While some surface listening folks wanted to chide her for trying to sound black, as though white girls like Winehouse werent part of Berry Gordys pop dreams, there was a wrenching sincerity in her songs that made you realize that the blues in R&B were universal. Co-produced by Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, whose fame meter skyrocketed afterward, Back in Black sounded like nothing else on the scene at the time as the music delved river deep, mountain high into the retro-sounds of Motown, the Brill Building, and every girl-group that ever shoo-wopped into a microphone.
Still, while most of those 50s/60s girl-groups projected a wide-eyed wonder at the prospects of love in their teenaged time of innocence, Winehouse was already weary. Instead of sitting by the telephone waiting for some wanderer to finally call, Winehouse was cursing out her man for keeping her from a hip-hop concert. As she sang on the excellent Me & Mr. Jones, What kind of fuckery is this, you made me miss the Slick Rick show. Smitten from the first listen, soon Winehouse was in regular rotation throughout the city, as well as my own apartment.
Back in Black would go on to convert the masses, winning awards and garnering countless articles praising her soulful torch persona. But within months of its release, the troubled girl behind the mascara began to emerge publicly. Instead of high-heel walking on red carpets telling fashion vultures who she was wearing, Amy was smoking crack, sniffing smack, and downing more booze than Ray Charles piano. It wasnt pretty. Although, as the documentary Amy directed by Asif Kapadia points out, Winehouse was already dealing with emotional issues, bulimia and vice problems, her sudden fame only compounded her pain.
For some it was sad watching Winehouses steady wane, while others seemed to relish in the drowning river that was her decline as though it was a keepin it real reality show. As with most problematic popular artists, the spectacle of public downfall, which, in Amys case, we avidly watched for five years before she finally died on July 23, 2011, often replaces the specialness of their art. Hopefully, if nothing else, the sudden surge of Winehouse interest sparked by the documentary will lead people back to the songs, back to the music.
Many people think Back in Black was Winehouses first disc, which it actually was in the land of the free where Island Records denied the former colonies her wonderful debut Frank (2003) until after its follow-up proved a smash. Why they held back a record that was such a smashing success back home remains a mystery. My friend Amy Linden, who vies with Bob for the crown of biggest Amy aficionado, theorizes that perhaps the record company thought she was too curvy, too ethnic and too jazzy sounding to market properly in the states.
Frank was produced primarily by Salaam Remi, who would become a trusted friend (the two worked together right up to Amys death). He and Winehouse shared a passion for jazz that can be heard throughout Frank, which was named after blue-eyed gangster crooner Frank Sinatra. Winehouse was all of nineteen years old when it was originally released. On the cover, the smiling, damn near laughing, Winehouse looks vibrant and fresh and nothing like the sad woman she would become a few years into the future. Compared to the staggering tragedy that emerged later, the lovely young lady walking her dog looks damn near chipper. Yet, after listening to Frank, one realizes that whatever made Amy chuckle for photographer Charles Moriarty might not have been funny to the person on the receiving side of her comment.
From the opening track Stronger than Me, you realize that not only did Winehouse have a beautifully interesting voice, but she also had a wicked sense of humor that could be just as cutting. Referring to her weak-ass boyfriend as a lady boy whos obviously watching Oprah and always needs to be comforted. You should be stronger than me, Winehouse wailed as the jazzy Bacharach inspired playing in the background was punctuated by horns.
An avid reader, Winehouse turned the personal into pop with a lyrical style that reminded me of the brutal honesty laced with sarcasm found in the best prose of Dorothy Parker, Dawn Powell, or Mary Gaitskill. With a dash of darkness despite the heavy humor, Winehouses characters dined at Edward Hopper painted diners, got smashed at Charles Bukowski bars and slurred more shit than a little bit. Everything with Amy was one big diary, former manager Nick Shymansky told Mojo magazine recently.
Whether her intense gaze was directed at herself, her friends or the aging gold diggers hanging at the pub (Fuck Me Pumps), Winehouses observations were always stiletto sharp and likely to draw blood. Dont be upset if they call you a skank, because like the news everyday you get pressed, she drolly sings on Fuck Me Pumps. Later, she adds, Dont be mad at me, because youre hitting thirty and your old tricks no longer work.
Citing Donny Hathaway as inspiration, the opening piano on the break-up ballad Take the Box quotes from Hathaways I Love You More Than Youll Ever Know as Winehouse strolls the walk of pain as she comes to remove her items from her boyfriends flat. Amy, obviously a hopeless romantic who endured much heartache, heartbreak and heartlessness, was at her best when writing/singing about cheating on her man (Love is Blind) or being kicked to the curb (You Sent Me Flying).
Nonetheless, while Frank delighted in its smoky club midnight music vibe, there were tracks like the Nas-sampling In My Bed that couldve fit onto urban radio very easily. Perhaps the hardest song to listen to in retrospect is the track Help Yourself, a jazz-lite ditty where Winehouse is trying to convince her drunken boyfriend to help himself. Gone much too soon at the age of twenty-seven, one wishes Amy Winehouse could have listened to her own tough love advice.