I remember the first time I started paying attention to Amy Winehouse; that mischievous face, those far-reaching eyes, that mock-sexy saunter…
And then heard the voice, infused with more resonance and more poignancy in one verse than most singers can manage across a whole album…
I remember not being able to take my eyes off her; this loveable mess of a woman who looked like a tipsy female Dean Martin but with some kind of child-like pixie trapped inside her and trying to push itself out.
I ignored the Frank era entirely and didn’t pay attention until Back to Black, which was also when her image transformed completely too. Listening to it now, there were some good moments on ‘Frank‘; but I generally am very slow to react to mainstream artists, hype, or things that make the ‘charts’ (for example, I still haven’t managed to listen to an Adele album yet).
But the Amy that emerged from her transformative cocoon with the ‘Back to Black‘ album was something else – impossible to ignore in every respect; personality, image, and most of all music.
Once she emerged from that cocoon she had me compelled; from the moment she begins walking clumsily towards the microphone, and once she begins singing in her distinctive, signature tones, there is something very special in the air.
And I remember thinking that I must’ve been getting soft for liking her, given that at around that time I was heavily re-listening to stuff like The Melvins and Butthole Surfers. But ‘Back to Black’ is an extraordinary album, especially for something that was such a mainstream success.
It is, in fact, a perfect album. I still get goose bumps listening to some of those songs.
Some of Amy’s tracks possess that sense of age to them too, to the extent that I half expect a crackle and hiss in the recording, forgetting that these were contemporary recordings put out at the same time that other chart-occupying female artists were mostly competing with each other to flash the most flesh, don the tightest hot-pants, glisten in the most oil or garner the most tabloid coverage.
In the ‘Back to Black‘ era, Amy Winehouse, on the other hand, seemed to be existing in her own bubble, not part of the competition; with an album and a style of performance that possessed a purity and innocence by comparison. Even being so young, she didn’t appear caught up in the overt sexualisation that obsessed most of her mainstream contemporaries and was focused instead on making classic and potentially timeless music.
I also remember very vividly that, about four or five years ago, I was watching the moody, black and white music video for the ‘Back to Black‘ single, and it occurred to me there and then – a sort of epiphany as I was watching Amy’s face – that her face, her particular image and ‘brand’ (I hate to say it, but it’s the correct word), combined obviously with her voice, was going to end up being a sort of enduring icon for a long time, in a similar way to a Hendrix, for example.
I was saying this to my friend at the time, that she just had that kind of aura about her; he responded that Amy Winehouse would have to die young for that to happen. I responded that I didn’t think she was going to die young – but, on the contrary, that she would have a long career, in a kind of Aretha Franklin or even Debbie Harry vein.
It turns out that he was right about the dying part; but I’m quite certain now that I will have been right about the enduring-icon part. She has that singular image and style that is hers alone and that makes for such natural iconography; Marylin Monroe is a good example of someone who had the same, and as a result, the image of Marylin’s face has been reproduced a zillion times over the passed forty-plus years on artwork, prints, t-shirts, bedroom posters, and people’s bodies (in tattoo form). Amy Winehouse’s distinctive look and persona – tongue-in-cheek Marylin/Jessica Rabbit style tip toeing across the stage in platforms, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other – will do the same.
None of that has anything to do with what I loved about her, but is just to illustrate that there was always something resonant; disarming, and somehow both naive and savvy at the same time, and ultimately irreplaceable.
There was something very special about Amy Winehouse; something special and powerful than emanated from her or that generated around her when she was on stage. Some might label this as ‘star quality’, but I don’t think of it as anything so tacky.
Whatever that quality was, Amy had it and 99 percent of people (and performers) simply don’t.
But some of the common comparisons are apt, particularly with Billie Holiday. I would also add Judy Garland to that equation. She also channeled and oozed the same qualities she admired in other past performers like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, but filtered, like all the best performers, through her own unique furnace.
She was far more an actual artist than a commercial entity; the fact she often seemed more mainstream was down to the fact that the media – in particular the lowest class of print media – kept running (mostly unflattering) coverage of her, and thus created a parasitic ‘celebrity’ aura around her, which did her absolutely no favours. I think this – through no fault of her own – has created a false impression of her in some people’s minds.
It also made her a household name among certain types of people who I’m pretty certain would otherwise not have gone anywhere near her music.
In some sense, I think Amy Winehouse is one instance where the music itself was illuminated by the character, partly because it seemed to flow from a resonant place; that is to say that the same songs recorded or sung by someone else might not have worked or created so much of an impression. You cannot fathom some other singer covering ‘You Know I’m No Good‘, for example, or ‘He Can Only Hold Her‘ – the songs have her own spirit wrapped all over them.
She had a rare ability to captivate, and to infuse layers of emotional resonance into her performances, so that time could be made to stand still; so that all the world could cease to exist while she was at the microphone, her eyes into the distance.
Her voice, the richness of her tone, the lucidity of her lyricism and of her delivery, the trademark ditziness on stage (which might’ve been deliberate or not), the endearing retro bee-hive and dress, and the humour and personability always in evidence, made her unique; a one-off.
In any case, I hate to say it, but by dying young she has become culturally and musically immortal, incorruptible; and, frankly, speaking as someone who’s in a band and writes music, I’m even a little envious of that.
I would still, of course, much prefer her to be alive and to make more music and to live a long and fruitful life and still be a presence in our landscape, which is certainly diminished that little bit more by her absence. I continue to find her sad and premature death haunting.