Many happy returns: How Amy Winehouse never really left us
The voice, those lyrics, that hair ... She got under our skin, says Nick Coleman, and she haunts us still
Sunday 08 September 2013
Two years ago, the morning after it was revealed that Amy Winehouse had died in her bed in Camden, an entire nation raised its eyebrows, pursed its lips into a moue of knowing regret and sighed sadly; genuinely sadly. Fffffff. The nation did not complete its gesture with a shrug, because that would have been not quite appropriate. But it did slump a little. "Well, we didn't see that coming," the nation breathed, with customary irony.
There was something indisputably Greek about the Winehouse tragedy – it was so structured, so inevitable, so choric – but there was also something unedifying about it, which was depressing and not at all cathartic. It was a wounding moment for all, apart from those cross individuals who require pop stars to be "role models" – and they presumably breakfasted that morning on I-told-you-so muesli.
Self-destruction is good box office, and Amy had all the angles covered: a heavy drinker, a heavy drugger, given to thumping people and to self-harm; said to be compulsive, jealous, body-dysmorphic and bulimic, with yet more hidden psychiatric disorders at play, possibly, arising from malign combinations of all her other imperfections, but also possibly just there, underlying everything – or possibly not. Plus the beehive. The beehive was not actually rat-infested like the wigs worn by the decaying ladies of Versailles but, depending on its state of perpendicularity and dishevelment, Amy's came to be seen as a sort of upsy-downsy top-knot analogue of her piled-up inner disorder. She was box office, all right. Just one look was all it invariably took.
And of course people had lots of looks. It was hard to avoid looking, given that she was everywhere. Posh papers, tabloids, celebrity mags, telly, YouTube, phone, billboards, toilet wall … everywhere. Her life-and-death struggle was not lusciously phrased like her singing but hammered out tunelessly in the media on one or two notes.
Which played very sharply on our sense of our own poor impulse-control. Hell, yes. That explains why we feel so bad. We're to blame. It's "us"! The insatiable "we", the gnashing, prurient hydra that is contemporary consumer society. And so on.
Certainly, in the days and weeks after her death, there was an appetite for reflection upon our collective guilt, specifically the likelihood of our complicity in her death. How "we" wrung our hands back then. And how "we" liked to gaze ruefully at her picture again, as an act of quiet expiation.
But guilt isn't the reason she remains so haunting. No, no, no. She's haunting because she was the one that got away that it might have been better to keep.
Amy Winehouse didn't live sadly and die badly because of the appetites of society but because of her own appetites. Any funny feeling you might get when you contemplate pictures of her now is not due to the churning of guilt but to your capacity for encompassing pity, empathy, compassion, self-loathing, jealousy, neurosis, contradiction and love. And possibly because you are susceptible to a good tune. It is virtually impossible to hear Amy Winehouse's singing and not become personally involved.
Winehouse was a singer and writer of rare genius, in both the archaic "spirited" sense of the word, and the modern one. Her writing was sometimes coarse, but it was also sensitive and nuanced in ways that transcended surface coarseness. The songs were alive with a strange energy of their own. They moved along like thoughts do, their power deriving partly from the authenticity of the language she used, but in greater part from the authenticity of the emotion behind the language. There is nothing specious or worked-up in Winehouse lyrics – they always follow the rhythms of the way she actually spoke, and the way other real people actually speak, even if real people don't phrase, as she did, like Ray Charles.
Sometimes she contrived to write about things which can't be articulated by language alone, and when she got it right she made those difficult emotions hang in the room like heavy curtains – thick, occlusive, real, shutting out light, extinguishing everything present but the subject feeling itself. Just think of her beautiful, listless, rock-steady skank around the confusion of what it is to be tangled up in an illicit sex relationship, " Just Friends". It's another song about compulsion, and it's by no means a guilt trip. It's a worry trip, a lust trip, a rueful but defiantly not regretful trip, a trip full of hopeless tenderness and warm-eyed realism – a trip into the emotional realpolitik of what it is to not really be in control. There has never been a truer song about bad impulse-management.
But it was, of course, her voice that got her writing through the skin and into your blood. The complex, delusory tenderness expressed in "Just Friends" can't be read on the page; it can only be heard.
And after a while, as part of the process of hearing them, you find yourself attaching yourself not to favourite Winehouse songs, but to favourite bits of Winehouse songs, favourite phrases, words, tonal twists and even favourite pauses. Without fail, I melt into tearfulness at the way she sings the word "profound" in "Love Is A Losing Game". It's a dark song, but in that moment it's as if the light suddenly turns golden at her thought. And nothing, not even John Coltrane or Marvin Gaye can make me hold my breath for the duration with quite the same seething sense of wanting-it-not-to-end as her delivery of the first line of the second verse of her monumental Goffin/King embarkation, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" on Lioness: "Is this a lasting trea-sure, or just a moment's plea-ea-sure?"
If I could make it last for ever, I would.
There are all kinds of ways of making things last forever, or at least appear to. Winehouse would have been 30 next Saturday and there is much activity surrounding the anniversary. You can still visit the very touching exhibition A Family Portrait, curated by Amy's brother Alex at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. Books, records, clothes, schoolwork, family snaps, fridge magnets ... Her bits and bobs.
There's another film documentary in the tubes too. A month-long series of pop-up events, walking tours, sing-alongs and sales drives throughout September, #Amys30, is a fundraiser for the decidedly worthwhile Amy Winehouse Foundation, and includes an exhibition of photography at the Proud Gallery. It's rumoured that Winehouse's producer, Mark Ronson, has in his possession a few last unheard bits and bobs from her recording career ….
Of course nothing lasts for ever, but some things endure, even as, and maybe because, they haunt . To find a lasting treasure in all the momentary pleasures of the Winehouse oeuvre, all you have to do is listen harder. And then do it again, and keep doing it, until you feel life changing around you.
Nick Coleman is the author of The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, published by Vintage
Who's behind Amy's voice? A brief inventory of influence ...
There was never an artist born who didn't convey their influences into the world as an integral feature of their own work. A prime figure in Amy's case was the great composer/singer/pianist/saxophonist Ray Charles, who parlayed the blues, gospel, jazz and R&B into a prototype for 1960s soul and did it with the kind of phraseological sophistication which got right under the Winehouse skin from the get-go
You can hear several great jazz singers in Winehouse … and none. Sarah Vaughan was not an overt influence, yet her tonal darkness, her sass, her economy and her immense tensile strength clearly spoke to Amy's sensibilities, even as a child.
Same goes for Uncle Frank, another product of early 20th-century Noo Joizey. In Sinatra's case, Winehouse took the bleak, gimlet-gazed, broken romanticism of his great Capitol period. Plus the swing. Plus the phenomenal tone control. Plus Tony Bennett …
Amy loved Sixties girl groups. Who doesn't? But Amy had a way of channelling classic girl-group zest, style and streetwisery into even her deepest music. The Shirelles did the definitive "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?", but Winehouse took the song into an inner chamber of torchy agony.
Would Winehouse have been as great without her producer, the man who shaped all those influences into a brief outpouring of immense stylistic power and integrity? Who knows? Who cares. But credit where it's due: she couldn't have made Back to Black without him…
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