The myth-making process around Amy Winehouse will swing into action as quickly as record label juniors are dispatched to gather out-takes and demo recordings for the inevitable retrospective album.
Whatever her talents, the truth is that Winehouse’s life was presented as a derailed freakshow exhibit, whose violent attacks on her audience and spouse; serial addiction/rehabilitation cycles, and newsworthy live performances (either for the unseemliness of playing private gigs for Roman Abramovich, or for forgetting her lines in Belgrade) garnered her acres more newsprint than her two albums ever did. To her bereft parents, Amy will always be an angel, but to the rest of us, let’s not wallow too deeply in the warmth of hindsight’s pathos. It was not for the power of her growling contralto or the disarming frankness of her lyrical expression that we were all watching YouTube footage of Winehouse stumbling around a Belgrade stage last month, it was through vicarious fantasy fulfillment and a smug self-congratulation at our own decision to play life safe and firmly in the middle.
She was the banshee, the bogeywoman, the uber-incarnation of the dangerously glamorous single auntie who got squiffy at Christmas or turned up to stay at random with suspicious bruises under her thick make-up. The ADHD nature of the public’s micro attention span demands its public figures to be archetypes, and Winehouse was every inch the fallen woman. That she sang about it so honestly, her lines confessing ‘I drip for him tonight’, or ‘You go back to her/And I’ll go back to black’ was largely irrelevant to our voracious hunger for more rumours of her antics, more images of her drug-addled breakdowns, more weird collaborations with the likes of Karl Largerfeld or Tony Bennett.
The hagiography which will fill the papers for the coming months will speak of her sultry phrasing; her Nina Simone-esque tones; her Billie Holiday fragility; her Dusty Springfield poise. Copycat vocalists will confide that without her pioneering the way, their own efforts would never have been accepted. Mark Ronson’s productions will be mulled over and presented as fresh reinventions of overlooked jukebox rock and roll classics. But last month we were laughing as she scratched her arms and wandered aimlessly around that Belgrade stage, smugly nodding to ourselves at her inability to perform that album live, or record a new one, or wondering whether she ever managed to sing the original without pitch-correction software in the first place. Let’s not dive too deeply into her beatification – we were always more interested in the car crash than the car. Hendrix, Joplin, Lynott, Cobain, Winehouse – we were never content that they just make music, they had to live the lives we were too scared to. The blood is on our hands.
Perhaps her music will survive her as just that – music which caught the imagination of a world jaded already by TV talent-show plastic, desperate for a voice beyond the gyrating karaoke of X-Factor lightweights. It would be the kindest epitaph. Remembering Winehouse as either the tabloid-splashed mental wreck or as the misunderstood musical genius archetype the press is already constructing, is unfair and ultimately disrespectful. She was neither of the two. She was a human, not an incarnation of public fantasy (whether that public fantasy was in its positive or negative guise). She made two albums, the first of them largely forgotten. She occasionally managed to transfer her talent to the live arena, and occasionally failed to do so. That she didn’t always manage it would have pained her more than most of us can ever know. To face, nightly, either the adulation or derision of an audience – how many of us could hope to survive that? Above all, Amy Winehouse needed help and support. If even one of the many friends and colleagues (whose fond memories will fill column inches from now until the retrospective album is released) had put as much effort into giving that to her as they did into monetizing her public profile, she might have lived to finish that long-awaited third album. Rest in Peace.
Amy Winehouse’s funeral took place on Tuesday July 26th at the Golders Green, Crematorium.
Images: Carl Byron Batson