Written July 28, 2011…
As the entire world knows by now, troubled R&B chanteuse Amy Winehouse sadly passed away on Saturday at the age of 27. I guess we all knew it would tragically end this way. She had been on a self-destructive course throughout her entire career. The drugs, the drinking, the run-ins with the law, a failed marriage fraught with problems and co-addiction, the inability to produce a follow-up to her blockbuster 2006 album Back to Black (which she had finally begun writing and recording recently) and the numerous concerts that ended in drunken disaster. Every time she took a step in the right direction we held out hope that she wouldn’t end up like Billie Holiday and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin before her – artists who burned brightly but flamed out too quickly. With every step forward though, she would take two steps back – and so her life ended without ever having fulfilled all the promise she once showed. In otherwords, a tragedy. The fact that this was so predictable doesn’t make it any less of a tragic event. It was not easy watching her self-destruct over the past five years – watching her play out her sad life like a slow motion car crash. In some ways, it seems amazing that this didn’t happen much sooner. The fact that she had managed to hang on longer than anyone expected made us think that maybe she had turned a corner – especially with her insistence that she had given up hard drugs. The drinking remained though. And now she has joined the infamous “27 Club.”
Can someone be called a legend when they have only a scant two albums to their credit? It’s hard to say, but Amy clearly showed signs of being a future legend. She had the voice and the talent that only comes along once or twice in a generation. She knew how to boil down the essence of Billie Holiday, 1960s girl group pop and Jamaican ska, mixed with a hip hop sensibility, into her own singular aesthetic. She sounded both old-fashioned and completely modern at the same time. Along with her musical collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, as well as backing by the super-tight Dap-Kings, Amy brought an organic, retro feel to modern R&B, plus she sang without all the histrionic wailing that has become the norm over the past 25 years. She also bared her soul in lyrics that were autobiographical and tormented but never self-pitying or cloying. Her 1960s-styled beehive may have been a fashion put-on but her artistry was all too transparently real. In a world of imitators and cookie cutter divas, this 5’3” Jewish girl from England was the real deal.
The catchy, yet defiant “Rehab” may have been her calling card and anthem with its retro Motown feel, but she had many more songs that were equally as masterful. “You Know I’m No Good” was another myth-making piece of brilliance that was later covered by none other than Tom Jones, and the sad torch ballad “Love Is a Losing Game” is simply a song for the ages. There are not enough words to describe its sublime beauty. It could have been a hit back in the early ‘60s for someone like Dinah Washington.
What gave Amy her singularity was her unique phrasing abilities and lyrics that used British slang and personal experiences to get their point across. No matter how autobiographical her lyrics normally were, she always could turn her pain into something universal.
Besides writing her own songs, she could also cover classics like “Monkey Man” by Two-Tone ska legends The Specials, as well as Lesley Gore’s 1961 hit “It’s My Party” with equal aplomb. Winehouse had the type of voice that could handle everything from jazz to blues to R&B and do it all with complete mastery. Her voice always knew right where to go in a song.
Over the past few years, with the rise of Adele to take her place with an equally impressive voice and songwriting ability (but without the tabloid drama), it was easy to think that maybe Amy had been left in the dust by her competitors. Listening to Back to Black again these past few days, though, you realize that she took a backseat to no one, and she definitely had a very singular vision with the possibility of many more years of great art ahead of her – if only she could get her act together once and for all. Sadly it was not to be. Her demons finally caught up with her, and we’ll never know what she may have accomplished down the line. Maybe she only had that one great album in her? One and a half, if you count the intermittent brilliance she also showed on her debut album Frank.
Who knows why so many artists burn out so quickly. Who knows why so many of them abuse drugs and alcohol. Many of us think it’s a disgrace that someone with God-given talent would throw it all away like that. The problem is that artists, especially the great ones, are wired differently than the average human – they seem to be able to channel their feelings and emotions in a different way than most of us do, by taking something painful and creating great art out of their misery. There is always that delicate balance of tapping into emotions that will help fuel great art, but trying to escape those same emotions when they become too intense, whether it be with the aid of drugs or alcohol. Many, also, simply cannot handle the pressure of fame, especially in our modern internet age where many artists become like butterflies trapped under glass – their lives dissected and analyzed by anyone and everyone. It’s a wonder that even more artists, unprepared to deal with the vagaries of fame, don’t end up like Amy did.
Naturally there are many tributes being written this week, as well as thousands of comments (negative and positive) posted online, discussing the circumstances concerning Amy’s death. Nobody knows for certain, just yet, whether it’s drug-related or not. Police say there were no drugs or drug paraphernalia found at her apartment. It probably doesn’t even matter what the reasons are for her death. All that does matter is that the world lost one of the best singers of her generation this past weekend at a very young age. And that’s always a tragedy.