Amy Winehouse’s brilliant but troubled life has reached a dismal conclusion. The singer, 27, was found dead in her London flat on Saturday. The cause is not yet known, but her struggles with drink, drug addiction and depression will lead many to assume that her premature death was inevitable.
“My destructive side has grown a mile wide,” she sang on her first album in 2003. Yet it would be wrong to portray her as just another pop star with a death wish, the latest entrant to “the stupid club” that Kurt Cobain’s mother lamented her son joining when he killed himself. Winehouse may have treated her life heedlessly, even to the extent of predicting she wouldn’t outlive 27, but she was no nihilist. Her most appealing characteristic was her vitality. It came across in her impulsive outspokenness – trashing Madonna as an “old has-been” – and above all it came across in her singing, the way her voice swooped and strutted in the vibrant vocal tradition of Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday. At her best Winehouse was an exuberant free spirit. The waste of so much energy and talent is tragic.
Amy Jade Winehouse was born in 1983 and grew up in the north London suburb of Southgate. Her father was a taxi driver and her mother worked as a pharmacist. Although her father left when she was nine, it was a close-knit Jewish upbringing. Winehouse was a rebellious teenager, but her misdemeanours were minor in comparison with what came later. At 14 she was removed from the Sylvia Young Theatre School. “By the time I was 15, my parents realised I would do whatever I wanted, and that was it really,” she later said.
Music ran in the family, with her father’s love of jazz inspiring her to take up singing herself. Following a stint at the Brit School, an influential UK stage school, she released her debut album Frank in 2003 when she was 19. Inspired by the break-up of her first serious relationship, Frank was a precocious achievement. The lyrics were honest, witty and caustic – “I’ll take the wrong man as naturally as I’ll sing,” the teenager declared on one song – while the music infused old-fashioned jazz and soul with a modern city-girl sensibility, a world of Gucci shoes, clubbing and hip-hop.
Frank was nominated for the Mercury Prize and was a chart success. But it was with her second album Back to Black in 2006 that Winehouse’s fame exploded. Moving on from the torch songs of her first album, it embraced the sound of classic Motown. Winehouse’s image changed accordingly. She piled her long black hair into a towering beehive and wore tiny miniskirts and huge high heels. Tattoos began to multiply over her body. Chain-smoking, swigging noxious cocktails – her favourite tipple combined Southern Comfort, vodka, Baileys Irish Cream and banana liqueur – she came to resemble a 1960s girl-group singer living it up on the wrong side of town.
Back to Black verged on pastiche. But Winehouse gave the songs a mercurial, forceful quality. Songs covered subjects such as infidelity and obsessive relationships. It was a mix of the artful, the raw and the indecently catchy. The result transformed Winehouse into one of pop’s hottest properties, not just in her homeland but across the world. The album topped the charts in the US, and together her two albums have notched up global sales of more than 12m. It confirmed Winehouse as the most electrifying British talent of the 2000s.
However, there were already signs that her party-girl reputation was getting out of hand. Her hit single “Rehab” struck a defiantly bacchanalian note, but it took on an ominous significance as the singer’s drug use spiralled out of control. Her marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, led to a descent into heroin and crack cocaine. As her fame skyrocketed, Winehouse’s personal life nosedived. Her increasingly chaotic lifestyle was assiduously recorded by the tabloids at their most voyeuristic and pornographic. Paparazzi surveillance ensured constant coverage of the singer’s nocturnal misadventures, looking distressed, dishevelled and bloodstained. She became known by the nickname “Wino”.
When I saw her play a disastrous concert in Birmingham in November 2007, it struck me as grotesque that her management and record company Universal Records should have thought her in a fit state to perform. But as her public appearances became ever more erratic, including a show when she spat at fans, attempts were made to clean her up. Her marriage with Mr Fielder-Civil came to an end in 2009. There were trips to rehabilitation centres and a period of convalescence in the Caribbean. She inched her way back to work, recording songs for a new album. The crooner Tony Bennett’s forthcoming album features a duet with her, and she appeared last week on stage in London with her goddaughter, the soul singer Dionne Bromfield.
Such was the public nature of her meltdown that it is hard to look beyond the fragile and erratic figure of recent years. But I prefer to remember the fierce, statuesque singer whom I saw playing in her native north London in 2006. It was a night when she bantered with friends and relatives in the audience, and sang with uncommon vivacity, transforming even the most pain-wracked ballads into noble acts of defiance. It seemed the world was hers for the taking. But it was a false dawn.