When I first heard the name Amy Winehouse, it seemed like a play on words. I had already become curious of the buzz about a talented and unique new musician from news-radio, on-line and in the press. “Wine-house” sounded like a name created by music business execs, who dreamed up another Jonas brother, Britney, or Bieber, with the “perfect” hair, face, age, and auto-tuned voice: a manufactured pop star through which they’d add to their riches. With “wine” being the first syllable of her name, it seemed like a planned reference to alcohol. I assumed she may be similar to a Kie$ha or Rihanna, whose work is much about partying, sex appeal and with blatantly suggestive lyrics. It meant more sonically compressed and lifeless hit songs continuing to clog most pop radio and television stations.
Then I ran into a buddy, a bartender who carefully chooses the music he plays while serving drinks, and I asked if he’d heard of Winehouse. He showed me a copy of Rolling Stone with the singer on its cover and told me he couldn’t stop listening to her latest album, “Back to Black.” Her picture alone was intriguing, with her signature black bee-hive and pointed eyeliner, pretty hazel eyes and tattoos. My friend raved about the cool song production and the singer’s unique voice. Something new was happening in music, and the public and media were taking notice.
I soon remembered hearing about the single “Rehab” from my ex-wife, who mimicked to me over the phone the song’s catchy line of refusal to get help, “No, no, no.” After hearing it myself I bought the album, and it soon became an all-time favorite. It’s been one of those records that you enjoy as a whole, not a one-song MP3 download from a random artist. Along with her unique name and look, her sound was very fresh. Her lyrics sounded honest, pained and more meaningful than the pop I’d gotten used to hearing. It hadn’t been since the first album by Counting Crows that I’d been optimistic about a much-needed break-through in pop.
Counting Crows entire CD, “August and Everything After,” became a powerful début album for mainstream rock music in the mostly stagnant early part of the 90’s. Its songs were the perfect blend of blues, rock, folk and pop, with intense and poetic lyrics and lovely melodies. Their album showed again the power of popular music and how the best of it will last, regardless of time and a format that’s been around for decades. And after hearing “Back to Black” I felt that way all over again.In the 2000’s, pop music seems more about appealing to youngsters and their eager-to-spend parents. Songs are used as marketing tools in commercials and promoting just about anything produced by The Disney Channel. Hits that walk a carefully calculated line between catchy and annoying are selling everything from clothing and medication to another season of American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and So You Think You Can Dance. Musicians that reach the mainstream are increasingly younger and lack the longevity and dedication to their craft of workhorses like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Niel Young. In the midst of this barren musical landscape, Amy Winehouse delivered.
Like most great musical success stories, she had everything proven to achieve icon status: looks, charisma, youth, incredible skills and instincts. Her style, sound and appeal were as fresh as they were a throw-back to 60’s girl groups, jazz crooners and singers of age-old American standards. She could sing anything. Just listen to one track: her cover of the Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and you won’t miss the magic she tapped into and recreated in her unique Winehouse-way.
How ironic that her second album, which sold millions, would begin with the single “Rehab.” More disturbing, and possibly adding to her intrigue, is how the track would foretell her own struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and probably her eventual death. But the album’s deeper tracks are moving confessionals of lost love and other relationship challenges and troubles. Amy sounds like a reincarnated Billy Holiday, with grunge, rock, blues and jazz sensibilities, put to tight, colorful and quirky beats. On “Back to Black” a petite British woman, barely old enough to drink, sings with a tone, texture, eccentricity and worldliness that transcends her age and experience. It’s the perfect example of how great pop music can still seem fresh and relevant even after years and years of sticking with a seemingly exhausted formula.
Not knowing her personally didn’t stop me or millions of others from reacting with great grief and shock today. Regardless of her reign over the popular charts and winning several Grammy’s, Amy became more recently known for her shaky marriage and personal life. But for a brief time she showed signs of cleaning up this past year. Her appearance improved dramatically. She put on some much-needed weight, tanned herself on a tropical island and even had her breasts modified. Rumors of a third, follow-up to “Back to Black,” album had the new release scheduled for 2010, but never came. In early June new videos of horrific, drunken live performances surfaced where, after butchering a few of her own songs, she went from cheered to booed. She was unable to stay in key, complete a melody or even stand. She seemed bored, high, drunk or all the above. My heart sank, as I refused to accept she was heading back down the dark and dangerous path of so many other great artists. Tragically, on Saturday, July 23 she did.
While barely into her twenties, Amy Winehouse’s work as an artist reached millions and will forever have its mark on a good-sized percentage of this planet. Sadly, as a person she shared the similar traits of other singers who battled with substance addiction and a reckless lifestyle. Like Billy Holiday, Elvis and Michael Jackson, icons all linked to fatal drug use, her unfortunate struggles will forever be part of her legacy.
As a person who was profoundly reached by her work, I feel sad, let down and oddly betrayed. It’s as if, because her music touched us so deeply, she had some responsibility to continue to deliver more great work. Unfortunately, a great artist or other influential mainstream personality is not always prepared to be a good role model.
As an artist, Amy Winehouse will always be an excellent artist to admire. There are a bunch of new singers in the mainstream that already seem to be copying her style. The recent popularity of another young British singer-songwriter, Adele, is proof that music like Amy’s-with a retro, blues and jazzy feel-can still have major appeal and selling power. Amy owed it only to herself to stay alive, if that’s what she chose to do. Sadly, after finally seeming to have gotten some control of her demons, her life was cut all too short.
For anyone who still doubts that Amy Winehouse was, not only a fresh and talented vocalist, but a truly beautiful creator of song, listen to her ballad: “Love is Losing Game.” Game over.