I knew Amy was dead a little over a month ago. Once the concert footage from Belgrade hit the Internet, I knew, just like I knew that Kurt Cobain was dead after he OD’d in Italy. It was easy to laugh at her latest public embarrassment, but it was clear that her days were numbered and that she would not, in fact, finally get her shit together and live to a ripe old age. The smoky voice, the beehive and the endearingly self-destructive behavior all came to an end Saturday when Amy Winehouse went one toke over the line, sweet Jesus.
It’s undeniable that there’s something intrinsically attractive about a hot mess. Her fellow members in Forever 27 all have a bit of glamorous sparkle in no small part because of their bad habits. Only a couple months ago we could chuckle ironically about Amy, self-satisfied with the hope that one day she would clean up her act. We could look forward to seeing her at the age of 50, singing about the hard times from the other side of the mountain. No more. Now all we have are two records and an impossible number of photographs to remind us that something truly unique and beautiful is gone. It’s hard not to wonder if someone could have done something to prevent what will retroactively be deemed “inevitable.”
Above all, Amy should be remembered for her music. In an age of plastic pop stars more product than artist, Amy wrote many of her own songs. Her “image” is little more than a woman who finally has enough cash at her disposal to make a dream of being the fourth member of the Shirelles come true. Her voice is as unique as Tom Waits raspy growl, with an instantly recognizable timbre that spawned legions of imitators lacking both her exceptional interpretive talent and panache. Her debut, the mostly unremarkable Frank, stands apart from the pack precisely because of her voice. Amy really comes into her own when she acquires The Dap-Kings, the Daptone records house band. This coupled with a vintage, analog tape production sound make Back to Black everything an Amy Winehouse record should be: passionately muted with one foot in 196X and one foot in today.
Amy had one thing to offer that no one else can — her life. Her voice isn’t merely a product of superior breeding or physiological gifts. It certainly isn’t the product of hard work and gumption. Rather, it’s represents a lifetime of sorrow compacted in a few years and a superhuman ability to feel the suffering of others before translating it into great art. Our girl leaves a massive hole in pop culture, with a number of imitators and followers seeking to capitalize on the retro chic of ’60s girl pop and soul. Much like the passing of Kurt Cobain, there will be many pretenders to the throne, all of whom fall embarrassingly short.