Fade to Black

23 July 2011

Memories of the brief career and tragic life of British chanteuse Amy Winehouse, who died this week of a suspected drug overdose. 

Amid the news of a lone gunman gunning down a Labour youth summer camp in Norway – which was, undoubtedly, terrible news – I was far more affected this week by news of the death of jazz singer and tabloid car crash supremo Amy Winehouse. It’s a strange thing to mourn the death of complete strangers, be they murdered Norwegian teenagers or a well known singer whose tastes for mascara, big hair and crack got the better of her. But whereas the Norwegians are complete strangers, who I can only mourn in a generic way, for the loss of young human life and the accompanying fear it creates about the fragility of our own lives, there’s a closer, more painful sense of loss when it’s an artist I’ve known and loved, whose album I played on repeat on my iPod until I knew all the lyrics, and whose very public self destruction I got to see (once, briefly) up close.

I heard about Ms Winehouse as a tabloid fixture and trashy drug addict long before I heard her album, and remembered her with the curious mix of amusement, attraction and revulsion that young, talented and deeply self destructive artists usually arouse. Then I heard the album, and was blown away: the huge, soulful, husky voice, the pitch perfect recreation of a 1960s Motown sound, fused with more contemporary strains of Reggae and hip-hop, and lyrics that pried open the pain of bad co-dependent relationships, the wit and sass of her songwriting, and the crisp perfection of her band and sound mixing. She may have been a car crash, but she had the talent to make her more than just a tabloid joke.

There’s something strange in a fan’s relationship with an artist: the feeling of familiarity, of knowing someone because of your intense emotional connection to their art. Listening to a great musician or seeing the work of a great actor creates a kind of phantasmagoria that haunts us: although the situation that they play out is fictional, the emotions they produce in us are real, and so we are drawn to them for making us emote so intensely. With Ms Winehouse, the veil of fiction didn’t seem to exist, as she appeared to embody the pain and self-destruction she sang about. They may have tried to make her go to rehab, but what Ms Winehouse seemed to need most was a therapist – my therapist, preferably, so I could bump into her in the corridor in between sessions. Still, she did what many great artists do with their pain – turn it into great art, which endeared her to millions of people who never knew her, including me.

Like many a Guardian reading liberal, I became progressively more disgusted by the fetishising of Ms Winehouse’s addiction, even though it was clear that the same self-destructiveness fed her art. My only experience of seeing her live was hair-raising. She was over an hour late, so drunk and high that she could barely stand up, and barely coherent: slurring her words, wandering away from the microphone before she finished songs, running offstage after every song for “a costume” change, after which she’d come back with the same outfit but wiping her upper lip, and needing to be coaxed along by her band to keep singing. It was horrible. It wasn’t rock ‘n roll, it wasn’t romantic, and it wasn’t anything that should’ve been seen on a stage. I wanted to drag her offstage by her hair, throw her into a detox clinic and not let her out until she could walk in a straight line again. Fortunately, the tour was cancelled soon after, which became her last public performance before her last, catastrophic appearance in Belgrade a few weeks before her death.

As appealing as the Romantic cliche of the self-destructive diva is, and as many times as we’ve seen it played out over the years – Bessie Smith, Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin – for me, at least, it’s wearing a little thin. Having watched yet another talented young thing die well before her time, I’m now concluding that I’d rather have seen Ms Winehouse get better and never sing publicly again, rather than continue to produce music and keep feeding her various addictions. As it happens, we’ll never get a chance to see her do either, which is heartbreaking. The loss of a young person is tragic in any circumstance, but in Ms Winehouse’s, it’s especially painful, as she had the talent (and apparently the tenacity) to forge a long, great career. It strikes me that the best way to remember her is to be grateful for her brief, striking body of work, while not romanticising her suffering or accepting it as an inevitable part of being an artist. Pain may feed art, but surely happiness is the best way to sustain an artistic life.

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