Amy Winehouse, the goddaughter of soul, is dead. I am surprised by the sense of loss I feel.
Kurt Cobain’s death meant little to me, since I was too young and not a punk rocker. I’m also too young to remember Jimi Hendrix, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Lennon. The death of Michael Jackson at 50 was just sad. Whatever was done to Jackson was done by fame, celebrity, and the ruthless American pop culture machine that loves you when you’re cute and precocious but knocks you down for trying to be everything we ask.
Amy Winehouse was different. Whatever was done to her, she did to herself. Her music came out of the same dark place as her addiction, but her honesty and the unique arrangement of her words created something universal. I’ve never been somebody’s “other woman” and I don’t know “what kind of fuckery this is,” but a complete world is contained in Winehouse’s Back to Black. I enjoyed peeking into this world and trying on its extreme emotions and drama. I immersed myself, pretending to be badass, pretending to be bereft, pretending not to go to rehab. And the funny thing was, while I certainly had not lived in the beautiful, sordid world of Amy’s album, the more I listened to it, the more I found pieces I could relate to.
“When will we get the time to be just friends?”
“He tries to pacify her, but what’s inside her never dies.”
“You went back to what you knew, so far removed, from all that we went through…”
It might not be rehab, but everyone has somewhere they’re supposed to go that makes them want to say “no, no no!” in percussive defiance. Back to Black is the language of broken hearts, and that language is universal. The music as well, with larger-than-life brass and retro sexiness was a soul revival. The music was the counterbalance to the lyrics. The lyrics spoke of pain, doomed passions, a fuck-you attitude towards convention and the morality police. But the melody was the antidote, lifting the spirits, turning bitterness into a powerful anthem. All together, Back to Black is an album founded on the belief that clinging to love, no matter how wrong or crazy, will bring redemption, even if salvation is not in the cards.
“Back to black”– that line itself could mean so many things. What a phrase! Back to drugs. Back to depression. Back to a bad relationship. But also back to a state that we all come from, that is inescapable. We all want to go back to black sometimes. It’s tempting. It’s even a relief.
I don’t want to eulogize too much, since that’s all everybody seems to be doing. For the most thoughtful and eloquent commentary I’ve heard so far, read comedian Russell Brand’s blog.
Instead of an obituary, I will tell my Amy Winehouse story:
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It was 2007. Back to Black was big in Europe. My boyfriend was living in France and we were hanging on to each other by a telephone cord across the Atlantic Ocean. English wasn’t his first language, but smitten with Amy Winehouse, he gave me her album (illegally) letting me take the files from his MP3 player. “Tu connais pas Amy Winehouse?!” he asked incredulously. I didn’t know her at all.
Over and over in my head, on the plane ride across the Atlantic and for months after, I kept hearing the lyric from the title song: “We only said goodbye with words.”
That line explained things for me: our break-up had been logical, logistical. We thought we were being mature by letting go of our fledgling relationship before the distance could break it for us. We had gone our separate ways, and yet a line had not been drawn across my heart. It didn’t feel “over.” We’d only said goodbye with words.
A few months later, when our love felt most fragile, most impossible to maintain, my boyfriend whispered on the phone to me in English a kind of sweet but melancholy encouragement: “Don’t think love is a losing game as Amy Winehouse says.”
This lyric, and my boyfriend’s negation of it, gave me the courage to hang on across miles and time zones, as the singer of “Love is a Losing Game” and “Some Unholy War” holds on, in spite of everything.
When Mad Men (and my obsession with it) started in July 2007, “You Know I’m No Good” was the mantra played over Don Draper’s philandering in the ads and credits. The seedy-chic updated ‘6os soul feel of Amy Winehouse dovetailed perfectly with what Mad Men was trying to accomplish.
In October 2008, on a bus ride back from Chicago, “Just Friends” helped me sort out a complicated relationship with a college friend.
Around the same time, I gave the album to my brother who listened to it on his ipod, as he often does, in loops. He washed dishes to Amy Winehouse, shouting “I said no, no, no!” as he put them in the drying rack. He painted to Amy Winehouse in his studio at college.
She was the first new artist we’d fallen in love with in a long time. You have to understand, my brother and I were raised on 1960s and ’70s classic rock, folk, blues, and soul. Van Morrison, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Mamas and the Papas, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Sam Cooke, Sting, Paul Simon, Ray Charles–any artist with soul and something to say. I grew up listening to singer/songwriters while my peers were discovering the Backstreet Boys and In Sync. Later on, in College, the contemporary music scene felt alien to me. What did I know of hip hop, of Indy rock, of Emo?
When my classmates bonded in their hipster nerddom over Weezer and Cake (indeed the only form nerdery that passes for “cool” is of the hipster/exclusive music nerd variety), I waited for old to become new again. I delved deeper into jazz, copying all of Nina Simone from a friend. I became interested in artists whose voices were raspy, odd, or downright ugly, but whose soul and whose writing trumped it all: Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits. Meanwhile, on the contemporary radio dial, I heard melodies disappearing, lyrics becoming more and more impoverished. “It’s gettin’ hot in here, so take off all your clothes?” “Let’s get retarded in here?” “Kiss me through the phone?” “My lovely lady lumps?”
For me, the contemporary music scene was so full of hipsters and wannabes that it was hard to tell irony from ignorance. In the MTV generation, real struggles, real pain, and real passion were becoming plastic facsimiles. The sound itself was grating to my ears. No melodies anymore. Whenever Kanye West’s “Golddigger” came on (a song I actually liked), I found myself perpetually waiting for the rest of Ray Charles’ remixed chorus to drop: “She gives me money when I’m in need.” It was like the worst kind of tease. What’s more, that line from “I Got a Woman” is supposed to show exactly the opposite of the sugar-daddy relationship that “Golddigger” is about. In Ray Charles’ original, “she gives me money” because she’s “a real friend indeed” and she’s “good to me–oh yeah!” Giving money is a sign of love and devotion. Kanye, whose irony is always intriguing but not always self-aware, had sampled his way to a hit that captured the materialism of the Bling Generation, but did he actually understand the soul–the love– Ray Charles was writing about?
And then came Amy Winehouse.
She was new, but old school. She was someone I could talk about with the hipsters, and with my fiancé in France. She sang about my generation but in a more timeless manner. And she put all the passions of her head and heart into every song. You got the feeling that she wasn’t writing songs to become famous, she was writing songs to stay alive.
And now, like we all will eventually, Amy Winehouse has gone back to black. And the rest of us are left behind, still waiting for her next album.