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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fade to Black

When Frank was released in 2003, I was living in a shared house in south-east London, and working in a handbag shop in Greenwich marketplace, trying to find a way to break into television production. We would play the album in the shop during long shifts, congratulating ourselves on being into a 'jazz' artist, and relishing the beats and bad language that made the album feel contemporary. We played that CD (CD!) so many times you could see through it, but ultimately it was part of our cultural checking-in; our staked claim to be young and part of the music scene, and the album was always 'one of' those we liked - genuinely admired, but no more so than those by Scissor Sisters, Franz Ferdinand, Kanye West, or The Thrills.

I remember specifically the first time I heard Rehab. Three years later, and Amy Winehouse had more or less dropped off the radar. I was sitting at my computer in my flat in London Bridge, with my back to the television, on which was playing one of the free-to-air digital music video channels - probably The Hits. I was concentrating hard on what I was doing, and the constant music had faded into the back of my mind - but this song wormed its way in within a few lines and grabbed my attention. The smokey voice was familiar - who was that, Lauryn Hill? Turning round to the TV and seeing the singer in the video, I still couldn't work it out. The skinny girl in the beehive didn't look like anyone I recognised. One thing I did know was that the song was amazing. That hook; those beats, those horns. No-one was doing anything like this. As the song ended, the caption came up on screen: 'Rehab, Amy Winehouse'. Amy Winehouse?! The jazz singer? It didn't look or sound anything like her. But no time for that. The next evening I went over to my friend Debbie's house, and thrust my ipod earphones into her hands: "You have to listen to this song, you'll love it". All over London people were asking each other "Have you heard that new Amy Winehouse song?" "Amy Winehouse? Hmm I don't like all that jazz stuff." "No seriously, you really, really have to listen to it..." Clearly my own personal campaign was unnecessary - within weeks the song was massive, and so was the album, Back to Black (Winehouse's profile was so low at the time, the album had been quietly put out before any singles were released).

When you're young and an artist you love goes stratospheric, it's often the cue to cool your affections. The Scissor Sisters were my FAVOURITE BAND IN THE WORLD after I tagged along with my friend Jon to see them at the Astoria in early 2004, not knowing anything about them. But a few years later when they were playing arenas - well, I still liked them, but I didn't go on about it. But Winehouse was different. Me and my friends were obsessed with her. The previous year, we'd all had the Zutons' Valerie on our ipods, but when Winehouse re-recorded it with Mark Ronson, it became an essential track, never leaving the radio for months, played at every party. Out on the town with my friends Nick, Hayley and Liz, we would never get tired of requesting and dancing to her music, and would incessantly quote not just her song lyrics (was there a tragic outfit, a bizarre news story, or an unopenable jar in early 2007 that wasn't met with "what kind of fuckery is this?"), but also her appearances on television shows - repeatedly accessible to us thanks to the emerging website YouTube. She was already a notorious drinker (although the hard drugs - or at least public knowledge about them - didn't come for a few more months), but her wit and vivacity was clear to see. We adored her, and constantly spouted nonsense about having a 'billboard time!', or how we would 'rather have cat aids' than do X - always in a rolling approximation of Amy's harsh north London accent (she was from Barnet, the same place I had been born, and where I had lived until I was seven). It was no doubt irritating to casual observers, but we were bonding over a shared passion, an artist who was not just exciting, but who really felt 'ours'. I guess we were just the right age, and living in the right city.

The music conquered America with ease, but due to drug-related visa issues around the time of the Grammys, she had to perform and accept her five awards via satellite link from London. Like all great stars, somehow she made this awkward situation feel like an advantage. She was an outsider - staying put in the town that made her, despite the laurels Hollywood was throwing at her. As she took trophy after trophy - Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist... - she made reference to the freak fire that was at that moment raging through the pubs and market in her beloved Camden. Her success always came hand-in-hand with drama in bizarre forms.

Nick and I snapped up tickets to see Winehouse perform live at Brixton Academy, but (within a year of Back To Black's release) the tour was abruptly cancelled part-way through, as the tabloids detailed Amy's spiralling drug addiction, shambolic performances, and devastation at the imprisonment of her husband Blake. Strange as it seems, from the moment she hit the big-time, she never put out another album.

Although years passed without her releasing any significant new material, she remained a massive star, and an object of our fascination. In June 2008 I was sitting around my kitchen table with friends drinking wine (shortly before moving to Australia) when Nick texted me: 'Turn on ITV'. It was Amy Winehouse in an unannounced performance at Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park. Bizarrely, she sang Free Nelson Mandela, and the performance was less than spectacular, but she'd still had the star power for Nick to instantly prompt someone in another city to make sure they didn't miss seeing her. The following day she performed at Glastonbury, but made the headlines mainly for punching a member of the crowd halfway through one of her songs.

Right up to her death (nearly five years after Back To Black's release), she remained present in our everyday consciousness. Last month, we mounted a parody show at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival called Amy Housewine, Back To Crack. This Friday night at the pub, I was telling my friends to look up her appearance on Never Mind The Buzzcocks on YouTube. On Saturday, DC referenced her version of Valerie when describing to me a track he'd just recorded. On Sunday morning I woke up to the news that she was dead.

Is it melodramatic or narcissistic to suggest that with Amy Winehouse dies a part of my youth? Her death couldn't seriously be described as totally unexpected, but it was still shocking. Like everyone else, I played her music as I went about my business today. Although we'd practically been carrying out drills for years on how we'd feel if and when Amy Winehouse OD'd, it felt not just strange that she was gone, but wrong. I didn't want her to be dead. The music was just too good. Sympathy for the personal tragedy goes without saying, but it's also justifiable for us to consider her death in relation to our own lives. Eric Idle once said that when people told him they wanted to see a Monty Python reunion, what they meant was that they wanted to feel young again. Amy Winehouse's music was such a big part of my identity as someone in my late twenties. If there's no more of her music, then I'm not that same person anymore.

"Life is like a pipe, and I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside."
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black

1 comment:

  1. It is so hard to know how to feel about a situation like this. One that is incredibly sad, a huge waste of such an incredible talent at such a young age. I have been thinking about it since we heard about it at a BBQ yesterday evening and I think that, as for many people suffering with addiction, every day for her was probably a horrific struggle. Waking up everyday, vowing to get well and keep working and unable to do it. Feeling like she couldn't be what people wanted her to be and letting down her family... I hope that she has found some peace now.