Amy Winehouse Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Posted on July 26, 2011

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Amy Winehouse passed away Saturday. The cause of death is still undetermined but the coroner’s report is likely to contain words like “toxicity,” “intoxicant,” and “narcotic.”  It may contain all three.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with a television or an internet connection — with more methods for delivering salacious details to a rabid public than ever before, celebrity indiscretion is now a global industry — but it’s still surprising, somehow. It’s also how someone of Amy Winehouse’s artistic stature gets reduced to a fallow punchline or an empty parable about substance abuse. It’s a cliché to say that someone “deserves better” but it’s true in this case. Amy Winehouse deserves better.

She has two records in her catalog. The first one went largely unnoticed over here in America. The second broke her wide open. It wasn’t an accident; talented singer/songwriter finds sympatico producer and makes smart, fresh record that gives people something they didn’t know they needed. She also had a look and an attitude that said “solidly uncommon” and a backstory that is a publicist’s wet dream. The first single said it all, ‘They tried to make me go to rehab…’

Almost immediately, the ship began to take on water and for a while it seemed as if she were alternating acclaim and infamy in equal measure; grammy awards one month, overdoses the next. Before long, she had become the poster child for erratic behavior, reduced to an increasingly emaciated caricature as a fickle public clucked with disapproval at each new development in her escalating decline.

And that sucks, because Amy Winehouse was a solid and uncommon talent who might have been on the path to becoming a whole lot more. She was only 23 when she wrote the second record, a record largely devoted to addiction and all the trappings- guilt, self-loathing, denial, defiance- that come with it. There are plenty of people who have attempted records around similar themes, and plenty of people who have created bland, self-serving mush in the process, lolling listeners to sleep as they stared into the abyss of their belly buttons and drifted away on the good ship Narcissus.

Amy Winehouse was not one of those people; she could disarm with a sly wit that standard-issue singer-songwriters simply don’t possess. One of my favorite lines comes right in the middle of ‘Rehab’ when Winehouse visits a shrink: “He said, ‘I just think you’re depressed,'” she sings, and then follows with, “This me: ‘Yeah, baby. And the rest.'” It’s a simple line, but it gets more across — about her vulnerability, defiance and resignation, and all of it without a trace of self-pity — than most singer/songwriter types manage in their entire careers. Thinking about what Winehouse might have achieved with this kind of deft touch and a voice whose powerful contours she was still learning to navigate, you can’t help but feel sad.

I’d like to think that Amy Winehouse is sitting backstage right now, primping her hair in one of those old-fashioned vanity mirrors with the light bulbs around the edges. She blots her lipstick on a tissue and pouts a little smile at her reflection before standing up and giving herself a final once-over. She looks devastating. Out front in the club, they’re all waiting. Her grandmother is sitting with Billie Holiday, who has heard only wonderful things about Amy. Donny Hathaway and Otis Redding trade stories with Dusty Springfield as the room fills up with kindred spirits and the night takes on the unmistakable air of an expectant homecoming. In a moment, Amy will close the dressing room door behind her and make the short walk to the stage. As she parts the curtain, they’ll welcome her with forgiving smiles and shouts of approval and she will strut to the center of the stage and bask in the warmth of their unreserved affection. Amy Winehouse will be the belle of the ball.

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Posted in: Music