I turned 27 last week. Today, Amy Winehouse, one of a tiny handful of musical artists whose work has meant so much to me that I can truly say it changed my life, was found dead at the same age. I have found it almost unbearably painful to watch the media already scrambling to rake over and dissect every detail of her life; yet as soon as I heard the news, this post started writing itself, running away with itself in my head, and I knew I would have to write something to pay tribute to this passionate, troubled, beautiful, intelligent, immensely talented young woman.
I've never been able to remember quite how I first got into Amy's music. I know it was before her second album, Back To Black, was released, because I bought Frank first and waited for the new one to come out. I quickly got obsessed with her music, her words and her image; I thought she was absolutely stunning, and with her naturally gorgeous features, exaggerated eyeliner flicks, big hair and rock & roll style, she became something of an icon to me. In February 2007, I went to see her live at Manchester Academy. I didn't know it then, but this was a golden time - Back To Black was huge, but she was yet to become famous for her drinking and drug use, yet to become a tabloid fixture. While she later became notorious for forgetting the words to her own songs or walking off stage, that night she was note-perfect. I have watched and listened to every known recording of her live performances I've been able to get my hands on, and despite how impressive her voice invariably was, I have never seen her sing so brilliantly as she did that night. Today I feel truly blessed to have experienced this.
That same year, I had my heart broken. By coincidence or fate, I went through an almost identical set of circumstances to those that inspired Amy to write the album (her first split with Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who would later, famously, become her husband). The man I loved, and who loved me, decided that it was too difficult for us to be together, and broke off our 'affair' to go back to an ex-girlfriend. Suddenly, the songs of Back To Black, an album I already adored, took on a whole new significance; I was living her words. He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet/With his same old safe bet/Me and my head high/And my tears dry/Get on without my guy (Back To Black). The second I stop the sleep catches up and I'm breathless/There's this ache in my chest/'Cos my day is done now/The dark covers me and I cannot run now (Wake Up Alone). I even considered, and never fully rejected, the idea of getting a particularly resonant verse of Love Is a Losing Game - Love is a fate resigned/Over futile odds/And laughed at by the gods - as a tattoo.
At this time, the thing that struck me most about Amy's songs was how incredible a lyricist she was. I copied many of her lyrics down in full into my diary and notebooks, and reading them back to myself, realised that they were so beautiful that they worked perfectly even without music; they were like poetry. Everyone always talked about Amy's voice, as well they might - she was a singer of rare, wonderful talent and even rarer sincerity and palpable emotion. But to me, she was always just as great a songwriter as she was a vocalist. She was the only credited writer of most of the tracks on Back To Black - both music and lyrics. She co-wrote the whole of Frank when she was still a teenager. How many artists have a gift like that?
(I remember once being sat upstairs, staring out of the window, and listening to Back To Black loudly, torturing myself about something or other, doubtless to do with my relationship. My mum came into the room and, sitting down next to me, she nodded towards the speakers and said, 'you know, she reminds me a lot of you'. I promptly burst into tears. When I went out with my big hair and my black eye makeup, my then-boyfriend's friends would tell me I looked like Amy. They meant it as an insult, perceiving her only as the drug-addled mess of tabloid legend, and as a woman who didn't fit their narrow lad's-mag definition of female beauty; I took it as a compliment.)
Like Amy and Blake, the man I loved and I reunited and had a tumultuous, passionate relationship for the best part of two years. Through this I always felt a curious affinity with her, watching the mad whirlwind of their relationship and Amy's struggle with drink and drugs as they were played out in the newspapers and gossip magazines. She was the same age as me and, although I (thankfully) have never had to battle drug addiction or alcoholism or my partner going to prison, I have had my own issues with depression and anxiety, self-harm in my teens, and a similar pattern of fucked-up, mutually damaging, at times abusive relationships. And as my life changed, so too did my relationship with her songs. You Sent Me Flying will forever bring back memories of my doomed, painful infatuation with a work colleague. Whenever I felt frustrated or unsatisfied, Tears Dry On Their Own would become my anthem - Did I play myself again?/I should just be my own best friend/Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men. When someone I wasn't really interested in was pursuing me, I listened to In My Bed over and over, and when I broke up with my last boyfriend, Take the Box soundtracked the split.
I've always been a bit derisive of the whole 'cult of celebrity' thing - crowds of people waiting for hours just to watch someone coming out of a building and then screaming, weeping and fainting when they walk past - and I've always been suspicious of those mass outpourings of public grief that occasionally follow the death of someone famous. But fuck it. Amy Winehouse may have been a girl I'd never met, but she was a girl I'd never met whose words and music meant more to me than I can say. When I listened to her I knew that someone else had been through what I had been through, had felt what I felt - this beautiful, skinny Jewish girl with tattoos, anchor pendants and a giant beehive. She brought passion, power and honesty to every note she sang, whether a heartbreaking love song or a cheeky, funny track like Addicted, about smoking pot - It's got me addicted/Does more than any dick did - or Amy Amy Amy, which laments her 'weakness for the other sex'.
Am I surprised at Amy's death? If I am truly honest, not really. When I read the news on Twitter this afternoon, and saw some of my friends posting that they hoped it was a hoax or a nasty rumour, I experienced a sinking feeling of inevitability, an instant gut reaction that told me it was probably true. Like many fans, over the past few years I have watched her decline - punctuated by brief flashes of hope when she was photographed looking a bit healthier - with the sad suspicion that the best case scenario was that she would simply never record any more music. I always hoped I would see her perform live again, but in the end I really just prayed that she would overcome her demons and be happy and healthy. Rather that and her never sing another note than watch her slowly destroy herself in front of cameras and audiences. Sadly, she never did overcome those demons and her tragic, too-early death has truly shocked and saddened me. My thoughts are with her family, friends and all the fans who have shed tears for her today.
Here are some of my favourites of Amy's performances. This is how I will remember her.
This is a studio session recording of Love Is a Losing Game. I have always found this video absolutely heartbreaking; she almost breaks down in tears partway through the song. For me, this video truly encapsulates how much passion and candour she put into her music; how real her performances were.
Filmed in 2004, this AOL session recording of You Sent Me Flying is a painful reminder of the raw power of her early talent. (Unfortunately the video and audio are out of sync, but this was the only one I could find.)
Fuck Me Pumps live at Glastonbury 2007. This is by far my favourite performance/version of this song. The way she sings You did too much E/Met somebody/And spent the night getting caned (3:12-3:18) is unbelievable.
Valerie live with Mark Ronson at the Brit Awards 2008. While not one of her best performances vocally (though I still think it's fantastic anyway), I will never forget the moment when the opening chords of Valerie played and she strutted onto the stage. Completely unprepared for the sight of her, I literally stood up and screamed at the TV. It was the first (and only) time anything about the Brit Awards had excited or inspired me since I was a 12-year-old Spice Girls fan.
Another beautiful performance of Love Is a Losing Game, this one from the Mercury Music Prize ceremony in 2007. Something I always loved about her was that each and every performance was different - she never sang the same song in the same way twice.
Two of my favourites of her lesser-known songs - Best Friends, the B-side from the double-A-side single release of In My Bed/You Sent Me Flying, and a cover of the Gershwin classic Someone To Watch Over Me, a demo included on the repackaged Deluxe edition of Frank.
Rest in peace, Amy. You will never be forgotten.