Following Amy Winehouse’s death on 23 July, 2011, The Word magazine asked me to revisit the piece I wrote for them in 2004, adding some reflections on her sadly-curtailed career and an assessment of her music. This piece appeared in The Word’s issue of September 2011.
It’s a cold, bright morning in Camden Town, early in 2004. Amy Winehouse walks into her neighbourhood tapas bar and lights the first of many cigarettes. She’s a brand new pop star with a talent that promises she’ll be around for decades to come. That’s what the media thinks, and the music business, and the fan-base that has begun building around her. The only person who doesn’t appear to buy into this sunny forecast of never-ending success is Amy Winehouse.
These were the last few weeks of her life in which Winehouse could still walk around London without starting a media firestorm. Her debut album, Frank, had emerged a few months before and was slowly gaining attention. But she could already turn heads. Though she was far smaller than the Amazonian figure she seemed in photos, she had the warrior-princess features, the glossy black mane, the hourglass curves. More than that, there was such intensity to the girl. We took our table just before the café received its first lunch-hour customers; I was struggling to realise this girl had only just turned 20 years of age.
I was interviewing her for The Word and researching my book on London pop, In The City. Our venue was in Parkway, opposite a big old-fashioned pet shop – in those days a Camden landmark as much as the Good Mixer or Hawley Arms pubs. Amy was a nervous interviewee, tense and self-critical rather than hostile. I’m glad we met in the days before the smoking ban. So much of her conversational drama was signalled by the desperate searching in her bag, the pause for a nicotine hit, the fierce exhalations afterward. At one point she interrupted me to rummage furiously among her keys, mobile and make-up, to produce a little notebook. Mid-sentence she had an idea for a lyric and had to write it down. If not, she told me solemnly, she would go mad.
The next hour was fascinating. There is a temptation to retro-fit interpretations, in the light of what happened after. But even without hindsight, one knew this was a headstrong young woman, very bright and often funny, torn between ambitious perfectionism and her fear of failing. Amy’s unease with life was palpable, and found an outlet in confrontation. She was under oath not to shoot her mouth off today. Attacks on her record company were starting to jangle nerves. Viperish comments about Dido were causing embarrassment. Only a few months before she had told the Evening Standard, “I couldn’t go to the Smash Hits poll winners concert without bringing a gun.”
Like Van Morrison and Elvis Costello before her, Amy Winehouse had been drilled in music history throughout childhood – and she was similarly impatient of anyone not up to speed. Raised in the North London suburbs she absorbed her jazz-loving father’s tastes and explored her older brother’s collection. Through her American mother she had connections in New York, Miami and Atlanta. Yet she denied that she had been spoon-fed: “You discover music the most when it’s music that no one tells you to listen to… I’d have told them to fuck off. I’ve always been a rebellious person.”
Steeped in classic American songcraft, she learned technique. Surrounded by modern hip hop, she acquired attitude. And those two qualities would serve her well. On Frank we heard the funky melisma of a jazz veteran meeting the glottal stops of a mouthy teenager on the Piccadilly Line. Frank, in fact, was indirectly named after Frank Sinatra (it’s a reference to his LP of heartbreak, In The Wee Small Hours), so I asked her what she loved about him. But she didn’t love him, she snorted!
And without missing a beat she reeled off a list of singers she found superior: “Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Ross, Carmen McRae, Mel Tormé, Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, Louis Jordan… Sammy and Dean were better than Frank.” Though I suspected she was being contrary for the fun of it, her knowledge and confidence were impressive. It’s likely this approach helped get her expelled from a succession of stage schools. “I’ve never been to a school that I came away happily from, ever,” she added, somewhat sadly.
Like Kate Bush, Amy Winehouse was talent-spotted in her teens and nurtured for a few years before being launched. It took a Brit nomination to really spread the word about Frank, but no-one who discovered that deep, supple voice and those mordant, observational songs would soon forget them. Here was a performer to reclaim the largely disused description “soul”, adding emotional heft to stories rich in everyday detail. I asked her if she was pleased with the album. It’s one of those rather bland questions you present to interviewees when you’re easing them in.
But her response was not bland. Her expression darkened. The whole subject seemed obscurely troubling to her. “If I’d been 100 per cent satisfied then I could have relaxed and gone on holiday for six months. But it’s a constant thing for me to better myself. I’ve got a clear ambition now, to make a record of what I hear in my head.” The trouble with Frank, she explained, was that she had to make it with people – people older and more experienced than her – who could not hear what she heard in her head.
“I know what I want to do before the other person is even in the room. Maybe in years to come I will be a good collaborator but at that point I was, like, Look, here is my music. We need brass on this, or that needs to be faster. And I don’t want strings. If you want to work with me and you love strings, then go home.
“I probably earned a reputation as a difficult person, because I wrote my own songs and I didn’t need people in the studio with me. Not to be rude, but these people would be trying to write pop songs! And I would say, Who are you writing for? What session are you on? Get out! But then I’d waste a day trying to be nice to the person. I’d waste studio time letting them do what they wanted, because I thought it would be the polite thing to do.”
She stabbed moodily at her tapas. Amy had these huge eyes that went from hearth-warm to fridge-cold in a second. “You learn as you go along.”
What a formidable and complicated girl. She really did learn, too. The next album was Back To Black and it was her masterpiece. Released in October 2006, it was partly produced by the new whizz-kid Mark Ronson (with remaining tracks by her existing collaborator Salaam Remi) and this time the acclaim was instant. She would even succeed where countless British acts have failed, by charming America. Perhaps they divined that Winehouse was more than just a Limey student of R&B: she was an actual living exponent.
The carnage of car-crash romance was smeared right across these new songs: “Life is inspiring,” she’d promised me, when I asked if all her ideas were used up on the first album. “I don’t want to make a second album talking about record companies and stuff. The thing that always drove me with Frank was human interaction and that will always drive me. Relationships and how fucked up they can get. I guess that’ll always inspire me.”
Fucked-up relationships. She certainly did her research. By now a tabloid property, Winehouse could not live any portion of her life in complete privacy, nor rely on the discretion of people she had known. And as a confessional singer-songwriter she threw her own fuel on the flames. If the songs on Back To Black were self-absorbed, it was because their creator had become her own raw material. Now she was stumbling through her mad, strobe-lit existence – and occasionally stopping, I would guess, to retrieve that little notebook from her handbag. Perhaps a quieter life would have left her nothing to write about.
Looking back at the second album I realise that it begins with a track called Rehab and ends with one called Addicted. Ideally you would hope to see them in the reverse order. But Amy’s life-story would not conform to our modern requirement for “a journey”. Here was no neat narrative. Here was no direction forward. Somewhere about this time her problems were no longer channelled, productively, into her art. From now on there was always another party, another dealer, another show to cancel, another album to postpone.
Rehab itself evolved from a real-life conversation she had with Mark Ronson, and it’s almost a shame how catchy the song is: Rehab will probably define, forever, a particular aspect of Amy Winehouse that is not the most glorious or important. Like a lot of British pop stars, especially Londoners, she had an instinctive gift for self-styling: the tattoos and tottering heels, the Cleopatra eyes and Spector-girl beehive were a spectacular re-invention of her look. But the dramatic loss of weight was unsettling. You didn’t have to read the tabloids to guess something was unravelling.
I found her live shows were never consistently good. The last time I saw her, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in May 2007, was in some ways typical. It was a replacement for an earlier date she’d blown out. Tonight she was late onstage and sounded confused. When she’d reach down for her drink you were unsure if she could haul herself upright. There was heckling, slow hand-clapping and a dissatisfied atmosphere.
But then the gig was actually stupendous, boosted by the theatrical and musical power of her soul band the Dap-Kings. At the party afterwards, where Paul Weller caroused with Noel Gallagher and Amy’s family held regal court, the woman herself could mingle almost unnoticed, so tiny and quiet when she chose to be. She was the only person there who wasn’t celebrating.
Could anyone have helped her? Possibly. But don’t forget that Amy had been saying “No no no” since childhood. Biddable she wasn’t. Will she be remembered? Certainly. In British female terms alone she ranks with Dusty Springfield. Adele has been the first to give her unstinting credit for her influence. Will we hear more? That depends on what is salvageable from her final sessions. There is also a duet with her idol Tony Bennett, recorded just before the end. (“I'm worried about her and I'm praying for her," he reported at the time. "She'd help everyone by sobering up and cleaning up her spirituality.")
It’s a colossal shame she never fulfilled her potential. Maybe she thought: what if I did miss a few performances? Wasn’t I giving the public a performance every time I fell out of a club and slapped a paparazzo? Amy had set herself such high standards that stoned oblivion must have seemed the easiest option. When you don’t try, you can at least pretend that you didn’t fail.
Back in the Camden tapas bar in 2004, her love for London, the city where she would die in 2011, was evidently deep and she spoke of it cheerfully. Her mood only changed when I returned to the subject of her work. She told me, with more gravity than a 20-year-old should have, that singing no longer made her happy.
“I’ve always sung. When I was growing up and having the pain and suffering that teenagers do, when you think the world hates you because you’re 15, I could sing like a little bird. I can’t sing like that no more. I’m too complacent. They gave me too much free shit…”
What do you mean, they gave you too much free shit?
“They put it all on a plate. I feel like I’ve got nothing to work for sometimes. Even though I’ve got lots to work for.”
She lights a cigarette and shrugs.
“Yeah. Anyway… Amy, chill the fuck out. I’m sorry.”
Do you feel pressurised by all the weight of expectation around you?
“A little bit. But that’s myself. No one could be a harsher critic than myself. I am feeling that pressure. There are days when I wish I could just take a break from my own head.”
She blows out hard, hot cigarette smoke. She suddenly seems 65 years old.
“There’s nothing real in it, nothing real. Which really drains me. But you know what? It’s gotta be done.”
She gave me a tired, trouper’s smile and walked out into Parkway, where the big old-fashioned pet shop advertised its parrots, monkeys and other exotic but imprisoned creatures.
POSTSCRIPT: FIVE SONGS
(There Is) No Greater Love (from the album Frank, 2003)
A 1930s jazz standard, which Amy may have heard covered by Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington. The latter is one of the immortal names she thanks in the album credits, a gesture that might smack of adolescent hubris except that her own delivery of such songs is exquisite. It’s just a whisker above two minutes long, which bespeaks the confidence of knowing your song is genetically unimprovable.
Take The Box (from the album Frank, 2003)
If she had never sung a note, Winehouse could have made it as a songwriter. This is a perfect break-up number, wherein everything from a Sinatra CD to “the Moschino bra you bought me last Christmas” gets chucked in a cardboard box when a warring couple split up.
Back To Black (from the album Back To Black, 2006)
Mark Ronson wraps the second album’s title track in a sort of Motown funeral march, while the church bell tolls in a heartbroken nightmare.
Love Is A Losing Game (from the album Back To Black, 2006)
We’re yet to hear the posthumous releases, if any, but this will surely stand as her greatest song. Almost impossible to believe it wasn’t written several decades ago, designed for anyone from Peggy Lee to Minnie Riperton. And it’s yet another of her tracks that clocks in at under three minutes. This song, not Rehab, is the real core of Back To Black.
Valerie (from Mark Ronson’s album, Version, 2007)
It wasn’t all torch song tragedy and late night melodrama. A rare post-Back To Black session finds her lighten up with Scouse indie pop by The Zutons. Maybe she occasionally needed the emotional freedom of other people’s songs, dropping off the baggage she could fly. Try also to hear her riotous take on the knockabout ska favourite Monkey Man.