Dylan Moore reflects on the life and music of Amy Winehouse, one of the UK’s most influential and accomplished young singer-songwriters.
At the record company meeting
On their hands – at last! – a dead star!
But they can never taint you in my eyes
No, they can never touch you now
– ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’, The Smiths
Oh, Amy, no. Three little words. I knew the rest immediately. 23rd July 2011. A Saturday. There were a string of statuses and links to news articles on my feed that day, but those were the words that said it briefest and best. Oh, Amy, no. An expression of shock and yet not surprise, and a profound sadness at having lost somebody that you never actually knew.
I first heard the incredible voice of Amy Jade Winehouse on a promo disc given away by The Guardian prior to the release of her debut album Frank (2003). It was the track ‘What Is It About Men?’. You won’t need me to tell you how wonderful and rare it is to come across a new artist who is able to shatter, in a single stroke, any idea you might have had that all the best songs have already been sung, and, in this case, that the smoky-voiced jazz chanteuse is a relic of a bygone era.
I didn’t guess immediately that Winehouse would become a massive star. It might be hard to comprehend now, but in 2003 big-lunged female soul and jazz singers were almost unheard of in the mainstream of pop. All I knew at the time was that here was a song, and a voice, that was totally contemporary and yet also redolent of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone; the greats. Amy’s voice was rich, powerful and strange. Even better was the fact that because it was a free CD, I was listening to this music totally devoid of context. All I knew was that the record was from an album called Frank and that I had to have it.
Imagine my surprise, then, on purchasing Frank, when I discovered that this voice – this wonderful instrument – belonged to a skinny Jewish girl from north London. Most likely you do not have to imagine, because it did not take long, of course, for the whole world to discover Amy. She was, especially by the time her second long-player Back To Black (2006) arrived, hardly inconspicuous. By this time, Amy had become the caricature of renown, what the New York Times’ Guy Trebay called ‘a 5-foot-3 almanac of visual reference’, not to mention the notorious alcohol and drug problems and chaotic lifestyle that made her a constant target for the paparazzi.
Amy’s signature tune became the song ‘Rehab’, its stubborn refrain ‘I won’t go-go-go’, as we probably all knew it would, proving chillingly prophetic. ‘I told you I was trouble’ she warned us elsewhere, ‘you know I’m no good’. The tragedy – in the full, Greek, sense – of Amy Winehouse was that she meant it. Amy’s essential fucked-upness stemmed from the same place as her artistry.
And yet, perhaps precisely because I don’t read the tabloids or the celebrity gossip magazines, although I am aware of their existence, the overriding knowledge I have of Amy is through her songs. Frank was one of the last physical albums I bought before iTunes and Spotify between them consigned the connection between music and a tactile object to the realms of nostalgia. It is only a CD inlay booklet, hardly a gatefold vinyl objet d’art, but the series of photographs that accompany Amy’s lyrics to songs like ‘Stronger Than Me’, ‘Take the Box’ and the sublime ‘(There Is) No Greater Love’, tell a terrible story when you know the ending.
The tragedy of Amy Winehouse was that she meant it.
Here is Winehouse in the family kitchen, staring down the lens of the camera while playing a harmonica, jet black hair falling loosely about a t-shirt that looks like it might belong to a boyfriend. Here is Amy in the mirror, sunglasses atop her head as she applies mascara, a pair of jeans hung up next to her guitar. Here is Amy playing pool, her bare arms and shoulders clean of tattoos, her face fresh and free from the weight of the world. Here she is in a back alley, a picture of unstudied, unpretentious cool. Here is her CD collection, stacked up against a pink wall like any other teenage girl. I pick out Miles Davis, Beck’s Mellow Gold and an album of Gospels, Spirituals and Hymns. Finally, there is a picture that in any other context would seem like a mistake, a throwaway, an accident of pointing the camera the wrong way. It shows a section of wood-effect laminate flooring, littered with the detritus of life for a fun-loving nineteen-year-old girl; bangles, bracelets, belts and sparkly stilettos. Now, at just ten years remove, it seems to speak, impossibly quietly, of the life that Amy could have had.
In all these pictures, Amy was – seems to be – happy. Only in the first picture is she looking at the camera, and even then, you sense, she is looking at somebody she knows. There is a lack of self-consciousness, an effortless grace to match the effortless power of her voice. Amy’s lyrics also assert a disarming, unflinching honesty, a character trait that was to be both her greatest strength and the root of her downfall. The gender politics on ‘Stronger Than Me’ are brazenly post-feminist – ‘I’m not gonna meet your mother any time / I just wanna grip your body over mine’ – but immediately, the next track finds Winehouse laying bare her vulnerability. ‘You Sent Me Flying’ is a beautiful evocation of heartbreak dressed up as hurt pride: ‘Although he means nothing in the scheme of my years / it just serves to bludgeon my futile tears’ sings Amy in just one of many lines that belie the precocious age of the songwriter.
‘Cherry’, on the other hand, is a simple song that nevertheless reveals Winehouse’s devotion to her art. Perhaps inevitably there is an overriding lyrical concern on Frank with the cruelties and mysteries of men. There is a cathartic element: ‘Maybe if I get this down, I’ll get it off my mind.’ But music, not man, is the muse: ‘Maybe we could talk ‘bout things / If you were made of wood and strings’.
Winehouse’s mordant honesty is also evident when it comes to owning up. ‘I couldn’t resist him / his eyes were like yours / His hair was exactly your shade of brown’ she sings on ‘I Heard Love Is Blind’. The theme soon emerges, and it is one that affects all young women of Amy’s generation. On one hand, the girls are in control. On ‘In My Bed’ Amy warns her lover that ‘Yours is a familiar face / But that don’t make your place safe / In my bed.’ In this song, like many of the others, it is the man, rather than the female narrator, who ‘can’t separate sex [from] emotion’. The young Amy delights in her feminine wiles; at times she appears to mock the men in her songs.
Amy’s alcoholism, crack cocaine and heroin addictions, bulimia, self-harm and struggle with depression were not, however, part of the same costume as her trademark Ronnie Spector beehive and Cleopatra make-up.
But more often, too often as it turned out, her searing analysis of relationships is turned inwards. ‘My girl says I’m too sensitive to run with you / But I’m not listening to her’, she sings on ‘Know You Now’. All the while there is this sense that she knows only too well the path she is choosing. The album’s final track, ‘Amy Amy Amy’ says it all. This is a girl who knows herself too well and is far too open about it to save herself from harm. Here it is the masculine form – ‘my weakness for the other sex, every time his shoulders flex’ – that proves ‘too hard to ignore’.
Little did I know when I first heard ‘What It Is About Men’ that the seeds of the Amy Winehouse tragedy had already been sown. Here, eight years before her death from alcohol poisoning and three years before the success of Back to Black shone a searchlight on her myriad personal problems, she was already singing that ‘I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate’, admitting that ‘animal aggression is my downfall’ and that ‘I’ll take the wrong man as naturally as I sing’. It was perhaps no accident, given the rest of the Amy’s well-documented story, that her weakness for the wrong man was bound up in the further admission that ‘my destructive side / has grown a mile wide.’
Of course there has been a long-running inquest into who was to blame for the death of Amy Winehouse. The mud-slinging began even while she was alive. From Back to Black on, Amy became public property; her every fight, binge, collapse and relapse played out in front of the paparazzi. Many of Amy’s woes were evidently self-inflicted; her father, husband, fans and the media also all took some share of the blame.
All I knew was that when Amy returned in 2006 as a mainstream star, everything about her had changed. The pretty, skinny girl-next-door of Frank had been replaced by a sultry bad-girl with a beehive, covered in tattoos and attitude. The lack of self-awareness had become total self-awareness. Even about Frank, Winehouse was on record as saying she was ‘only about 80% behind it’ because of choices the record company had made. Now, as a megastar, her whole life had been taken out of her hands. To some, this might seem like a good thing; Winehouse undoubtedly would have benefitted from some structure in her life. But even the pre-fame Amy had just two overriding characteristics: that voice, and a complete aversion to being told what to do, an impulsive streak so extreme that it was guaranteed to provide her with trouble.
Journalists write about rock star ‘demons’ as if they are part of the garb. Amy’s alcoholism, crack cocaine and heroin addictions, bulimia, self-harm and struggle with depression were not, however, part of the same costume as her trademark Ronnie Spector beehive and Cleopatra make-up. The beauty of Amy Winehouse, the reason that so many people related to her through her music and the reason that the music industry can go on making money out of her in exactly the same way The Smiths outline in the song ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’ is because even at her most affected, Amy was brutally honest.
Frank is frank but Back to Black is, despite its soaring commercial success, a difficult listen. In fact, the soaring commercial success of the album precisely relies on the fact that modern pop audiences don’t listen. ‘Rehab’ is habitually played as a singalong track in bars and nightclubs, or even at weddings. Songs as bleak and drenched in self-loathing as ‘You Know I’m No Good’, ‘Wake Up Alone’ and the title track are played as background music in coffee houses. ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ appeared on a Cambridge University exam paper next to a 16th century lyric by Sir Walter Raleigh. Winehouse’s sophomore is the UK’s twelfth best selling long-player of all time, and yet nobody heard it as the simple cry for help that it obviously is. ‘I don’t wanna ever drink again / I just, ooh, I just need a friend,’ sings Amy. How much more clearly did we want her to say it?
And of course it is deeply ironic that Amy will now, probably, be given a posthumous Brit Award for a posthumous record. The Brit Awards have only even been about the industry (what a distasteful word that is when applied to music), never about art. Lioness is, of course, a magnificent record (by virtue of the fact it has Amy Winehouse singing on it). It also possesses the get-out clause (these things so often do) of being sold in aid of the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which helps young people who have problems with drugs and alcohol, and is endorsed by Amy’s family. I would not wish for one minute to suggest that the Foundation or the family are cashing in on the death of Amy Winehouse; all I would say is that it is very clear that the music industry are determined to. ‘Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! / Re-evaluate the songs / Double-pack with a photograph,’ sang Morrissey, way back in 1987. The posthumous deification of Amy Winehouse paints a very vulgar picture indeed.
The Brit Awards need Amy because she possessed the very quality that they can never have. They also need her because the current crop of stars who make up the rest of the ‘Best Female’ category – Paloma Faith, Bat for Lashes, Emeli Sande, Jessica Ware – all owe something to Amy. When Amy Winehouse came onto the scene in 2003, the cultural universe occupied by the major labels who collude to produce the Brit Awards was still dominated by the post-Britpop template of four or five guys; guitar, bass and drums. Since then, there has been a non-stop conveyor belt of female vocal talent: Florence, Duffy, Jessie and Adele might each have their own, and different, styles, but Amy was the forerunner of them all.
Like Winehouse, all of these women have powerful voices and huge album sales. But none of them have the missing ingredient, the duende of Amy. I use this specific concept, as described by the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, because of its exact correlation with Winehouse’s work. Most commonly connected with flamenco, duende is nevertheless applicable to any kind of music or dance or spoken poetry that possesses a particular emotional authenticity. For Lorca, duende is characterised by ‘irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical’, all qualities generally lacking in most modern pop, but there in abundance in the songs of Amy Winehouse. Moreover, Lorca describes ‘everything that has black sounds in it’ as having duende.
For Lorca, duende is characterised by ‘irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical’, all qualities generally lacking in most modern pop, but there in abundance in the songs of Amy Winehouse.
If we were in any doubt at all about Winehouse’s being in possession of such a spirit, consider not only the lyrics but the sounds of ‘Back to Black’. She might have ‘only said goodbye with words’, but when she repeats the word ‘black’ seven times as the song nears its conclusion, the pain and confusion in her voice poisons the whole atmosphere of wherever you are listening to it. Unless you are not listening.
Nick Cave has also written about duende in relation to the love song:
All love songs must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh… deny us our humanness and our God-given right to be sad and the air-waves are littered with them. The love song must resonate with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief. The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love.
Cave’s analysis is a perfect encapsulation of what Winehouse did right, and what so much of the music ‘industry’ does wrong. So open and honest is Winehouse that even unwitting explanations of her writing process have the power to chill. In 2007, she told Rolling Stone that writing Back to Black ‘was very cathartic, because I felt terrible about the way [my husband Blake Fielder-Civil and I] treated each other. I thought we’d never see each other again. He laughs about it now. He’s like, ‘What do you mean, you thought we’d never see each other again? We love each other. We’ve always loved each other.’ But I don’t think it’s funny. I wanted to die.’
If you want to remember Amy Winehouse, the British musical legend who will never be forgotten, watch the Brit Awards. The music industry sure knows how to do mawkishness. However, if you want to remember how Amy Winehouse, a mixed-up little girl from north London, who managed to touch millions of lives with a modicum of emotional honesty, you’ll have to go back to Back to Black.
Illustration by Dean Lewis.
Recommended for you:
Craig Austin reviews Amy, the bittersweet documentary about the music of Amy Winehouse, directed by Asif Kapadia.