Stop all the clocks: Amy Winehouse is dead at 27. Let them hang crepe bows from the bar at the Hawley Arms, let Camden's traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. Forgive me if, against the world backdrop of death and devastation, this desire to mourn seems extravagant, but hers was an extravagant talent. It is artists like her who help make life worth living.
She knew suffering, and she used it creatively, weaving the darkness into songs of such strong stuff they became instant classics. She went to the lowest places a person can go – drink, drugs and desperation – and sent back pitch-perfect dispatches about life down there. She didn't do gloom. She did despair, huge, melodic, defiant despair with a swinging beat. She danced on the precipice in leopard-skin heels; she twirled in the vortex of her own personality. Invisible chorus lines high-kick and shimmy through every song, no matter how desolate its lyrics. Already, at 21, when she released Back to Black, she had "died a hundred times", and you believed her.
A born north Londoner, it would be fitting for her to rest in Highgate Cemetery, suitably full of the gothic and gifted from Lizzie Siddal to George Eliot. Her grave, like Jim Morrison's in Paris's Père Lachaise, would be constantly garlanded with flowers, wine and fags. How else to pay tribute to her? Donate to the rehabs she defied? Get angry about the parasitic dealers and plastic surgeons who took money in return for giving her what she didn't need and her body couldn't handle? Try to take better care of that wounded bird in your life, the friend or family member everyone is tired of worrying about? Just press play?
As Black to Black climbed to number one in the iTunes Store yesterday, I repurchased (as you do, in these days of digital reproduction) Frank, her first album. It is painful to hear a new posthumous echo on that great voice, always so contemporary and intimate, like a friend's. Filed under "Pop" not yet "R&B", Frank is light but acute, not yet solipsistic like Back to Black, but outward-looking, engaged. "October Song" is a riff on "Lullaby of Birdland" she wrote for her pet canary "and Ava flies, in paradise/She's reborn like Sarah Vaughan" – a poignant song to listen to today. The catty observational ditty "Fuck Me Pumps" pokes fun at a barfly gold-digger: "You can't sit down right, cos your jeans are too tight," she smiles, her voice curdling with amusement. "With your big empty purse, every week it gets worse...." and after a one-night stand "you don't even get no text".
She reserves most scorn for herself, of course, already developing her first-person confessional. In "I Heard Love Is Blind" she tells her boyfriend that, yes, she was unfaithful, "but he looked like you... Yes, he looked like you... You wouldn't want me to be lonely..." I saw her play this song at a small private gig in 2003. She looked healthy and she had all the world ahead of her as she stood up, strapped her guitar across her chest and belted it out, completely confident of her cast-iron talent, enjoying the way she was subverting the song's swooping lovey-dovey melody with her dark, twisted lyrics.
She was funny. That gave spice to all her work, gave it that razor edge. When she was performing at Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park, and her husband Blake Fielder-Civil was in prison, she changed the famous "free Nelson Mandela" chorus to "Free Blakey my fella". It was a story Gordon Brown enjoyed recounting to journalists afterwards.
She was the defining British recording artist of the Noughties, and her soul-revival sound was in tune with that decade's fascination with all things "vintage". And yet she was a law unto herself, a true one-off. It has been sad to watch her disintegration over the past few years, as she became a caricature of herself, all beehive and no hope. And yet we did hope, until now.
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