Much has been said about the turbulent life of Amy Winehouse, who died at home on Saturday, 23 July, and a great deal of rumour about her tragic death is sure to surface in coming months. What should not be forgotten amid all this speculation is the incredible musical inheritance that has been bequeathed to us by a supremely talented and exceptional artist.
It is fair to say that Amy Winehouse generated a strong reaction in people. Her army of fans were dedicated to supporting Amy through all her turbulence and misadventure as much as for her music. She appeared to be attracted to a whirl of heartache and exploration like a moth is drawn to a flame. In the end, that addiction to misadventure is likely to have killed her.
Across just two albums, Amy produced a lasting legacy of classic song writing and killer vocal performances. She achieved more than many major stars manage in a life’s career: became a global star, an acknowledged icon and an undeniable talent. The emotional outpourings of her multiple award winning sophomore album Back to Black struck a note with millions worldwide, embedding her image and vocal styling in the collective consciousness.
Her fabulous music videos have already become classic clips and should also be acknowledged for their role in building the globally familiar image of Amy that is so engrained in our memory. While headline-grabbing episodes have often over-balanced her high public profile, it is her incredible musical canon that will outlive the more controversial elements of her recent years.
The bright and youthful spirit that arrived on the scene with such promise in 2003 was a product of one of London’s leading drama classes and the BRIT School, a youth academy set up in the 90s specifically to turn out young music stars and actors. Fellow BRIT School successes include singers Adele, Leona Lewis, Jessie J, Katy B, Kate Nash and Imogen Heap, plus bands The Noisettes, The Feeling and The Kooks.
I remember receiving a three-track sampler of her 2003 debut, Frank. I was working in entertainment PR and was sent the CD as an eye-opener to a promising new talent. At the time, press variously proclaimed Frank Britain’s best jazz and soul album, pointing to the promise it showed in what we could expect from this astonishing new talent. It sold reasonably well and received a Mercury Music Prize nomination, but couldn’t be considered a runaway success. That kind of achievement was reserved for what came next.
Her astonishing 2006 follow up, Back to Black runs at just under 35 minutes but it is crammed with perfectly crafted, timeless tracks with infectious hooks. The raw heartfelt emotion, the deeply personal lyrics and the now-familiar vocal style led to multi-million worldwide sales and five Grammy Awards. Essentially, it made Amy a household name.
Last month, I arrived in Serbia to see the first night of a tour that was unofficially billed as Amy’s rebirth, her return to form. Little did the 20,000 fans gathered beneath Belgrade’s Kalemegdan fortress realise that this would be Amy’s final concert, just five weeks before her death. Watching that show, I felt anger, frustration and compassion. Anger at those who had allowed Amy to go on stage in such a state, frustration at the wasted talent we were watching being washed up, and compassion for a young woman who was clearly suffering.
Remembering a clearly out-of-sorts Amy stumbling and staggering, trying (but failing) to deliver her hits, it would be easy to say that that the signs of her imminent collapse were clear. We were watching the crumbling of a talent, but we could not know that the self-destruct button had already been pressed.
The fact that uncaring elements of the crowd who showed no sense of empathy found it funny to hurl abuse and beer glasses did not help. Thankfully, fans that were attempting to buoy her up by singing along to the well-known hits outnumbered those less benevolent elements.
In my review of that show, I struggled to temper the criticism that was rightly levelled at the show with some degree of humanity and respect for a fragile young woman in turmoil. It was not an easy piece to write. Elsewhere, the press hounded Amy afresh for her ‘shambolic’ performance. As we know now, Amy was not given the chance to comeback from the brink and prove her critics wrong.
Amy’s dramatic downfall in the final years of her heartbreakingly short life has been well documented, with horrific pictures of an emaciated Amy staggering, rambling and gurning becoming commonplace in press worldwide. Obvious comparisons have been drawn to other celebrated troubled artists such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain, all of whom were also cut down in their prime at the age of 27.
There are no two ways about it: Amy was a victim of illness and abuse. She might have inflicted the drink and drugs on herself (although she was definitely surrounded by some shady characters) but, if she was following patterns seen with other users, she was in pain and searching for an escape.
She apparently received a great deal of help, support and guidance from her family and some of those around her. Her record company did their best to provide for repeated trips to rehab and even set up secret recording sessions to help Amy find her form again.
It is also the case that she was surrounded by some shady characters and she had the ready resources to finance any hunger. The temptations and influences at her fingertips each day must have tortured her sick soul to its limits. It is not a surprise that she so often succumbed to seeking solace in a bottle or something more chemical.
It is said that Amy had recently completed a further course of alcohol rehabilitation and was under strict instructions not to drink or take drugs. She was meant to be getting herself together to launch into promotion for her much-anticipated third album. After Belgrade, there was doubt about her ability to hold it together, but singer Tony Bennett, with whom Amy recently recorded the yet-to-be-released duet Body and Soul, said that she gave an ‘incredible performance’ in the studio. “It’s the most completely tragic waste of talent that I can remember,” he said after her death.
We might never know the truth about the final hours of Amy’s life. We can speculate but few, if any, will ever know the reality of Amy’s situation. What we can assume is that, sadly, battling the demons seemed beyond her fragile grasp.
Amy made her last public appearance a few days before her death, when she joined her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield on stage in Camden. Smiling and looking in good form, she danced and gave encouragement to singer Dionne, before waving and leaving the stage.
Let us remember Amy for the incredible talent that she was and enjoy the enduring legacy that she has left in her music. Hopefully Amy completed her long-awaited third album and it can see the light of day as a fitting sign-off to a short but incandescent life. Music was her life and music will be our lasting memory of Amy. The brightest stars burn for the shortest time.