I can still remember, quite vividly, the first time I heard “Rehab” playing on the radio. For an hour or so after, I refused to allow it to vacate my memory. It stuck with me. Amidst all the generic, repetitive and ultra-manufactured pop music that tried so desperately to project nauseatingly boring bubble-gum perfection, here was a singer that so honestly, brutally, and beautifully sang of her flaws. It was a clever, catchy, wise-ass melody that was undoubtedly the most distinct tune I’ve ever heard on mainstream radio. Aside from being impressed with the lyrics, I can remember thinking: “My God, whose voice is that?”
For the following month or so, “Rehab” stayed amongst the Top 40 radio songs and I found myself constantly singing the chorus without noticing just how frequently I was doing it. Eventually I managed to catch the music video for “You Know I’m No Good,” and glimpsed the harbor for that divine, magnificent voice for the very first time. A comically enormous black beehive, frail arms covered in ink, long fingernails clicking along the rim of a glass of iced whiskey – it was Amy Winehouse, and anything but what I imagined her to be. Immediately, my level of intrigue skyrocketed. If “Rehab” ignited in me an insatiable level of curiosity, it was nothing compared to the effect “You Know I’m No Good” had. I was now familiar with only two songs from this sultry songstress, the first being a defiant anthem of her refusal to quit drinking get help and enter rehabilitation, and the second being a wildly unfiltered confession of her infidelity.
Soon she was on the cover of Rolling Stone and Spin, among others, accompanied by the subtitles “The Diva & Her Demons” and “The Dangerous New Queen of Soul,” respectively. And even though at the time I was only a fan of two songs of hers, I was nonetheless thrilled when she won five Grammy awards after her performance on February 10th, 2008 – at least somebody unique was getting praised for it.
A few months later, I was advised by a friend to listen to her first album, Frank, released in England in 2004. After hearing one song from the record, “You Sent Me Flying,” I needed no further convincing. The song was yet another brazenly honest re-telling of an incident that occurred during a crumbling relationship, with the lyrics: “And although my pride’s not easily disturbed, you sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb.” Immediately, I rushed home and hungrily downloaded every available Amy Winehouse song I could get my hands on, and instantly became passionately obsessed. Her gritty and modern lyrics were paired with classical, old-fashioned jazz instrumentals, essentially creating a musical dichotomy. The music sounded as if it was created decades earlier, but the songs would begin with “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet with his same old, safe bet…” and “What kind of fuckery is this?” It was without a doubt the most unique ensemble of songs I had ever discovered, and I fell deeply in love with this no-bullshit, bad-ass British diva with the voice of an angel and the mouth of a truck driver who refused to make excuses for herself.
It began to irritate me that this remarkable talent was ferociously overshadowed by her well-publicized battles with drugs and alcohol, and every time I Googled her (which was a mandatory, daily ritual) I would always seem to be reading the most unflattering material. Because of how devoted I was to her music, it really was very easy for me to overlook it, and I convinced myself that it was simply tabloid fodder; that she would soon come out on top and promptly announce the release of a third album or impending tour dates. Whenever I would bring her up in conversation, I would constantly have to sift through the dismissals of her being a casualty of addiction to get to the reasons why I adored her: her music. Unfortunately, I still have to do this.
My adoration remained steadfast, and I hunted feverishly for more of her music. I scaled the most obscure corners of the internet and found underground, unreleased original songs, b-sides, covers and studio sessions – anything to hear more of that voice I came to worship. Her unreleased material was equally as satisfying as her albums. I found myself falling in love with not just her music, but the jazz, soul and R&B genre as a whole; in fact, many artists I regularly listen to now are the product of my interest in Amy Winehouse. I memorized her entire discography – each of her songs, an eloquent expression of her turmoil, all of them blazingly honest, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by the painful and undeniably beautiful humanity presented in all of her gorgeous melodies. Some of them were witty and very funny, such as “Addicted,” a jazzy tune all about her annoyance at a friend’s man smoking all of her weed; others were downtrodden and defeated, such as “Back to Black,” in which her grief is so severe she croons she “died a hundred times.” The Los Angeles Times very accurately labeled her “The Beautiful Voice of Despair.” Amy Winehouse had on me that bold, profound effect musicians have on every person who connects with their music, the connection that inspires the listener to think: “I get it.” I cannot think of a higher compliment to pay an artist, especially the artist who so magnetically utilized the word “fuckery.” Two years ago, in July of 2009, I decided to make my fanatical love for Amy Winehouse a permanent fixture, getting a caricature-like portrait of her tattooed on my left arm.
One week ago, while at work, I received 22 text messages and 8 missed calls within fifteen minutes – each either informing me of her death or curious as to how I was coping with it. I’m well aware of how perfectly ridiculous it seems to be bereaved to this level of extremity over somebody I’ve never met before, but I cannot stress how genuine it is. I remember the televised grief of Michael Jackson’s fans after his passing and my complete lack of empathy towards them, certain that I was incapable of mourning a stranger to that degree. The loss of Amy Winehouse is my first acquaintance with the death of a beloved artist; I will never see her in concert, and I will never get the chance to meet her and show her that her work profoundly impacted me so much that the only reasonable way of expressing it was permanently inking her into my arm. She joins Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison in “The 27 Club,” as she, like all of them, passed away at the age of 27. The only positive factor I can seem to apply to this is that she will always be remembered as a musical legend, as she deserves to be.
Amy Winehouse, to me, was never first and foremost an addict, an alcoholic, or the self-destructive nut-job the tabloids so frequently illustrated her as. She was a breathtaking talent, a musical genius, the most unique artist in years – a girl from the suburbs of London gifted with a voice that was blissful beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, she had her demons – but it was her demons that made her Amy Winehouse, and it was her demons that she embedded into her songs and so aptly translated into musical beauty.
It’s been reported that a dozen or so new and unreleased material has been discovered since her passing, one of which will be used for the next “James Bond” film. I pray that I will be hearing these new tracks soon, as I have been patiently waiting for new Amy Winehouse songs for years. Many fellow musicians and celebrities have also expressed their sadness over the loss of such an incredible talent; some, such as Adele and Lady Gaga, thanking her and crediting her with being a musical pioneer, paving the way and making it easier for the more unconventional artist to establish a career. Her groundbreaking, phenomenal second album, Back to Black, is now #1 on iTunes and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since her tragic passing. I can only hope that now her music will be properly appreciated and her struggles with drugs and alcohol no longer the dominant aspect of her persona.
Of course, I never did get the privilege of meeting her, but judging by the copious amounts of interviews and footage I have seen, she was a charming, witty and hilarious woman. Backstage after one of her performances, a reporter asked her: “What did you think of your performance this evening?” to which she quickly replied, “It was a piece of shit. You look fit, though.” and walked away. During another interview, when asked if she considered herself a sex symbol, she instantly replied, “Only to gays.” Amy made no excuses for herself, never once tried to fit the mold of a proper pop artist, and always maintained a no-bullshit philosophy I cannot help but deeply admire and respect.
Since her death, naturally I’ve been replaying her songs constantly. If possible, my devotion to the soulful jazz singer has only increased. I’ll no longer enter her name in the Google search bar, hoping for news of an album release or tour dates. My worst fears regarding Amy Winehouse have been realized and she passed away at much too young an age. Now, my only hope for her is that wherever she is, she is still singing, and she is still maintaining that charismatic sense of making no excuses and tolerating no bullshit…or, as she so eloquently sang it: fuckery.
~~ by contributing writer, William Buhagiar