It’s hard to talk about Amy Winehouse without talking of her death. Winehouse was found dead with 416 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. The legal limit in Britain is 80 mg. Amy’s blood was nearly five times that. While allegedly sober for three weeks prior to her death, she had resumed drinking “the night before” – according to her physician. It was a sad ending to what could have been a long and luminous career. Just a few years prior Amy had lifted herself out of near obscurity to become what Jay-Z called a “Nirvana moment” for British artists. Her musical output, considering that it spans just five years, is simply stunning in terms of quality. It takes some artists a lifetime to record a track as freeing as “Valerie” or as poignant as “Love Is A Losing Game” – but Winehouse managed to do it while going through hell, in public, and with demons on her back.
2007 was a rocky year for Ms. Winehouse. “I really thought that it was over for me then,” she remarked after an near fatal overdose in the summer from not just one substance but six at the same time: heroin, ketamine, alcohol, cocaine, and ecstasy. In December, she was photographed smoking crack cocaine and wandering around London dressed in only a bra and jeans with cuts on her arms and legs. The leering lenses of the British paparazzi documented nearly every move of this tumultuous year.
I’m trying to think of another profession besides “popular entertainer” that would incur such intense media coverage. Politician, perhaps, but then again nobody is camping outside of John Boehner’s house morning noon and night to get a snapshot of him walking his dog out to the lawn for a crap. The fact that Amy had to go through such scrutiny in public with a legendarily voracious British tabloid system famously documenting a stray cigarette could only impede things for Amy.
Also in 2007, however, frequent collaborator and producer Mark Ronson released a remixed version of her track “Valerie” – featuring a frenetic breakbeat which injected a much-needed sense of fun and urgency into the track. It’s perhaps her poppiest song to date – more danceable than “Rehab” and freer than “You Know I’m No Good” – it showed Amy at her freest. There are notes she hits in the chorus that sound, with Ronson’s production, as if she’s singing them with a real smile on her face. Though the vocals were recorded in 2006, its release on Ronson’s “Version” a year later make it sound more vital then ever, especially considering the very public narcotic struggle she was going through in the summer of 2007.
While Winehouse was dealing with UK tabloids over having spat at British socialite Pippa Middleton, much less documented was the fact that she paid for a stranger’s medical expenses out of her own pocket. Strangely, her generosity never hit the headlines in the ways that her foibles did.
The very nature of addiction is dependence on the regulation of dopamine to the brain. Some people can go out and have one drink and be perfectly OK with just that, while others feel the need to drink the entire bottle. Casting someone aside for not being able to get over alcoholism is not wholly disimilar to telling someone with cancer to “just get over it” – an alcohol addiction problem like Amy’s is sadly a good indicator of just how ignorant Western society is the intolerance of addiction. For the entire time she was publicly dealing with her issues she was constant fodder for tabloids, late night hosts, and bloggers alike. While I’ll spare you a chin-wagging throat-clearing paragraph about the plight of the addict in the world today, I’ll simply leave it at this: cigarettes and alcohol are perfectly legal and are just as addictive as cocaine and heroin. Only the former are taxable, however. Kinda makes you think.
Winehouse’s musical output, though becoming more sporadic, never faltered in quality throughout her last days. She collaborated with Ronson again on a cover of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” and made plans for another tour before relapsing again. Her last studio recording, however, casts light on what could have been an entirely different direction for her – perhaps hinting at what Amy might have been.
She recorded a duet with Tony Bennett that came out after her death. The song, sadly, was largely cast aside due to A) the style of music – old style vocal pop – not exactly “resonating with the kids” and B) the fact that the public was done with Amy after her death, choosing to view her as just another addict who died too soon, at 27, just like so many others. But take a listen. Imagine you’re 30 years older. Imagine Amy is 57 and duetting this on live holo-TV at the 583rd Grammy Awards with a holographic Tony Bennett. Amy’s silver gray beehive matches her dress. I dunno. Just something to think about while you take a listen.
While nothing I write her will bring Amy back, I set about writing this more as an ode not to what a great artist she could have been, but what a great artist Amy truly was. Sure, she had her setbacks, and yes, they are well documented. Many view her as nothing more than a warning to young starlets who “traverse the trapeze of fame” or whatever half-thought-out adage some wanked and jaded music writer wants to throw in at the end of a snarky paragraph. But the fact is that, unlike Lohan, or Spears, or Sheen, or other people lauded for their addiction problems – Amy’s artistic output – even during the time of her own undoing – is staggeringly good and just as relevant today as it was then.
Billie Holiday had her own demons, too, although they were much less documented than Winehouses’s – and we have come to appreciate Holiday’s ouvre. It might be time to do the same for Amy Winehouse.
If nothing above has swayed you, please just take one listen to Amy’s demo of “Love Is A Losing Game” – recorded with just her and a guitar, and tell me that it doesn’t send shivers up your spine. It’s time to remember Amy in this light – it’s simply what she deserves.