If we want to talk about the Lioness, we first need to usher the elephant out of the corner of the room. There is a problem in the culture of icons: the world likes to smash down any woman that fully lives and embodies the light and the dark of the creative life. Dylan, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, even John Lennon – the list of our poets and icons, our geniuses with drug and alcohol fascinations is endless. Fascination turns into addiction and then we lose our best and brightest artists. The list of female artists who made the cut is considerably more exclusive, however, they suffer the same fates and afflictions, yet are judged more harshly for it.
Amy Winehouse joined the 27 Club in 2011, adding to the list of casualties to the creative dream, that ancient curse, that crossroads deal with the artistic muse. She had already reached iconic status while alive, but was treated to the whole witch-burning experience by the media and its pitchfork-waving mob. Her image was stolen while she was out for the count by those she thought she could trust. Her life and her pain was laid bare: her scars examined in the tabloid press. Each track mark, each lost tooth, every pound of flesh she lost to amphetamines, and every moment of pain, writ large on her tiny body was held up for ridicule and condemnation. The song bird was crushed under the wheel alongside the butterfly, and the mass media is to blame.
In talking about Donnie Hathaway, at the end of the take of A Song for You, the last track on the Lioness, Hidden Treasures collection Amy commented:
“He couldn’t contain himself, he had something in him, you know.”Amy Winehouse, Lioness, Hidden Treasures. 2011
She might as well have been talking about herself. She could not be contained, and all which put her life in danger, helped to free her soul to create poems in sound and words, and then to cope with the pressures of fame at a young and tender age, put on show for judgement in a way that is never done with male artists. Women are expected to be perfect, and if we are not the virgin, or the mother, we are painted as the whore. The world cannot bear to accommodate the artist as a young woman.
Poets, writers, musicians, lyricists, painters all are prone to not just liking booze and pharmaceutical enhancements, but instead need it in order to create and live up on that high plateau of artistic expression. Inspiration, dealing with the pressure of that creation that takes place in the mind and the hand not the womb, comes alongside alcohol and drugs. They are the sacrament of Creation. Ask Arthur Rimbaud, who declared his intent to ‘derange his senses’. This derangement of the senses is testament to the terrible and beautiful truth that inspiration, creating something new and beautiful looks a lot like insanity to our more grounded fellow humans.
When Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg fought for access to the altar of drug use – the Bathroom, alongside the boys, they were not demanding the right to fuck-up like the boys, no: they were demanding the right to create and be inspired and to deal with the pain of inspiration, and not have the Boys Club horde it all to themselves. Amy infamously didn’t want to go to rehab because she wanted to continue with Rimbaud’s ‘derangement of the senses’ and create the art she was put on this earth to manifest into reality. Amy was a conduit to the great Feminine Divine, the voice of the muse made real and powerful. The infinite mystery of how that big old voice came out of that tiny young body points to the existence of the divine.
The divine Ms. W needed our voices of loud appreciation, instead she suffered almost constant humiliation. Where the Keith Richards and Lou Reed’s are lauded, the spike in Lou’s arm on stage paraded as artistic freedom and pushing boundaries, the marks on Amy’s arms and legs were seen as evidence that she was the scarlet woman, that little girl painted wrongly as a Jezebel, that terrifying physical manifestation of power in female form all because she could conjure a voice out of the great beyond and project it into this grey and sullied world.
I have no interest in painting Amy as a victim, she deserves better in these years of her afterlife. Amy burnt out hard and fast, let down by many who claimed to love her and failed to protect her, whilst she was being persecuted by the hyenas that populate the UK press. What they did to Princess Diana, they did to Amy Winehouse. Her death is not a sign of weakness, rather like Cleopatra on the column she grasped hold of her own future with both hands and held onto her strength. Unfortunately her body was too small for the light that it contained.
Now the elephant is out of the room, it is time for the lioness to roar! Amy, Amy, Amy. She was channeling the pure energy, the delivery, the voice of suffering and of sadness. She knew she was her ‘own worst enemy’, as she sang in Tears Dry On their Own. Whilst Frank and Back to Black, it is her live performances which I treasure the most. They remain the most powerful thing seen on a musical stage since the death of popular music and rock and Roll in the 1990s. In fact they represent the most powerful jazz singer performances since the death of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. She reached the rarified heights of her beloved Donnie Hathaway. Amy Winehouse had ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ actually is. Call it the light of creation. Call it genius. Call it inspiration. Call it a link to the afterworld. Whatever it is, the expression of this is what makes humans more than animals. It is the voice of the soul. That small voice writ large, projecting Amy’s shattered nerves upon our screens and the cry of humanity into our own fragile spirits.
Lioness: Hidden Treasures collected a small fraction of these live performances and other outtakes and other less known performances in an attempt to showcase not what Amy could do as a writer of songs which captured that essence of pain and longing, but her stunning voice and unique delivery when singing songs she loved and connected with. The album was released in December 2011, in to be frank, what appears to be cashing in on her death earlier that year. Although the collection feels hurried, her genius shines through. In life, and after death, Amy was used by those around her. We all were guilty of using Amy. How many other women have sung along with her words, letting Amy express the pain that they cannot express so fluently and powerfully. She had so much voice, she gave voice to other women too.
I have sung along with Amy, laughing at her assertation that “You should be stronger than me”. Amy spoke the words that so many women do not dare to speak. Any strong woman at any given time has felt the same emotion over weak men who lean on them continually, longing for the strength. Amy sang about ‘holy war’ and ‘standing fighting beside her man’, she just never found a man worth fighting alongside, that could match or exceed her strength, talent and power. Deep in her soul she knew this, but then there is always the truth of Tears Dry On Their Own.
I knew I hadn’t met my match, with every moment we could snatch
I don’t know why I let myself get so attached
It’s my responsibility, and you don’t owe nothing to me
But to cut myself off I had no capacity
. . .
Even if I stop wanting you, and perspective pushes throughExcerpts from Tears Dry On Their Own. Back To Black, Lioness. Amy Winehouse
I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon
I cannot play myself again, I should just be my own best friend
Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men
This self destructive drive that moved Amy, that is the curse of so many women, to always go for the wrong man, not the ‘match’ but the ‘darkness’ is the curse of Eve, to suffer and to bear sadness. No matter how many times Amy sang it to herself, she did not get the time to make her reality match her desires and her knowledge. She did, however, remind other women not to ‘fuck myself in the head with stupid men’. It is a comfort and a battle cry from the mouth of the Lioness herself. Amy leads the forward charge towards a self love and self-awareness that she failed to materialize into physical happiness for herself because she simply did not have the time to do so. She had no time for rehab, no time to grow up, no time to kick Bad Blake to the curb he rightly deserved. She had no time before she returned ‘back to black’ and that is a true tragedy.
Now, twelve years after her death society is ready to rebuild what it smashed down because it was afraid of the power of a female genius who told the truths about the games that men and women play. The party girls of Fuck me Pumps, to the simpering drunk mess of a man in Stronger than Me, Winehouse was a fine observer of human behavior and of that old battle between the masculine and the feminine. Amy was the soldier of Eve, the Lioness of Judah, a female cantor with a voice that came from somewhere deeper, darker and more powerful than most people can imagine.
Lioness is all we have from Amy’s outtakes and back catalogue after her death. Mr. Donnie Hathaway, was Amy’s therapist, and no one could teach her any more about life than those geniuses, those enlightened beings who came before her. Is it definitive? No. Is it measured and a worthy reflection of her talent? Of course not, but it does stand as the roar of the dying lioness, hunted by a modern world who could not bear to let a female light-bearer sing her Truth, because the fact of the matter she was too powerful. Amy put herself through hell in the quest for inspiration, and that hell consumed her. To paint her as a victim, a wreck of a woman, is not giving her the dues she deserves. Her beauty needs to be allowed to shine through, her vitality to be reclaimed. Amy Winehouse is immortal now because of the great things she achieved in the short time she was here amongst us.
The delivery, the power, the depth of her voice and the emotion contained within it is compressed like dark matter within her black hole soul. Whilst Lioness does not reach the lofty heights of Back To Black, or the more bubbly, hopeful and youthful, Frank, simply because it is not made out of mostly original material, it stands as a bookend for now. Eventually a truly comprehensive exploration of Amy’s live material needs to be produced as a companion to the hastily collated Lioness.
Enough time has gone by that the general public remember Amy more for her voice, than for her suffering, more for her performances than her exploits. It is time for Amy to claim her position as one of the great female artists of the modern age. She is legendary, iconic and powerful. She rose above being a ‘female artist’ into the realms of simply being seen as an artist not to just be compared to other women, but to the jazz and blues greats, regardless of gender. She is the Donnie Hathaway of the early 2000s, the therapist that we didn’t know we need, but can do a better job of providing comfort than any five-hundred buck an hour psychotherapist hack.
Amy, quite simply saves lives through her honesty, through the fact that she suffered and messed up and was not as together as she would have liked to have been. Her suffering ultimately made her into an empathic being with the gift of providing comfort and guidance to others, if we can only hear her. She says it all in those two powerful albums. Lioness was a deeply personal love letter to the soul and personality of the woman that friends and family knew and lost. Most of us do not have the memories to go with these moments captured, but we can feel the love and the joy and the exasperation at life all the same.
Amy Winehouse is not here in person to spread the love and the honesty, not here to be ‘frank’ with all of us about how people hurt other people, and how to survive it, or to give voice to the pain caused, but she leaves her voice behind for us, and that, sadly, has to be enough. That light was big enough for it to continue to shine long after her death. Her talent is eternal. She was the Lioness in the garden, wounded and fearsome in her agony and we are the audience waiting for the comfort of her talent gone too soon.