In the four years since she released Back to Black, an album that harnessed true artistry with massive commercial success, paving the way for a tribe-ette of greater and lesser lady talents, Amy Winehouse became a celebrity train wreck. Staggering about like a demented Olive Oyl, tattooed and emaciated, she was more famous for her excessive nature than her wonderful voice. A nice Jewish girl gone wrong, she slapped fans, abused audiences, blew out gigs, fell out of clubs skunk-drunk and rat-arsed, and failed to deliver any indication that she would ever manage to create that difficult third album.
Amy became the tabloids' favorite mess, a poster girl in 3D who epitomized the dangers of success and excess. It only could end the way it did -- a lonely death in her Camden mansion, self-eclipsed at 27 -- but once it had all seemed so different. Before the beehive she had been the picture of robust young womanhood, but fame exposed a tortured vulnerability, a trait that she articulated so well in her retro-'60s soul songs, but whose source meant she was ill-equipped to deal with the constant scrutiny her antics attracted.
She became a Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor morphing into Maria Callas. A junky husband brought her further lows, all filleted and exposed for public scrutiny. There was that B-Movie vixen guise, and tabloid pictures of her in blood-soaked ballet shoes; she had been shooting up between her toes, whilst living in the past of very recent glories, but one that she couldn't quite escape to become once more what had made her so goddamned special, the genuine article in a pop world populated with a host of wannabes who need fame more than fame needs them.
Amy Winehouse was born in North London in 1983 into a family where music, especially jazz and blues, mattered. Her maternal grandmother had once dated the legendary tenor saxophonist and club owner Ronnie Scott, and instead of idolizing Take That and the Spice Girls, Amy listened to and loved Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Aged 13 she was already a recognized talent, earning a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, but she was expelled, for a mixture of academic disinterest and having her nose pierced. She then secured a place at the Brit School, which also boasts Adele, Kate Nash, and Katie Melua as former pupils, but again she left before completing the course. Even then, the maverick streak that was to mark her out as different, and finally doom her, was coming to the fore.
It wasn't long before a demo tape garnered her a deal with Island Records, and success followed quickly. Her debut album, Frank, shifted 250,000 units in the U.K. in its first year, securing her two Brit Awards nominations and one for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. In 2006 she emerged with its blistering successor, Back to Black, produced by Mark Ronson. It was a strange retro-confection of troubled soul by one who could articulate perfectly the isolation of being young, free, and alone. The unashamedly defiant "Rehab" was a slap in the face to all who'd told her to behave. Amy Winehouse became the new counter-culture minx, the bad girl who said what she felt, and even better sang about it, brilliantly. The album and Grammy, MOBO, Ivor Novello, and MTV awards followed, but so too did an appetite for destruction, a taste in unsuitable beaus, and a louche descent along the spiral staircase to personal hell.
Winehouse courted and married the junkie Blake Felder-Civil, talked incessantly of her love for him, even cutting his Christian name onto her stomach with a piece of broken mirror during a magazine interview. Although the marriage ended in divorce in 2009, the damage was done. Winehouse became a tabloid deity. A wretch whose brassiness became wide-eyed, whose talent ground to a halt, and who never managed to make enough peace with her demons to reconnect with her muse again.
It took her four hectic years to completely implode. Despite being slotted to appear in 2010, no follow-up to Back to Black has ever surfaced. She ruined her relationship with Mark Ronson, blew the offer to record the theme to the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, and stressed her long-suffering parents to a point of desolation. Amy was treated for early stage emphysema and entered and exited rehab with all the alarming regularity of a gaudy yo-yo.
Back to Black is a perfect testament to a troubling and troubled talent. If her final four years are what one reaps by the making of such an artifact, it probably isn't worth it, but it is so worth listening to, because in the end, it is all that she was, and is all that she left.
Amy did manage to record a duet with Tony Bennett for a Quincy Jones tribute album earlier this year. He praised her natural jazz ability but she worried him. "I'm praying for her," he stated. Sadly, that legend's kindly intercession to a higher power, on behalf of one whose difficulties he feared would end in disaster, passed unanswered. - Robert Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, and one day the biography of the rock singer Jobriath.