Even without the distracting drink and drugs, it’s hard to imagine a character such as Amy Winehouse being an active artist in 2021; the woman wore her heart on her sleeve and didn’t give a f**k if that fact made some a little queasy – qualities guaranteed to ensure cancellation, ostracism and grovelling public apologies in this illiberal era. She’s precisely the kind of figure contemporary music sorely lacks and badly needs; and, astonishingly, she’d still only be 37 if she hadn’t passed away 10 years ago today. Whenever someone dies young, whether famous name or personal friend, we often find ourselves imagining what their response would have been to events occurring in the years since their passing; and when one looks at the bland, banal and utterly inconsequential generation of musicians to have risen without a trace in the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death, I think Amy would have been an even more contentious cat amongst the timid pigeons now than she was then. After all, this is a time when a member of a highly successful mainstream band (Mumford and Sons) is forced to quit simply because he’d tweeted a thumbs-up to a book exposing Antifa as the nihilistic thugs anyone without Woke blinkers can see they are.
Whatever ‘it’ is, Amy Winehouse had it. Plenty before her did too, but no one since her has. For me, she’s the only artist to have emerged this century worthy of sharing the stage with all the greats that inspired her. Even her striking image – a factor that no longer seems important in an age of interchangeable bots assembled by stylists – nailed it. When Phil Oakey of The Human League was once asked about his own unique haircut, he said he’d opted for it because he’d noticed the most successful and iconic pop stars all shared one distinctive aesthetic touch – a haircut that instantly identified them as much as their voice. And Amy Winehouse’s towering beehive – a gloriously kitsch caricature midway between a 60s girl group and a John Waters movie – made her visually unmistakable; I can’t think of any pop cultural personality to have appeared in the last decade that can be said of. Her haircut made her as immediately recognisable as the similarly trademarked barnets of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bowie et al. That Amy Winehouse even bothered to make the effort shows she was the last in a long line of artists to whom such a thing mattered.
Her voice, her look and her attitude place her firmly alongside the characters who came before her and completely detach her from those who came after. No doubt any MSM commemorations of her life and times ten years on will see a lengthy queue of young talking heads desperate to be regarded as inheritors of Amy’s vacant throne, but forget it; Amy Winehouse took that throne with her when she abdicated. In a way, she was already a woman out of time when she owned her time. She’d been the first pop star to make a genuinely significant impact on the collective consciousness for a decade, and when she broke through it felt like the resurrection of music meaning more than just a bloody ringtone. But it’s evident now she was the end of something rather than a new beginning, the dying breath of a different era that this lousy century would quickly extinguish for good the minute she was out of the picture.
Amy Winehouse meant more than mere showbiz; there was an earthy depth there completely absent from her successors but one that had been a vital component of her predecessors. She had a truth to her that moved people, the same truth that enables all great artists to connect to their audience on a level that resides way below the synthetic surface the majority of pop musicians operate on. It’s the truth that Van Morrison once referenced in relation to the Blues. ‘The Blues is truth,’ he said, and Amy Winehouse was in possession of that truth. It’s an increasingly rare gift, for no matter how wide a vocal range or an ability to hit notes few can reach, without that truth – or soul – a musician is just a technician. It’s why Jimi Hendrix is still revered and a dozen technically superior virtuoso axe-men to have followed him aren’t.
Part of Amy Winehouse’s enduring appeal was what touched a nerve in listeners when she fell under the mainstream spotlight, i.e. her talent for translating the chaos of her personal life into a universal language spoken by anyone who has lived, loved and lost; it’s what Joni Mitchell meant when, asked why her landmark LP ‘Blue’ continued to strike a chord with generations not even born when it was released, she replied ‘All I’ve done is reveal human traits…at the point they (listeners) see themselves in it, the communication is complete.’ Amy Winehouse’s songs burned with bruised anguish yet never wallowed in miserable self-pity; yes, she’d been hurt and screamed out that fact, but her defiance and determination to claw her way out and rise above it shone through every line and every note.
Amy Winehouse’s spirited skill in dealing with her demons was typified by her breakthrough hit, ‘Rehab’; the single was a trailer for the album that put her on the map and sealed her legend, ‘Back to Black’. In collaboration with producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, she mined a rich archive of 60s soul and melodramatic girl group pop and found the perfect sonic vehicle for channelling her hurt into pure gold. It was an inspired move and one few could see coming when her debut album had languorously lingered in a chilled, jazzy vibe easy on the ear but not necessarily one that grabbed you by the throat. ‘Back to Black’ sounded like a classic album on first listen, as though it had been around for 40 years; I remember hearing it for the first time and being taken aback by how something produced in 2006 could take a familiar vintage sound and imbue it with a contemporary sensibility that didn’t render the exercise sterile nostalgia. The combination of the musicianship, Amy’s raw, soulful vocals, and emotive lyrics that any grownup could relate to was an instant winner.
‘Back to Black’ was showered in plaudits – Grammys, Brit Awards etc. – and sold in excess of 16 million copies globally, with 3.58 of those alone in the UK. Critics were unanimous in their praise of how Winehouse had harnessed bad personal experiences and transformed them into art. Alas, Amy Winehouse’s tragedy is that the demons she’d exploited in the best creative traditions then took back control and plunged her into an ugly cycle of self-destruction she never recovered from. Like Billie Holiday before her, she had the knack of being attracted to the worst possible candidates for her affections; turbulent relationships may have provided her with explosive material for her songs, but when alcohol and heroin got in the way, her ability to use that material evaporated. There were five years between the release of ‘Back to Black’ and her premature death, five years in which she failed to capitalise on her success by adding to her body of work. There were a few one-off collaborations, a handful of isolated demos intended for eventual polishing, and even the occasional live performance when she managed to keep it together and remind everyone just how special her talent was. But the moment she became a household name, it all started to fall apart.
As with the disintegration of Brian Jones in the late 60s, Amy Winehouse’s final chapter is seen by some as a criminal waste of talent; it portrays her as someone who casually threw away a God-given gift in a tabloid soap opera of self-indulgent addictions, with even her father publicly intervening and building a dubious career on the back of his daughter’s decline, something that added to the unseemly circus. When at her peak, Winehouse was wild and excitingly unpredictable – and let’s face it, that never did Ozzy Osbourne’s career any harm – but she was in control; as she rapidly descended into a shambling, skeletal, near-parody of herself, she succumbed to something she was so much better than. When news broke that she’d been granted membership of the risible ‘27 Club’, few who had witnessed her deterioration were surprised, though many of us felt terribly sad. Ten years later, many of us still do.
© The Editor
4 thoughts on “RHAPSODY IN BLACK”
I’ll admit that, at the time and as a musical ignoramus, I never regarded her as anything particularly special, although behaviourally quite extraordinary.
Then I heard a passing comment from the music and comedy god, Humphrey Lyttleton, that Amy was his favourite singer, so I took more notice and, indeed, she seemed to imbue her songs with some extra character, so maybe the astute Humph was right.
Sadly her balance of negative behavioural traits saw her demise at that early, but popular for music fatality, age of 27, which is too soon for anyone, even without her talent, but with it, even more of a loss.
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I hadn’t realised she’d received Humph’s endorsement, but it is true that many of music’s elder statesmen – everyone from Tony Bennett to Mick Jagger to Paul Weller – recognised something in her that had them queuing-up to perform and record with her in a way they rarely do with young ‘uns. Watching and listening afresh today, however, she already seems like a figure more at home in an era further back than just ten years, as though she was a contemporary of such veterans. I guess she is now.
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I can remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse. It was on a late night programme back in 2003, and she was performing solo, accompanying herself on guitar. It was the first new artist I’d seen in ages that made me think, ‘I’ve got to keep my eye on this one’, which doesn’t happen much. Ten years on from her death, no other mainstream artist has come close. As for the Mumford story, it’s a shame he didn’t have the bottle to stand up to the fascists-in-waiting claiming to be ‘anti-fascist’.
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Yes, much the same as my own reaction. I think watching some of the footage of her on TV last night reminded me again how special she was and I too haven’t felt that about anyone new I’ve come across since. Every new artist or song I hear now tends to provoke a fairly ambivalent ‘yeah, it’s alright’ response as long as it’s not unlistenable; and I don’t necessarily think it’s an age thing, for I was hardly a teenager when Amy appeared. I reckon if you recognise genuine talent, that ability stays with you however old you might be, and I don’t recognise it in anyone today.
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