Sometimes when life is not going well, when you know at the pit of your stomach that things just aren’t going to sort themselves out, that everything is not going to be ok, the only thing that gets you through it all is music.
The best music, like all art, comes from honesty and while there are plenty of songs about heartbreak, loss and disappointment, very few have the bravery and rawness of Amy Winehouse. In “Back to Black” she wrote about her mind unravelling, she sang in the midst of her life collapsing with the urgency and bewilderment of someone who doesn’t know if they’re going to make it out the other end. Through the patronising drivel of most pop, all the empty clichés and bland rhymes that never solved or made anyone feel anything; her records had the spine tingling honesty of the real thing.
Her early death now means that she’ll be lazily labelled as doomed and weak, the opposite of everything her swaggering vocals celebrated. Amy the Cat was alive; she was messed up but was hanging on as best she could. In a world of overproduced, airbrushed perfection, she was as truthful and ugly as the tattoos on her scraggly body, as messy and earnest as her raggedy beehive. She knew that she was destroying herself but couldn’t seem to stop and refused to hide or apologise for it. The stomping sexy brass of “Rehab” announced a woman that dared you to patronise or feel sorry for her. Yes, her life was a mess but she took full responsibility for it and would rather tear herself apart than play the victim. She didn’t blame anyone, especially any man or relationship. What was the point when she was, in all likelihood, as messed up and culpable as anyone?
Unlike most albums about romantic loss, there was very little about the actual person she was mourning. It was about her; her confusion with what she has doing to her life, her desperate struggle to gain back control and make sense of it all. With a knowing sneer, she let you into her world of rejection, despair, crying on the kitchen floor and in doing so gave dignity and the exhilarating relief of recognition to anyone who experienced anything similar. Worried you were cracking up? Tell her about it. Felt unwanted? Who didn’t? Worried you were mentally incapable of happiness for any length of time? Pass the voddy, she knew all about it. She was the unexpectedly sympathetic voice in the pub toilets, who saw you in all your raw eyed swollen face mess and nodded in understanding. Who was she to pass judgment on whatever mess you were in? All she expected was the same in return.
I really wanted her to make it, to prove the jaded journalists without a whisper of her talent wrong. I wanted more records, for her to sing more songs about other things in life, to have the time to grow up and define herself as more than the messed up girl. Most of us go through that self destructive phase, where we confuse masochism with love and pain with being alive, but there are so many other songs to sing, happier ones; more interesting ones. The aching sadness of it all is that Amy will never get the chance to know that.
Was all the pain she experienced worth the albums she turned it into? Would it have been better if she hadn’t felt so deeply, had been able to move on that bit quicker from whatever demons she couldn’t quite shake off, whatever emptiness she couldn’t fill? Was her talent a result of her troubles or a casualty of them? Isn’t it patronising and insulting to suggest that she needed the damage to make such amazing music; that all you need is a broken heart and a drug problem to produce era defining music?
Before the madness of fame, in her early interviews she came across as someone who just truly loved music. She described hearing soul records for the first time with the innocence and excitement most of us describe out first love. Her tragedy was that anything was ever allowed to come between it. Hopefully now, instead of the drugs, the messy relationships, the bloody ballet slippers dragged through grubby Camden Town, Amy will in death finally be known again for her soaring talent. Nobody who sang with such passion; wrote lyrics as wise and simple as “Love is a Losing Game” could ever be accused of having had a wasted life. Her devastated family can now finally have their beloved daughter back, reclaiming her from the tabloids caricatures and insanity of addiction. As for the public, those of us who never knew her, I doubt she’d want us to feel sorry for her. How could we? She left behind such music, such beauty and for a heartbreakingly short amount of time, she was after all, Amy fucking Winehouse.