She was the regular girl from Southgate who embraced the “romantic myths of self-destruction”. Acclaimed music writer Lucy O’Brien ponders the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse.
On Wednesday, a coroner ruled that Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning. An inquest into her death heard that she was more than five times the legal drink-drive limit when she died, with 416mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. The driving limit is 80mg.
There was a painful inevitability about Amy’s death on 23 July. By then she was recognised as the Queen of Excess, her prodigious talent intertwined with her tendency for self-destruction. But it hadn’t always been thus. When she first emerged in 2003 with her debut album Frank, Amy seemed like a regular North London Jewish girl with a normal dress size and a ribald sense of humour. Formerly a featured vocalist in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Amy came from a solid, respectable musical background.
Her album married vintage jazz influences with hip hop and streetwise songwriting, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize the following year. Despite widespread praise for her voice and original approach, the album peaked at Number 13 in the UK charts. Amy was disappointed, later saying she was only “80 per cent behind the album.”
A graduate of Sylvia Young and the Brit School, Amy was always excited by fame and attention, and intensely competitive. Her album Frank was seen as cool and critical, but also filed under “neo-supper club jazz” by the unmoved.
With the follow-up album, Amy made it her business to woo the “floating voter” and told producer Mark Ronson that she wanted to make the best album she could. With absolute determination, focus and, drawing on deep musical knowledge about obscure jazz and soul as well as a love of ’60s pop, she fashioned Back to Black, one of the albums of the decade.
What started out as hard partying soon became problematic. Once she became attached – whether it was to drugs, drink or men – Amy couldn’t detach herself.
On its release in 2006 the album was an immediate success, entering the UK charts at Number three and by the end of the following year going multi-platinum around the world.With songs like Rehab, You Know I’m No Good and Back To Black, Amy sang with wit and defiant honesty about her struggles with love and addiction. In an era of X Factor fakery, this struck a chord with audiences everywhere.
While the feelings Amy explored in her lyrics were undoubtedly genuine, it’s interesting that the promotion of Back To Black was accompanied by a drastic change of image and provocative interviews. In NME she spoke of how in the aftermath of her initial break-up with Blake Fielder-Civil she had gone on drinking benders and spoke in graphic detail about “blood on the walls”.
But what was most shocking was her new image: gone was the regular girl from Southgate, and in her place was the piled-high black beehive, flamboyant tattoos and Cleopatra make-up, like an exaggerated punk version of the Ronettes.
Amy had gone explosively rock n’ roll, embracing the romantic myths of self-destruction right along with it. She had always liked a drink, but her new stratospheric fame propelled her into excess. Amy always understood the attention-grabbing potency of rock ‘n’ roll and used it to transform the way she was perceived. It was done not so much in a spirit of cold calculation but cheerful neglect of the consequences.
She achieved the iconic status she had once craved, but couldn’t extricate herself from the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
What started out as hard partying, though, soon became problematic. Once she became attached – whether it was to drugs, drink or men – Amy couldn’t detach herself. She sang about this in her music, and on a good day used that voice to express depths of anger and passion. “Aah, don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right!” she once told a friend, with supreme self-belief. She achieved the iconic status she had once craved, but couldn’t extricate herself from the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Self-destruction and creativity unfortunately became intertwined.
But it was Tony Bennett who summed it up. One of the last people to work with her when they recorded Body And Soul for hi Duets II album, he saw that over and above what she was struggling with was an immense vocal talent. “It was such a sad thing,” he said, “because . . . she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer… She was really a great jazz singer. A true jazz singer.”
Whether the regular girl from Southgate or the post-Ronettes icon, we would have always remembered her this way.
Writer and cultural commentator Lucy O’Brien is the author of She Bop, a history of women in rock, pop and soul.