Amy Winehouse: ‘There’s nothing more pure apart from your love of music’
Like many other dead artists, it’s easy to remember the late singer as a tragic caricature. But that betrays her real musical worth
On the first anniversary of the death of Amy Winehouse, found in her bed at her north London home, the afternoon after a night of furious drinking. It was a strangely quiet end to a life racked by drug abuse, musical accolades and wild, reckless love affairs; an evening, according to her bodyguard, of television, vodka and laughter.
In the aftermath, the days were filled with a great swirl of tributes from her admirers, with the graffiti that appeared on the walls of Camden, with the fans who flocked to her local pub, the Hawley Arms, and left flowers outside her home. “We all love you and will continue to love you,” read one. “Your legend lives on.”
As the months rolled by, the fuss slowly settled: the paparazzi decamped from her stomping ground; her parents, Mitch and Janis, began to speak to the press less often. A foundation was set up in her name.
Last December, Island Records released Lioness: Hidden Treasures, a collection of unreleased songs and demos selected by Winehouse’s family along with producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi. It immediately reached No 1 in the UK album charts, selling almost 200,000 copies in its first week. To some it seemed rushed out with undue haste, but for others it met not only a demand but a need – solace for the devastated fans who craved more of her very particular brand of salty, rough-edged soul.
It was also, crucially, the first step in the shift away from the Winehouse of common caricature, the Olive Oyl figure with the beehive, and the drug abuse, the saucy mouth and the baleful talk of “Blake Incarcerated”; the artist people had sadly come to expect – who had once offered to lamp a member of the audience at Glastonbury, and who had last graced a stage at a festival in Serbia, where she stood swaying and mumbling before a baying audience of 20,000.
How we process the death of an artist and how their legacy is then established is a peculiar and somewhat unsettling art. There is a gulf to be bridged between the rawness of a musician’s departure and the new world of biopics and boxsets; a period of grace, in which their image and their music must lie in state.
But the velocity of our world now, and the encyclopaedic inclinations of modern technology, make this period of sitting musical shiva harder. In our desire to refresh and consume new entertainment, we are eager to forget that which went before; and should we wish to remember, all of the misdemeanours, the unflattering photographs, the phone camera footage of that shambolic performance in Belgrade are preserved online in perpetuity.
On the cover of its latest issue, Q magazine labels Winehouse “the voice of our time”. It is a bold claim (and some might argue that the true voice of our time is the autotuned drone of American pop), but it is another stride towards the cultivation of her legacy, the fading of those images of the singer roaming the streets with bloodied feet and wild eyes.
After all, though she provided fodder for the gossip columns and the morally outraged, Winehouse also brought something remarkable to the music world, a tarry, beetle-black voice and lyrical humour. A songwriter who wrote of an intensely female experience, of the pain of love, as well as the hunger for sex, drugs and alcohol. And, of course, she helped create an appetite for the soulful British voice, paving the way for the likes of Adele, Duffy and Plan B. It is the voice that we hope will be remembered.
A few months ago, Sony released The Pearl Sessions, a 40th-anniversary edition of Janis Joplin’s first solo album, with previously unreleased recordings and demos. I was struck afresh by that extraordinary voice, by all the hurt and joy and desire wrapped up in the way she sang. And I thought not of the singer dead on the floor beside her bed at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles, of the heroin and alcohol and her final, scattered months, but only of the sweet release of her songs. This is how we love an artist and continue to love them. This is how the legend lives on.
• This article was amended on 24 July 2012. The original said a drug addiction charity had been set up in Amy Winehouse’s name. The Amy Winehouse Foundation helps to support young people who are in need for many reasons, including ill health, disability, financial disadvantage or addiction.
A 12-year-old Amy Winehouse wrote that she wanted to make people forget their troubles. On the anniversary of her death, Tim Jonze talks to those who knew her at the start of an extraordinary career
Amy Winehouse in her absolute prime, you MUST WATCH:
On the first anniversary of Winehouse’s death, it’s worth remembering just what a natural, instinctive musician she was. Her later, often shambolic shows (in particular that heartbreaking final performance in Belgrade) have gone some way to obscuring the memory of Winehouse at her best: she was one of the last decade’s true superstars, a performer who could be strong, emotionally devastating, yet vulnerable, too. A 2006 appearance at the Other Voices festival in Dingle, which screens for the first time on BBC4 on Monday night, remains one of her most powerful: the singer is mesmerising as she interprets several songs from Back to Black over a stripped-back band.
Airing on BBC4 Monday July 23rd at 10pm and the opening film of the East End Film Festival on July 3rd this BBC Arena / Other Voices co-production with exclusive concert and archive footage, highlights Amy’s unique talent and explores her deep affection for jazz, soul and gospel.