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“We only said good-bye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black” 

- Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black” 

When Amy Winehouse went back to black permanently at age 27 on July 23, there was mourning, of course, but in some quarters there was also a callous, almost gleeful sense that she got what she deserved. On TMZ, the sleazy show dedicated to stalking and humiliating celebrities, straw sucking host Harvey Levin said, “People don’t really care. At least they don’t consider her death a great loss to the music world.” A poll on the web site from which the show was spawned asked if she would be remembered as a great singer or a junky, and 70 percent of the half million who took part chose the latter.

Her fans can take comfort in knowing that Winehouse’s records experienced a surge on the charts following her death, and more people will mourn her passing than ever noticed the lives of any of the losers who cash paychecks from TMZ. Her death is, indeed, a great loss to the music world as those musicians who have eulogized her can attest. “Amy changed pop music forever,” Lady Gaga said, while Adele acknowledged that “Amy paved the way for artists like me. . . I don’t think she realized how brilliant she was and how important she is, but that just makes her even more charming.” 

Part of her charm was in her appearance. She looked like a visitor from another time and place, or from several times and many places. The tattoos up and down her arms were strikingly contemporary, but that beehive hairstyle brought to mind ‘60's pop icons like  Ronnie Specter, whom she openly revered and who returned the admiration, saying of Winehouse, “She had such a great soul in her voice and her lyrics were so amazing that I couldn’t help but sing one of her songs. I was so happy to see an artist like Amy because she reminded me of my youth.” But true talent is difficult to categorize and can straddle multiple eras. A legend from the smoky nightclub period that preceded the rock age also recognized her star quality. After performing a duet with Winehouse for an album due this fall, Tony Bennett said, “She was a lovely and intelligent person, and when we recorded together she gave a soulful and extraordinary performance.”

Her songs, too, straddled the fence, mixing R&B with Motown, then filtered through hip-hop. Her biggest hit, the controversial “Rehab,” had a distinctive mid-‘60s, pre-Beatles feel, but her lyrics were tougher, sometimes raunchy, and always intensely personal. 

She was born in London, England on September 14, 1983. Her father, Mitch, drove a taxi, and her mother, Janis, was a pharmacy technician. She was singing from an early age, inspired, perhaps, by her father who often sang Frank Sinatra songs around the house. Through her father, she learned to love jazz, and listened to such artists as Julie London, Sarah Vaughn, and Dean Martin, whose bad boy persona she admired.

At the age of 10, she joined a childhood friend to form a rap duo called Sweet ‘n’ Sour. The group wasn’t around long, but Amy continued to sing and, at the urging of her grandmother, had professional training at the Susi Earnshaw Theater School where she studied for four years before moving on to the Sylvia Young Theater School. At 14, with her rebellious streak already evident, she was expelled for piercing her nose and for failing to apply herself. She did apply herself outside of school, though, by learning to play guitar. She also started to write songs. “She was always very self-willed,” he father recalled to Rolling Stone. “Not badly behaved, but . . . different.”

Despite all this musical activity, Winehouse had no particular aspirations to perform professionally. Her ambition at the time was to become a roller skating waitress like those she saw in the 1973 movie, American Graffiti. Amy’s father wasn’t even aware of how talented she was until he attended a recital at Sylvia Young. “She came out on the stage and started singing, and I couldn’t believe it. I never knew she could sing like that.”

It was while she was singing with a jazz band that a friend offered to record some demos which he passed on to an A&R person who took note of her voice and eventually signed her to Island/Universal. In 2003, her debut album, titled Frank, was released to glowing reviews in the UK where it earned platinum status and a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize. In 2004, she won the Ivor Novello songwriting award for Best Contemporary Song for “Stronger Than Me” in which she mused on her man’s role in their relationship:

“You should be stronger than me
You been here seven years longer than me
Don’t you know you supposed to be the man
Not pale in comparison to who you think I am”

Shortly before Halloween 2006, Back to Black hit the charts and made her a star. “When I went into this album, I just felt really sad,” she told Entertainment Weekly, “I felt really bad. I was clinically depressed and I put it into music.”

The pain that went into the album was apparent. Rolling Stone called it “a desperately sad and stirring record,” but also found it “funny, hip, and instantly classic.” Whatever darkness inspired the songs, Amy’s wit and talent broke through the gloom like a ray of blinding light. “Winehouse is a nervy, witty songstress whom indie rockers, pop fans and hip-hoppers can dig,” the rock mag raved. The songs might have been pages of a diary set to music. In “Addicted,” she chooses weed over a lover, and in the album’s most famous and popular song, “Rehab,” she is defiant, determined to live as she pleased:

“They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go”

In May 2007, she married her boyfriend, Blake Fielder-Civil. That same month, she performed at New York’s Highland Ballroom. Reviewing the show in The New York Times, Jon Pareles wrote, “If Ms. Winehouse were a purely old-fashioned soul singer, she’d just be a nostalgia act, though one with some telling songs. Her self-consciousness, and the bluntness she has learned from hip-hop, could help lead soul into 21st century territory.”

Three months after that review appeared in the Times, the paper’s “Arts, Briefly” column quoted her father-in-law, Giles Fielder-Civil, as saying she and his son would be dead soon if they did not seek help for their addictions. “Perhaps it’s time to stop buying records,” he said, suggesting that a boycott of Winehouse’s music might encourage her to seek help. He also said that she should be ineligible for awards until she cleaned up her act.

His remarks fell on deaf ears. At the time, she was a nominee for numerous honors, including an MTV Music Video award, and, by the end of the year would earn six Grammy nominations.

The paparazzi and those who make their scurrilous living by documenting the foibles of the famous were already having a field day with Winehouse. In October 2007, she was arrested along with her husband and a third person on marijuana charges in Bergen, Norway. She paid a fine and was released. A month later at a performance in Birmingham, England, she arrived late and was booed after stumbling about the stage in a daze. She responded to the jeers by swearing at the audience and threatening them. “(J)ust wait till my husband gets out of incarceration - and I mean that” (hubby Blake was imprisoned at the time for assaulting a pub owner). The concert ended abruptly when Winehouse simply stopped singing, dropped the microphone on the floor and walked off stage. In November, she was arrested in London as part of an investigation related to her husband’s assault charge.

When the Grammy awards show was telecast in February 2008, she was unable to attend due to visa problems and performed via satellite from London where she was doing a stint in rehab. At the same time, a video showing her apparently smoking crack made the rounds on the web. Of course, her big hit, “Rehab,” which found her resolutely refusing treatment, made the perfect soundtrack for the clip.

The song had its genesis when she and her husband “were walking down the street, on our way to the pool hall, and I sang out of nowhere, like a joke. . . He’s like, ‘you should do that as a song, it’s funny. And I was like, it’s true.” 

She performed the song for the Grammy audience and burst into tears and embraced her mother upon winning Record of the Year, one of five awards she won that night. 

Sadly, “Rehab” proved to be successful only as a song. She admitted that she sought treatment before recording the hit, but “for just 15 minutes. I went in and said ‘Hello’ and explained that I drink because I’m in love and have (messed) up the relationship. Then I walked out.”

Following her Grammy triumph, the only thing that remained were headlines, all providing a preview of the tragedy to come. In 2008, she was arrested in London on suspicion of drug possession. In 2009, her husband divorced her, citing adultery. A highly anticipated “comeback” gig at the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival was cut short after six songs with Winehouse’s spokesmen citing heavy rains and technical difficulties. But Winehouse was having difficulties of her own, often appearing disinterested, and spending some of her time on stage slumped over a speaker.

Finally, in 2011, there was another attempt at rehab, but after less than a week at the Priory Clinic, she checked herself out. Her publicist issued a statement saying she was “rarin’ to go,” about to embark on a summer tour of Europe. Her performance in Belgrade on June 18 proved otherwise. She turned up an hour late, and, once on stage, she slurred lyrics, had trouble holding the microphone, and spent less time singing than telling the crowd which of her band members she liked best. Once again, she was booed off the stage, and then cancelled shows in Athens and Istanbul scheduled for later that week.

Those of us of a certain age had been here before. In one of her later concert appearances, Judy Garland arrived an hour late and was heckled by a crowd that thought she was drunk. In the last year of his life, Elvis Presley’s concert appearances were often psychodramas with his entourage and the audience wondering if he’d show up, and, if he did, could he perform? Like Garland, Presley’s decline was faithfully charted by an often salivating tabloid press, though not, as is the case today, on YouTube or TMZ. Both performers - legends, giants among men - died young, ingloriously, alone in their bathrooms. Amy Winehouse was only joking when she told a journalist that in ten years she would be “Dead in a ditch, on fire.” In retrospect, it sounds like an optimistic statement. She was giving herself more time than it turned out she had.   

There was one performance to go when she joined her goddaughter, singer Diane Bromfield, on stage in London. Three days later, she died, alone in her bed.

Yes, she self-destructed. The self-incriminating evidence is there in her songs:

“I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I'm no good

But she almost certainly had help, including from the media. The paparazzi surrounded her around the clock, hoping for a photograph or video of the notorious bad girl, preferably in a drunk and disheveled state. Comedian Russell Brand, a friend of Winehouse, observed that the media “is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall.” Estelle, a fellow singer, said, “This fame is a juggernaut: It slaps you in the face and you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Author Nick Tosches, in an essay titled “Elvis in Death,” noted that hidden within idolatry is a streak of envy. “So overwhelmed is the being of the idolator by that of the idol that only the latter’s supreme self-sacrifice, martyrdom, can justify and sanctify their relationship.” Martyrdom may also be the only way Amy Winehouse could have satisfied the vampires of the media, the same voyeuristic leeches who gloated over her death.

Is the TMZ poll accurate? Will Amy Winehouse be remembered more as a junky than a great singer?

She’ll likely be remembered as both, but if she hadn’t been a great singer, she wouldn’t have been known at all. There are thousands of drug and alcohol abusers, most of whom live and die anonymously, known only to their friends and family. It was her talent that made the difference,  and it was her talent, not the drugs or even the beehive, that made the world stand up and take notice of the little girl from London with the big, beautiful voice.

Rest in peace, Amy Winehouse.  

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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