Thursday, 28 July 2011

Departures: Why I love Amy Winehouse (Concise Version)

There are so many things to say about the recently departed Amy Winehouse, many of which were said in her short lifetime and many more of which have been repeated in the few days since her death.

All I can to add to the ever-expanding collective memory of her is my own experience of her music and the effect she has had on me. Her addictions, her fame, her disastrous performances and sporadic no-shows, her tabloid status and her immediately iconic look, from the beehive to the missing tooth to the ever-diminishing twig-like limbs... well, these are the things that the obituaries will have to talk about. But I was already a Winehouse fan by the time her personal life took over her musical endeavours, having chanced on her appearance on Jools Holland in 2003.

As a teenager who loved both the Libertines and Lauryn Hill, I was always – and sometimes still am – trying to reconcile my guitar with my voice. All the usual guitar-wielding women failed to hold my interest, like Courtney Love or Chrissie Hynde (this was just before the download age got going – finding worthy musical heroes was pretty tricky in the darkest West Country, despite growing up a few miles from PJ Harvey). Yet my favourite R&B voices seemed worlds away from music I could play myself, with their slick ProTools beats or jazz piano and vinyl crackle.

But then there's Winehouse, bashing out 'Stronger Than Me' on a Strat which even I had to admit was fucking boss, and I hate Strats. And I can clearly remember turning the TV on, in the corner of my room, standing there in a t-shirt and pants aged 16 at midnight on a Friday, as close to the sound as I could get and completely entranced by this girl combining the most unique, drawling, bluesy, growling, sweet and strange voice I'd ever heard with a guitar and a jutting chin, a macho stance and lascivious look. At the time, Winehouse had just turned 20 years old.

I want to say so much about her – her voice, of course, but also her amazing songwriting and barmy lyrics which couldn't have come from anyone else – but in the end the thing that meant the most to me was that she was so incredibly different from everyone else. Winehouse came from another place, from her own mind, seemingly unblemished by all the crap that was in the charts during her own teenage years of the late Nineties. She wore what she wanted, for a start. Not just a foot-high beehive but, in another Jools Holland clip, a black mini skirt and white bomber jacket. Or, at her most drugged out, a Fred Perry shirt with sleeves pushed up to show off horseshoe and pin-up girl tattoos. She was a lad, a mod, a skinhead, a jazzer, a toker, a snorter, a boozer. She could punch you or kiss you or shag you, she was all spit and humanity and visceral emotion, yet on record she'd managed to boil all that down into these blistering couplets which told you so much, almost too much, about herself:

“The only time I hold your hand is to get the angle right”
“Then you notice lickle carpet burns, my stomach drops and my guts churn”
“He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet with his same old safe bet”
“I don't wanna meet your mother anytime, I just wanna grip your body over mine”
“Yours is a familiar face but that don't make your place safe in my bed”

She was raw and filthy but never dolled up and sexualised for the pop market. It would be crass to make her out as some kind of aimless maelstrom of emotion, destined to crash out through hedonism, because that would suggest she had no determination or appetite for success, and you don't sell six million albums without a little bit of hard-headed ambition inside you.

But what Winehouse absolutely was not, was a pop star. Well, of course she was, eventually. But what were the chances? No one could have predicted her rise and rise, looking at the words to 'Fuck Me Pumps' or her blood-stained ballet shoes. Talent she had, but talent doesn't often lead to mega-fame.

The reason I loved her, and I suppose the reason so many people loved her, people who might not normally listen to jazz, soul, R&B or pop, was that she was a real person who said real things in a way you'd never heard them said before, whether she was singing about chips and pitta or straight-up l-o-v-e. Her idiosyncrasies weren't a mask of family-friendly kookiness like many of her female singer peers. I don't relate to her songs because of their subject matter – our lives and loves could not be more different. I relate to them because anyone with a heartbeat can hear that she's singing for her life and telling you the whole, unvarnished, gruesome, glorious truth.

Winehouse's death was needless and tragic, but rather than mourn the 'waste' of her talent, it seems more sensible to celebrate the recordings that do exist. And contrary to certain writers' proclamations, there's a truckload of stuff out there: album cuts, bonus tracks, thousands of clips from TV shows, festivals, gigs, showcases, unreleased tidbits floating through hyperspace and, inevitably, a bumper collector's edition of every last scrap of material will be released and re-released until all 7 billion of us declare 'Rehab' as 'our' karaoke song.

Finally, 'Love Is A Losing Game' must be the closest thing to a stone-cold classic to have been released in the last decade. It's as if it's been transported from some timeless song library on another plane; concise and effortless, crying out to be covered by hapless X-Factor wannabes but always protected by the fact that no other voice will ever do it as much justice.

And that was just a few of the reasons why I love Amy Winehouse. I'm going to miss her.

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