For Amy Winehouse, the Anti-Diva

Dabbler Editor Brit pays tribute to Amy Winehouse, who died on Saturday at the age of 27.

Long-term readers of my Think of England blog may remember that I went through a period of infatuation with Amy Winehouse, having been to see her perform at a smoke-filled dungeon called The Academy, in Bristol. That was in late 2006, soon after the release of her second album Back to Black but before it propelled her to international star status.

The gig was unforgettable: Amy was thin but not yet emaciated and she drank throughout, taking alternate swigs from two glasses of ghastly-looking green cocktail secreted behind an amp (I could see this from my vantage point to the side of the stage). Her voice was huge, her improvisations all worked. Afterwards I wrote:

In the nicest possible way she’s as mad as a hatter, is Amy, filling the gaps between songs with amiable, sweary banter delivered in a caustic, almost incomprehensible cockney babble and cackling with laughter at her own tipsy jokes. But what a singing voice! Her effortless, soaring jazzy rasp can strip the layers of grime from the walls.

At the moment she’s playing small, all-standing indie-rock venues like the Academy. With her motown-y, jazzy, R&B-ish talent the logical career progression would be to tone down the ribald lyrics, make it big in America and end up being a diva doing residencies at Las Vegas.

Yet she is in many ways the anti-diva. True divas should give the impression they come from another planet; Amy gives the impression she came along as part of a hen party and got dragged up on stage. She has an utter lack of grace which is quite endearing: she can’t walk in her stilettos and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, constantly fidgeting with her dress and breaking into strange, jerky dances. She giggles incessantly.

There’s no evidence of that invisible barrier that’s supposed to exist between her and her (mostly young, female, slightly grungey) audience – literally so at the end, when she came from backstage to join the crowd, pose for mobile phone photos and continue the raucous hen party banter with the mob. You wouldn’t catch Beyonce doing that.

That all-too-human persona will mean that the mourning amongst fans is intense; but everyone interested in music should regret the untimely passing of a great talent. Winehouse’s records Frank and Back to Black are amongst the very few pieces of music that everyone I live with enjoys – I suspect that’s true of many households. Frank is a funny, spicy jazz album but the brilliance of Back to Black in particular only became more obvious as the years went by without a follow-up: the songs are just plain, painful truth.

Her last single, the breezy horn-driven Valerie, soundtracked the best holiday of my life: a fortnight in Jamaica which included my wedding. Now Amy has died aged 27 – the same age as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – and, for a few decades at least, even her happy songs will sound sad.

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10 thoughts on “For Amy Winehouse, the Anti-Diva

    July 25, 2011 at 08:53

    What a good tribute and you were so lucky to see her; I wish I’d had the chance. I love this line particularly: ‘Amy gives the impression she came along as part of a hen party and got dragged up on stage.’ That is so true – she seemed to be tottering along in the wake of an eternal hen party, poor pet.

    July 25, 2011 at 09:00

    shocking news. I guess the pressure of delivering an album to match up to the peerless Back to Black was a contributing factor

    July 25, 2011 at 09:25

    She had a voice comparable to Helen Shapiro, the greatest British jazz singer, sadly underrated and underused. Like Karen Carpenter, her death pointless and puzzling, another added to the long list of what might have been.

    You do wonder, where was the loving family affection that often is the cure for that particular affliction.

    Added to the other, far greater tragedy an extremely surreal weekend.

      July 25, 2011 at 18:56

      Re family affection, I’ve seen nothing but praise for her parents in trying to help her kick the habits; but the less said about her husband the better.

    Ali Choudhury
    July 25, 2011 at 10:29

    It’s a real shame she got involved with that drug-addicted loser. RIP.

    July 25, 2011 at 15:29

    Poor Amy. This is a lovely tribute.

    thanks Brit

    July 25, 2011 at 17:03

    Thanks for this. Her voice and the fact she did not have an overly glossy persona were what I loved about her.

    July 25, 2011 at 17:07

    I always thought that her big comeback was just around the corner – cleaned up, ready for action, back in the studio putting together the classic that would have sealed her reputation once and for all. Very sad that it didn’t happen, and that so many will remember her wasted opportunities rather than her achievements.

    I don’t know Amy’s stuff that well, by the way, but that video’s lovely.

    July 25, 2011 at 20:07

    ‘Love is a losing game’, and tragically it was for this unique talent, this track a perfect example of how she could flex her voice around lyric and music in a completely natural way.
    Get the feeling, sadly, that many of the obits were roughed-out, waiting for her to go – but the blame game, if I know anything (and I do), is misplaced I feel. When kids get into that dark place, no mum or dad can help.

    July 26, 2011 at 18:09

    Very sad, did seem to be a matter of time.

    Likewise everyone in my house dances when Back to Black is played.

    I heard somewhere that obits were routinely pre-written, maybe moreso in pre-online days. I think an obit for Liz Taylor was published even though the author had predeceased Liz by years, as it was so well written.

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