With great genius often comes great angst and suffering. Those were my feelings as I received word that soul singer Amy Winehouse was found dead this past weekend in her London home at the age of 27.
Her career was brief with moments of spine tingling highs overshadowed by incredible lows. Her personal life was rife with caustic temper tantrums, dysfunctional relationships and prolific drug and alcohol abuse.
Truth be told, she had been dying before our eyes for quite some time. But it didn’t start that way.
FRANK AND BACK TO BLACK
Winehouse’s career can be divided up into two parts Frank & Back to Black, which coincided with her albums of the same name.
In 2003, she released her first album, “Frank,” to much critical acclaim fueled by tracks such as “F**k Me Pumps,” “Stronger Than Me,” and the epic multi-suite song “Amy, Amy, Amy.”
With its fusion of 1940s-era jazz/blues with 1960s-era soul, the 12 song disc had a genuinely authentic sound that mixed elegant horn arrangements with intelligent, bitterly caustic yet seductive lyrics.
It evoked shades of artists like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill with an emotive delivery that skittered between lyrical brilliance and musical conviction.
Her personality was much brighter during this time as she was known for funny and witty interviews. Life was simpler for her then as there was an attractive mischief about her that was filled with both mystery and intrigue.
Winehouse’s sophomore effort “Back to Black,” introduced a pendulum shift in her tone.
Gone was the seeming innocence that marked her debut, replaced by a darker, cynical sound. There were subtle changes to her voice as it lost some of the rich texture and range from her debut and would sound forced in some instances on her second disc.
The album however was a soul masterpiece that formally introduced Winehouse to U.S. audiences as it blended mature lyrics with a brutal honesty that chronicled her growing vulnerabilities, destructive relationships and addictions.
The album’s most popular single was the now haunting “Rehab,” which mocked her addictions with the prophetic refrain, “they told me I need to go to rehab, but I said no, no, no.”
The disc garnered her five Grammy Awards and made her one of music’s most recognizable superstars with her distinctive bovine beehive up-do, tattoos, cat eyes and go-go girl fashion sense.
The success of “Back to Black,” paved the way for the emergence of soulful white singers such as Duffy, Adele, Lilly Allen and Jessie J and also inspired established acts such as Cee-Lo Green and Raphael Saadiq to embrace the retro soul sound on their releases.
TROUBLED LIFE, PERSONAL DEMONS
While “Back to Black” made Winehouse a star, you have to wonder whether it spawned a monster. Winehouse seemed to buy into the public’s elevation of the junkie pop star image as she became notorious for erratic stage appearances, drunken fights and stints in hospitals and rehab clinics.
Her life was a train wreck played out over the Internet, which was covered by a media obsessed with her almost daily absurdities.
She was shown on video binging on crack cocaine and bloodied by a domestic altercation with her on-again-off-again boyfriend.
Drugs took a toll as her appearance became sunken and haggard, after developing the eating disorder anorexia, epilepsy and emphysema due in part to her drug binges.
Her run-ins with the law were legendary as she had instances where she assaulted fans and music industry figures.
What portended her death was her last concert performance in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where after slurring her way through most of her playlist, she was booed off the stage, which prompted her management to cancel the rest of the tour.
The tabloids made a lot of money off her as they reveled in covering her spiraling out-of-control life – where her behavior was encouraged and then ridiculed.
It was disgusting to watch the media sensationalize her substance abuse, while it was obvious Winehouse was in the grips of a true crisis.
With her death, there will be countless articles that mention Winehouse in the same discussion as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain – all artists who died at the age of 27.
The comparisons are disingenuous because it makes it seem as if the “27 Club,” is a celebrated, exclusive fraternity that artists should aspire to, when the real focus should be on quality mental health awareness and emotional wellness.
While most of the media will focus on her drug addiction with annoying curiosity, I prefer to discuss what made Amy Winehouse a genius and a figure whose legend is sure to grow greatly in stature with her untimely death.
WINEHOUSE TO ENJOY ENDURING LEGACY
Winehouse possessed the unique ability of using her life’s dysfunction to pen lyrics that had emotional power, the kind that convinced you that she had “lived” the experiences that she wrote about.
Her art was her pain and no one could articulate that like Winehouse.
Even when doing covers, Winehouse had the rare gift of interpreting songs that spoke to your heart in a way that it became a story or an experience rather than a group of melodies and notes.
As a white artist singing black soul music, Winehouse sung in a way that could not be explained by a gender or color label or any other definition or limit that we are obsessed with placing on people.
She was a life that was enhanced and bewitched by her superior talent. Winehouse brought a unique vulnerable sorrow to her work that was honest. She was a singer who conceptualized her music in deep, artistic yet tragic waters.
My last and enduring image of Winehouse was a YouTube video out take of her performing a stripped down version of the powerfully emotive track “Love is a Losing Game,” taken from her second album.
As she sang, she fought back tears the whole time and you could see her literally translate the pain from the depths of her heart up into the microphone – a powerfully arresting example of emotional intricacy and audible sound painting.
This is what drew me to her and I feel cheated that this amazing talent won’t be around to grow old in years.
I keep reminding myself that just like Billie Holiday and Jimi Hendrix before her, some people aren’t meant to enjoy a long life. Sometimes their soul burns too bright to occupy a space on this plane for an extended time.
And when they leave, there is a part of us that rejoices that they suffer no more, but there is also that part that knows that we will miss a voice that spoke to our innermost vulnerabilities – because at the core, what Winehouse represented is what we all are at any given time – a beautifully flawed work in progress.
Chris Campbell is a journalist who writes on progressive soul music and its impact on popular culture. His latest book is “The Essential Neo Soul 2.0,” the definitive guide to the development of neo soul/progressive soul/post-soul music. Email him at [email protected]