained run in the studio. She did record a song, "Body and Soul," with Tony Bennett for “Duets 2,” which will come out this fall to commemorate the legend’s 85th birthday.
As we wrote in our piece in February, Bennett’s manager/son Danny told Hitfix that Winehouse asked Bennett for advice. He simply told her to take care of herself. Sadly, she was unable to listen.