You’ll hear a lot of “Rehab” this month, as Amy Winehouse’s most popular song and definitive personal statement. It was released in 2006, but in recent years, as the tabloids reported her increasingly dire addiction to the point of spectacle, its bad-girl defiance distorted into tragedy; the anthemic backstory of the lost drug abuser.
It is clear that Amy Winehouse, who died Saturday at the tender age of 27, was indeed lost, and it’s tempting for many to mythologize her for it — after all, she was buyable as a descendent of Billie Holiday because she, too, carried the demons. Beyond the unexpected catch in her voice, it was not the pain of using that informed her, but the often-immovable sorrow of being a woman when not even you can love you. There is a reason she said she could not be apart from former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, when he was arrested. It was that, underneath all those cynical lyrics, those streetwise warnings, those hopeless stanzas, Winehouse was the ultimate romantic. You cannot address love with the complexity as she did in songs like “Love is a Losing Game” — a descendant of Holiday and Nina Simone if there ever was one — if you do not, somewhere in your heart, pray it will all work out. She was not just an addict but a bulimic, as well, and the bulimic’s curse is the Sisyphisian need for control.
And, before the spectre of addiction took over, it was this womanly pain that tied her so intimately with the soul music of the ‘50s and ‘60s — so buyable as a reincarnation of the ladies of Motown and Stax. Girl groups and soul divas of those eras used their music to both liberate themselves and to tell their tales; in essence, singers like Mavis Staples and Candi Staton were carrying on an oral tradition of validating women’s lives through documentation. It was decades after feminism’s second wave, though Winehouse sounded still bound by the same problems of a half-century ago, and it was more than just Mark Ronson’s loping brass section on the downbeat. He walks away/the sun goes down/ he takes the day but I’m gone/and in your way/ in this blue shade/ my tears dry on their own. She was standing by her man through all of Back to Black, even as he left — except when she almost flippantly challenged someone, anyone around her to try to tell her what to do. It’s rare to find lyrics as raw and yet so dispassionate about one’s own predicament. Her delivery was upbeat, but she never glorified her situation, even when the lows sounded lighthearted.
Then there was the voice itself. She sang properly, which gave her vibrato that interminable sound of floating away; we couldn’t catch her. Clearly that technique was a side-effect of her jazz training, one she used liberally on her debut, Frank, a more more “adult-soul” album. When she brought that voice into Back to Black, over all that Ronson-and-Remi devised hip-hop soul, it only amplified the echo effects on her vocals, and made her seem that much farther away and untouchable. It was a ruse, meant to sound like she was streaming from the AM dial, but more so it isolated her voice and underscored her profound talent. Amy Winehouse was the spark behind the Brit soul-singer revival, indeed, but not one of her followers had the gift that she had. Strip away the troubles, and it was all talent, raw and rare.
The trouble, though, was the trouble. I interviewed Amy Winehouse for MTV Urge just before her first-ever show in New York, at Joe’s Pub, in 2007. Even via phone, it took her many minutes to speak without stuttering. Then, her live reputation was already cast with the pallor of unpredictability; it was a well-known fact that she couldn’t take the stage without a drink, and she’d already had a few disastrous performances in the UK. Yet she was so shy, her stage fright so acute, she couldn’t face the audience without augmenting herself. Later, as the tabloids seemed to revel in watching a young woman’s life crumble, I thought of her stammer, her quiet voice. There was a disconnect between the indulgent, beehived soul diva, and the sweet, soft singer trying to eke out answers to a sympathetic interviewer. Eventually, though, I glimpsed the Winehouse of the songs — the tragic figure who stood tall despite it.