When I first listened to Amy, I was a youngish mother with one kid, she was the sassy ingenue with the voice of a seasoned blueswoman. Older than Amy, not nearly as cute, just as wild, and I have been accused of being similarly cutting. Dorothy Parker with her bon mots is my heroine: I suspect Amy with the putdowns and witty funnygirl verve thought the old bluestocking was pretty alright too. I longed to be as razor sharp and quotable. Amy longed for success and built an empire in the three years and few months between the rise of Frank, and the fall of the stunning, pristine, perfect Back to Black. Amy burst onto the scene with Fuck me Pumps, and a betty boop ability to do scat like a pro in some smokey New York bar sporting scars up her arms.
The dissonance between her fresh faced look and her gravel voice and prematurely jaded lyrics was shocking, but she soon put paid to that. Thing was, the young Amy, fresh faced, funny, smart as a whip (“Feel like a lady, and you my ladyboy!” she laid into Nas, beating the boys at their own burn game), started out as a party girl, not a ditch digger. Frank, her debut was lounge lizard music with a fresh female edge. Andy Williams with edge and a banging body. She looked like a silent movie actress who had got into the B52’s costume box, and sounded like Mama Thornton’s little sister, she moved with grace, and bit like a lioness. Frank didn’t have the entirely reliable material, but the delivery was out of this world and the building blocks were there. As I sat home trying to survive, she was out there self destructing like the very best of ’em, and it both saddened me that she was going down that path, and intrigued me as to what it would do to her art and songwriting.
The tipping point is reached when the creative process stops making Back to Black (and Visions of Johanna for that matter, in the case of Dylan), and starts churning out substandard performances and halts all writing and recording, and the person starts to turn into a sad parody of themselves. It is not that nothing truly great is written by the high and drunk, far from it, mind opening substances can and do fuel and inform art, but rather that the balancing act cannot be kept up forever. That ball has to fall from the sea loin’s nose and bounce off down the hallways, taking all creative process and greatness with it. Amy was determined to pull a Billie Holiday, and she performed her own destruction with as much passion as she created her career to start with.
For a while Amy existed in that sweet spot, foreshadowed by Addicted, Fuck me Pumps, and Some Unholy War, from the Frank era. “But who you dying for B, I would have died too I’d like to”, she let loose the seeds of her quest, in Unholy War and planted them in fertile ground. Amy was a fighter, she was not going to let her man go out there and fight the war alone. “Will he wait for the blow?” She wondered. “You love blow and I love puff” she mused in the later back to black. Of course he was going to wait for the blow. Waiting for the man is a tradition that cannot be foregone. I was waiting for it too. Amy started to look less and less like a survivor.
That said, we all do, those of us who ‘tread a troubled track’ and whose ‘odds are stacked’. The rest of the world was waiting for Amy to implode. I was waiting for her to clean up and produce something even greater, that greatness I know she was capable of. R and B legend. History is holding her up right there next to the greats, and she is stacking up great in retrospect. She shouldn’t be done. She should be living in New York and settling into the power of her voice, a little scarred, a bit wasted, but making like a Nina Simone, or an Etta James, getting her older female freak on: statuesque and unbowed. She buried her own heart in the video for Back to Black: ‘RIP the heart of Amy Winehouse’. Her relationship with Blake, the talentless cock lodging sponger council house boy that didn’t deserve her, she predicted would put her in the ground. She threw her own wake, she sprinkled the dust and somehow it didn’t seem like much time passed at all before she was in the ground for real.
I didn’t cheat on you..I cheated myself! Amy and I both tried to get away with it. I spent most of my marriage cheating, mainly because he wouldn’t let me go once it was over. You all know I am no good. Amy was both the best and the worst simultaneously. We all have our kitchen floors to cry on. Amy juts her chin as she sings “you sniff me out like I was Tanqueray”: the gin breath, the attraction to guys who knock men down as if they are ‘Roger Moore’. Amy stands there looking like a Bond girl with the heart of William Burroughs. I stand there screaming at the TV that rehab was not the worst thing to happen to a girl, to bite the DT bullet, to quit that booze, to ditch the crack and the slack and the rest of the damn junk and write! If Love is Losing Game, then why do any of us play? She delicately wishes she never played, ‘played out by the band’ in some titanic disaster of a relationship. This is the direction I saw Amy taking: love songs and longing.
I was angry with Amy. I looked at Amy and saw a lot of myself in her: nowhere near as talented, not a fraction as beautiful, but that self-destructive urge, that downhill slide into oblivion, the ability to let the world wrap tentacles around your ankles and pull you under the surface before you even got a chance to bloom….it was all familiar. As I nursed black eyes, she smeared her winged eyeliner and made it into the dirty tabloids, strung out, nodded out, petting mice with Pete Doherty of Libertine/Babyshambles, and being betrayed by the man she thought she needed. I hope after dragging her under, using her for her cash, milking her memory for ciggie money, he is mired and enmeshed in dull and dreary mundanity, and has never felt as alive as he ever did when he was the boytoy of the greatest R & B artist of modern times, who told the world that she needed her ‘buzzer’ because she ‘couldn’t get joy’ from him. I am still angry she died. I am angry no one managed to keep her alive, angry she was allowed to go to bed with a bottle, angry she felt the need to. Angry because I had no right to survive what she didn’t.
This is where my selfishness shows. What led to me living and her dying? Did I shoot less smack? Drink less booze? Smoke less crack? Did I do less weed? Did I want to live more? Did I get lucky that I had a speedfreak to slap me round the face when I went under? Was I just tougher? I can feel myself getting weaker as I age. I am not the indomitable lithe thing I used to be. Instead, I am weak and wasted and broken and hurting. I am scared of how weak and fragile I feel nowadays. Looking at Amy doesn’t make me want to pick up the bottle, I will never drink again after all this, instead, feeling mortality bite my toes, that cool hand of the grave tap me on the shoulder leaving me to shudder, I am picking up the resistance bands and making myself move on a leg that never healed right and was the beginning of the end of my fitness and physical strength.
There is a strength in not being one of those girls that chase ballers and millionaires, instead wanting your own success, not just being a member of the ‘Gucci bag crew’, that need a tall rich man to feel like they have done anything in life worth doing. Boob sizing, comparing the cost of enhancements, getting caned and doing too much E, these are the girls that I stood in clubs watching with a grin on my face, as they paired off with guys who then ‘went home to (their) wives’, as Amy so sweetly points out. To then have a man bury you, despite the talent, the effort, the creative brilliance, is almost unforgivable. It wasn’t Amy’s fault. None of it. Her trauma, her self esteem, her porcelaine porcupine personality, her black hole soul, her R & B sensibilities, heck even rock and roll itself, that eater of the brilliant and sensitive poets of modern times, hold it all to account. Blame the patriarchy, blame the weather, blame the damn eyeliner and the shambolic scene and the hangers on, but not Amy and the gravel in her voice and her wiseness beyond the years she ever managed to put on the clock that ran out on her.
R.I.P, the heart of Amy Winehouse. Why does it feel like the world never even tried to save her….