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Like millions of music lovers, I purchased Amy’s first album several years after “Back to Black.” Here were the days in her life before the beehive hairdo, a time when her smug face was not plastered on magazine covers for either her drug abuse and alcohol abuse, or any of her other attention grabbing antics. This was the time before Winehouse belted out tunes about turning down rehab and being cheated on. The world was simply a more beautiful place when she was perhaps herself, more of a beautiful person staying at home listening to her favourite singers like Sara Vaughn. Frank is a very stripped down album of just pure soul and jazz songs, sung by the wonderfully clean cut Amy Winehouse.
Back to Black (2006)
The album that jet propelled Winehouse into the big league. I watched one of her shows recently which was recorded around the time of the album’s release and the songs stood up well to a stripped down arrangement of guitar and bass, the acid test for any composition.
However, now that she has sadly passed on, it’s hard to recall how fresh this sounded in 2006, almost instantly classic. My nephew sent me a copy with instructions to “check this one out”. I did.
Producer Mark Ronson, with help from a band of devoted soul revivalists, conjured golden-era sounds with a sample-sculpting hip-hop edge. Winehouse, a tattooed 23-year-old with a beehive crown, matched that spirit, cussing, cracking wise and casually breaking your heart. Her triumph triggered a resurgence of R&B traditionalism whilst simultaneously offending the sensibilities of every concerned parent. If “Fuck me pumps” on the first album hadn’t been like cold water in the face, then Amy’s colourful language on several tracks hardly assisted the album’s commerciality. A remixed sanitized version was swiftly issued but the editing was lamentable.
Lioness - Hidden Treasures (2011)
Overcoming my reservations about this grab bag of outtakes, unreleased tracks, demos, covers and song sketches, ‘Lioness’ offers many a delight from beginning to end, thereby reminding us all one last time, of that unique sound that seizes us by the ears. Here, as always, Winehouse\‘s singing is both raggedy and dramatic, winking and insouciant, full of high drama and a breezy sense of play.
Listening to the deliciously easeful crooning in “Our Day Will Come,” a reggae-fied reworking of a doo-wop chestnut, recorded in 2002, I was struck by her crystal clear ennunciation, an aspect of her vocal delivery I have previously taken issue with.
This collection includes “Between the Cheats,” from Winehouse\‘s aborted attempts at recording a third album with producer Salaam Remi in 2008. An old-fashioned 6/8 R&B ballad, it perfectly distills Winehouse’s marriage of classic soul style and goth-barfly smuttiness.
She’s more than comfortable with the classics – a freshly invigorating reinterpretation of ‘The Girl from Ipenema’ and a powerful ‘Will you still love me tomorrow?’
There’s the occasional clunker – Nas adds a rap to ‘Like Smoke,’ a track from her unfinished third album, featuring an unmistakeably lo-fi demo vocal take, and the dearth of material from the last two years of her life, save for that beautiful duet with Tony Bennett on the standard ‘Body and Soul,’ is palpable.
Still finding her feet as a singer and a songwriter when she died, ‘Lioness’ is an engaging read through of an embryonic talent with undoubtedly her best work ahead of her. As producer Mark Ronson so aptly puts it in the album’s accompanying booklet:
‘I fucking hate the fact that I will never get to make any new music with her. I feel like a part of my creative soul has been removed, never again to be recovered. But then I have to remind myself how lucky I am to have even got to work on one album with her. I hate the fact that I lost such a good friend, someone with whom I could be on the same exact wavelength without opening my mouth. Someone, who, when I was around, I felt just a bit more whole’.
I Told You I Was Trouble : Amy Winehouse Live From London (2007)
Personal problems are not apparent on this 2007 concert recording although there is evidence to suggest she was more comfortable in a recording studio than on stage. Nevertheless this Shepherd’s Bush videotaping captures Winehouse and her nine-piece ensemble gliding effortlessly through a crowd pleasing collection of originals and the odd surprising cover such as the Zutons’ “Valerie” and the Specials’ “Hey Little Rich Girl.”
It’s not perfection because the honing of one’s stage persona requires years of experience, but this release is pleasingly supplemented with a revealing documentary featuring interviews with Winehouse, her proud father and the A&R representative who signed her to Island Records. It’s so sad to witness addictive personalities destroying themselves. For me personally the opportunity to do what I really want to do would be the ultimate high. Even Keith Richards eventually got his kicks from watching crestfallen drug dealers vacating the Stones dressing room, as heavily laden with stock as when they arrived. Amy’s constitution wasn’t as strong or more than likely, she just wasn’t as fortunate…
“Amy” would become the highest-grossing British documentary of all time in 2015, taking £3 million at the box office in its first weekend.
I caught the film during its terrestrial debut before Xmas 2015, its cinéma vérité quality emphasising – in the most musically intimate detail possible – just what a tragic loss her early demise was for the record industry, let alone her family and friends. Despite buying her albums including the posthumous release “Lioness”, I never considered her the finished article – the film’s use of subtitles highlighting her poor enunciation as a vocalist – but she was indeed a rare talent, and devoid of such an addictive personality, would surely have enjoyed a lengthy and professionally rewarding career.
It’s all rather long – over two hours – but it never feels like it. Much of the fascination lies in observing the duality of her voice, a unique combination of that rich Sarah Vaughn style with the down-home rhythm of her North London origin. Heaven only knows how that rich singing voice just seemed to surge up from nowhere, and despite much to commend it, director Asif Kapadia fails to address this primary question. Nevertheless, eschewing the conventional form of most documentaries – interviewees onscreen are conspicuous by their ansence – the unique combination of private home movies, television interviews, intimate moments backstage and in the recording studio alongside newly recorded audio only recollections from friends and family, maintains the narrative’s momentum.
It picked up a clutch of awards and rightly so.
“Amy, my daughter” (Mitch Winehouse) 2012
Published to positive reviews, I nevertheless found this paternal memoir a rather depressing read. It’s the tale of a drug dependant individual, of incessant promises to reform, and yet tellingly, a woman who understand her foibles better than anyone. As she once confessed to her father, she knew her husband Blake was manipulative, but rather liked it. Personally I would eventually recognise the need to crush a person like that, stamping all over them like a semi deranged holidaymaker finding centipedes in his hotel room. However, in anticipation of such an moment, I would simply sever contact forever which, for anyone reading between the lines, is precisely what Mitch Winehouse wanted his daughter to do.
This book is the story of a man and his unceasing campaign to distance his sibling from drink and drugs. Had Amy not been his beloved daughter, he would have eventually walked away in sheer exhaustion.
Proving himself a better person than I could ever be, Amy’s father has even extended an olive branch to Blake to involve himself in future family projects on the understanding that he is completely cleansed of drugs. The first year after her death was an obvious rollercoaster ride of emotions; only time will ultimately tell if Mitch Winehouse has genuine forgiveness in his heart. If she’d been my daughter, I must admit there would have been no way back for him with me, no matter how much everyone is responsible for their own welfare.
Youtube – plenty of material to enjoy.
Official website – http://www.amywinehouse.com
I like what I’ve seen of Amy’s father to date and the foundation appears a worthy cause but to my mind the jury’s out regarding a 60 year old cutting an album within a year of his daughter’s death. I’m not passing comment here. Take a look yourself and make your own mind up.
Last Update : 21/9/13
I wonder how much larger the beehive would have become had she lived, since by her own admission, it grew in direct proportion to her escalating insecurity. Nevertheless whatever problems it would have presented me in creating an A3 sized original portrait, I would have greatly favoured this predicament to the drawing of a line under her life at such a tender age.
Amy Jade Winehouse (14 September 1983 – 23 July 2011) was an English singer and songwriter known for her powerful deep contralto vocals and her eclectic mix of musical genres including R&B, soul and jazz
She deservedly shone briefly in an industry where talent is no obvious barometer for success yet she clearly had an addictive personality and that was ultimately her downfall. I have no real interest in reiterating the finer details of her demise save to say that there is much out there in the public domain to both read and dissect. Her ultimate demise came, as I am sure it did for millions others, as no great surprise.
If I have one criticism of her vocal talent it would have to be in the area of enunciation. I find it more often than not, difficult to accurately discern what she is actually singing. Billie Holliday had that slurring technique in her vocalising but I never failed to comprehend the lyrical content of her recordings. However this is a personal view and perhaps not shared by her adoring millions. Nevertheless for me, it was a detracting factor. Furthermore she committed the cardinal sin of becoming “bored with her audience” walking off, as she did, mid song during her appearance at Saint Lucia Jazz Festival. Swearing onstage was not an uncommon experience for concert ticket holders either but it’s not professional behaviour and it’s just not clever. An audience needs to feel the artist cares; nerves will be tolerated, even overlooked if the artist clearly wishes to please. Indifference is the kiss of death.
Naturally, I have in my CD collection both “Frank” and “Back to Black” in addition to several live concert recordings on DVD and her posthumous release ‘Lioness – Hidden Treasures’, which features a wonderful duet with Tony Bennett, her last pro studio recording. Ultimately it would seem, Winehouse was afflicted with the “curse of 27”, an age at which so many stars have died prematurely.
The Drug question
I have a non addictive personality. Even in respect of essentially harmless interests I have been compelled to test my addiction levels during periods of redundancy in my working life. Self denial is not very enjoyable but there is some reward in attainment namely survival. I recall a time in 1995 when I could barely make a bean and was living off my savings. I was working for a financial adviser who was not paying me for the income I was bringing into his business. I experienced those disquieting moments when clients would come into his office demanding to know of his whereabouts. At a time when I was owed roughly £12k in income he calmly asked me one Monday morning if he could borrow £5K. I replied “no” rationalising that he could always extract the figure from the total he owed me. Unfortunately it was by now becoming clear that he owed many people.
That same day I received a phone call from one of my dealer contacts about a series of rare American imported records available for purchase. I had been after them for years and had to regretfully decline his overtures. I could have purchased them; in fact I could have found a myriad of excuses to obtain them but I wasn’t feeling content and the sense of euphoria in adding them to my collection would have been transient. Within six months of that day, my ex-boss had committed suicide and I was working elsewhere. I never got the records but their importance ebbed away. The moral of the story here is that addiction, in whatever shape or form, is tested most during periods of adversity. That man was severely in debt and took me on to turn his business around. Without financial foresight on my part over many previous years, my young family and I would have been on the streets. If I was only doubtful up to the age of thirty six I learned very quickly that people very rarely tell you the truth about themselves and only then when it’s too late. Stupid I have most certainly been on occasions in my life but my intuition has never let me down. When uncertain, commit to nothing and that philosophy has kept me off alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs all my life. To this day I often find myself standing in restaurants praying to God that the bartender will comprehend my phonetically worded drinks order; I honestly have no idea what it is that people prefer these days so I mouth the sounds and hope for the best; all very embarrassing when my technique fails!
The peer pressure at school to take up smoking was relentless and yet I somehow derived some perverse pleasure in not ‘conforming’. Music was also my salvation as the cost of maintaining a guitar collection absorbed what little earnings I had a teenager. Even today I am nonplussed by musicians who seem incapable of deriving sufficient ‘joie de vivre’ from their chosen profession. Perhaps a few months on an assembly line might help them to refocus on the artistic satisfaction their chosen career affords them despite the comparable grind of daily life “on the road”.
This preamble leads me to the tragedy of Amy Winehouse and the ever escalating drug problem we face in this country. I recently read a book by the rock journalist Harry Shapiro called “Waiting for the Man: The Story of Drugs and Popular Music”. In it he refers to “tipping points for drugs down the decades”; in the 1950s, when there were only a reported 317 addicts to “manufactured” drugs in Britain, the idea of the alcoholic was born. A decade on, the counterculture’s cherished LSD was perceived as such a threat that, in 1966, two national newspapers urged the government to outlaw it.
By 1979, cannabis use had peaked; the “heroin epidemic” hit Britain’s cities in the 1980s and the Trainspotting generation was born. The rave scene and designer drugs of the 1990s followed and the Home Office estimated that 1.5 million Ecstasy tablets were being popped every weekend in 1995, the same year Leah Betts died four hours after taking the drug, and her haunting image made front-page news. By the noughties, the UK was branded “Europe’s cocaine capital” by the UN, with the number of users rising by 25 per cent between 2008 and 2009, peaking at 1 million. What is going on? Are people and society in general so bereft of personal contentment and purpose in life that they must view everyday in a haze of chemical induced stupor?
The Home Affairs Committee is currently exploring government policy and sanctions regarding drugs, and earlier this year (2012) heard the comedian, actor and renowned former user Russell Brand tell them that there remains a “wilful ignorance” about just what fuels Britain’s addiction. Admitting that his life had been blighted by excess, Brand added that drug addiction was primarily “an illness”.
In Amy’s case she denied herself a life pursuing a profession that should have given her all the “artistic satisfaction” any working person can possibly crave; an opportunity to repeatedly, in the words of Shirley Bassey, experience something that is better than sex, to communicate her thoughts to a worldwide audience and to balance such an extroverted lifestyle with a family of her own. Sadly she became another casualty of 27, an age when many rock stars have passed on. Perhaps some of us are just genetically predisposed to artificial stimulants or susceptible to the influence of the wrong “crowd”? It’s a thought provoking question, the ramifications of which no individual is capable of rationalising fully until they have experience parenthood for themselves. Ask Mitch Winehouse and he’ll tell you.
In summary, a very sad waste of a great singing and song writing talent.