Nobody was surprised that Amy Winehouse died last week at age 27 in her north London home. Only a month before, she had been caught on YouTube at a concert in Belgrade, so slurring-drunk and forgetting-the-lyrics-high that she was booed off the stage. The performance was alarming enough that the organizers cancelled the European tour she had just started. They had been optimistic even to try. In 2007, at the cusp of her rise to prominence, Winehouse’s in-laws had begged her fans to stop buying her records because the proceeds were being poured directly into self-destruction. Her father publicly worried that his daughter was smoking so much crack she was developing emphysema in her mid-twenties.
If her death was not surprising, it was nonetheless shocking. Creatively, she was like a bullfighter sidestepping phoniness at the last possible moment, dodging the prefabricated sound or image while allowing the familiar and comforting to suffuse her being, letting the clichéd ride as close to her as possible and then suddenly pulling away. The horn section, the backup singers, the beehive, the Cleopatra makeup, the pin-up girl tattoos—we had seen them all before, but her way of wearing them was so personal they became brand new. But in the end, despite her freshness, she lived out the old, old story, another entrant into the 27 club, the exclusive arrangement for rock ’n’ roll stars who die at the standard age: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain. Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse, blah, blah, blah.
She has left us with Back to Black, one of the greatest albums of all time. Or rather, I shouldn’t say “greatest” because that’s to say it exists on a spectrum or in a hierarchy, when really Back to Black does that nearly impossible thing in art: it is what it is and it is not something else. Music critics who described the album’s sound as “retro” after its release were wrong. (Many have had the good sense to recant.) Soul cannot be appropriated and remain soul; that’s Starbucks soul. Back to Black is just soul.
Unfortunately, the death of Amy Winehouse has transformed the meaning of Back to Black. It’s hard to remember this, now, but the opening track, Rehab, when released in 2006, was a joke song, something like Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl. A witty play on tabloid culture and on the drama of addiction captured in shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention, it teased itself about the rock ’n’ roll cliché of wild living: “They tried to make me go to rehab / but I said no, no, no.” The first thing Amy Winehouse gave her audience was a laugh. The joke is all too real now.
The self-consciousness of the lyrics in Back to Black make Winehouse’s death all the more pathetic. Her humour, her knowingness, seemed like such obvious escape hatches from the operas she lured herself into. Billie Holiday stared down into the abyss of her addiction and depression as she plummeted through it. Even Nina Simone, incredibly wise about her own suffering and its meaning, could not look away from her passion long enough to see its folly. Amy Winehouse was forever looking over her shoulder, winking at the paparazzi and at herself in the mirror. With sparkling clarity, she understood the silliness of her antics. In Tears Dry on Their Own, she gives herself a good talking to: “We could have never had it all / We had to hit a wall / So this is inevitable withdrawal.” Then she gives herself exactly the right advice: “I cannot play myself again / I should just be my own best friend.” She seemed too intelligent, too familiar with the by-now-established pitfalls of hedonism, to walk into such obvious traps. She seemed too darkly clever to die so stupidly.
Not that Back to Black doesn’t revel in the glamour of its own melodrama. Her breakup and then reunion with Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse’s muse, is always the “five-storey fire” described in Love is a Losing Game. But what is so attractive about Back to Black, so refreshing, is the intimacy of the portrait of self-obsession and collapse, the unglamorous details of the narcotic dream and nightmare. Her most memorable and idiomatic songs are like Mary Pratt paintings accompanied by doo-wop backup singers, as in You Know I’m No Good: “I’m in the tub, you on the seat / Lick your lips as I soak my feet.” A portrait of the domesticity of self-abuse, the album glows with authenticity, with little in-jokes and pop culture references and other bits and pieces of conversation.
The album is also riddled with a wonderful confusion about what’s important and what’s not. Winehouse uses her voice, a deliriously thrilling instrument that raspingly conjures the most organic passion at will, in counterintuitive ways. She can be amazingly blasé and de-emphasize lines like, “I cheated myself / like I knew I would,” while unfurling the whole of her soulfulness in Me and Mr. Jones for the line: “Who’s playing Saturday?” Her heart shrinks and expands in the most unlikely places. Before her death, this variability was merely a superb piece of vocal technique; now it’s something darker, evidence of the spiritual confusion and the lived chaos of the confirmed addict.
Most terribly, the meaning of the title track has changed since Winehouse’s death, changed painfully and completely. The video for the song shows Winehouse attending a funeral, which turns out to be for “the heart of Amy Winehouse.” Before she actually died, this tired iconography was a piece of kitchen-sink romanticism, a cheap but lovely rip-off of Keats being “half in love with easeful death.” In the middle of the song, chimes ring out—a strange and powerful moment, unlike anything in popular music, dull resonances over which Winehouse croons the word “black.” In hindsight, the chimes were her death knell. Right in the middle of Back to Black she rings the bells in her own memory. Back to Black was a funeral elegy to herself that 11 million people have so far purchased. How else to interpret these lines: “I love you much / It’s not enough / you love blow and I love puff / And life is like a pipe / And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside.”
Amy Winehouse was an extreme example of the singer who attains in song what she can’t manage in reality: in her case, self-awareness. In her music, she knew exactly who she was and where she was going. Not in her life. In a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, at the end of her North American tour for Back to Black, she said she didn’t care whether she had a future career. “I don’t want to be ungrateful,” she said. “I know I’m talented, but I wasn’t put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mom and look after my family.” What self-conception could be more in error? What statement could be further from the truth?
With talent, as with everything else, those who have too much throw away what they have. The very luxuriousness of Winehouse’s abilities made them so easy to waste. But we still have Back to Black, which is perfect. The dream of pop music has always been that you could capture the urgency of life lived, the proverbial lightning in a bottle. That’s exactly what Back to Black is, an album of such intensely vivid expression that it feels live while also being so perfectly articulated that you wouldn’t change a single line of phrasing.
It’s only 33 minutes long. Other than a pretty decent but forgettable first album and a couple of covers, that’s all we have of Amy Winehouse. Sometimes 33 minutes can be worth more than 27 years.