Amy Winehouse dead: hardly surprising, still sad

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I told you I was trouble.

— Amy Winehouse, “You Know I’m No Good”

If you’re searching “Amy Winehouse” today on YouTube, add the word “Mercury” and give yourself the gift of watching her performance at the 2007 ceremony for the Mercury Prize, a music award for British and Irish pop music. (Watch it below!)

Timid but seductively coy, a skinny, pale but already eye-lined and beehived Winehouse takes the stage backed only by an acoustic guitar player. She’s a brand-new talent at the time — fusing a rock persona onto classic soul traditions with a jazz singer’s power — but already she has the confidence and talent to pull off the kind of moment Sinatra and Sammy dared much later in their careers with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida, respectively.

Winehouse starts out looking nervous, hunching her bared and tattooed shoulders, but she slowly warms into the tune. She draws strength from what she knows she can do, which is to crawl inside a song and drag its deepest emotions into the light. This song is “Love Is a Losing Game.” It’s a rumination for wee, hushed hours, and the room is husher than hushed. It’s so quiet you can hear a jaw drop.

When she finishes, she shrugs a shy “thank you” and tries to scurry off, leaving host Jools Holland to gush over the applause, “Amy Winehouse … I’ve worked with a lot of people and I’m telling you she has one of the best voices of anybody of all time.”

He was exaggerating, but not much. That’s the problem — now we’ll never really be able to validate such claims.

Winehouse was found dead Saturday in her London apartment, cutting short a career that brimmed with as much potential as her life did with problems. We’re left with just two albums, reams of tabloid tawdriness and, sadly, a legacy of many more videos of drug-addled bad performances than good ones.

Having watched the celebrity press gleefully chronicle Winehouse’s acting out (she punched a fan, she sang a racist ditty) and addiction-fueled gaffes (she was booed off the stage and cut short a brief European tour last month), few were surprised by Saturday’s news –even her mother was quoted Sunday saying her daughter’s death was “only a matter of time” — though the police superintendent in London urged caution in assuming a drug overdose, saying “it would be inappropriate to speculate on a cause of death.” An autopsy is expected early this week, but toxicology results will take some time.

See photos of Amy Winehouse’s brief careerThat Mercury performance followed fresh reports of a near drug overdose, however, and by the time America’s trophy-granting institutions caught on to Winehouse the following year, the tug-of-war between her talent and her demons was glaringly evident.

Nominated for six Grammys in 2008, she won five of them — the most ever by a British woman — but she wasn’t there to pick them up. She wasn’t allowed. The U.S. government denied her a visa, based on a string of recent incidents: her arrest two months earlier on charges of fixing the assault trial of husband Blake Fielder-Civil, her arrest four months earlier in Norway for pot possession, a newly surfaced video of her clearly consuming a variety of drugs and the fact she was in rehab at the time.

The irony that one of her Grammys was for the song “Rehab,” the defiant hit from her acclaimed “Back to Black” album, was lost on no one. That she had to perform that song, as well as “You Know I’m No Good,” via satellite from London was a red flag for her condition.

(That also was the year it was Winehouse vs. Chicago at the Grammys. In most categories, she battled Kanye West, the only one with more nominations. She beat out the Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah” for song of the year, and she was beaten by Herbie Hancock, her only loss of the night, for album of the year.)

Since then, the applause has faded away as the tabloid headlines and viral videos consumed Winehouse’s public image, as the anticipated follow-up album never materialized. Sporadic recordings in recent years included a single contribution to a Quincy Jones tribute album and a final duet — with Tony Bennett, who she frequently cited as her favorite singer — recorded in March at Abbey Road Studios. As numerous celebrities tweeted their responses and condolences all weekend, Bennett released his own statement calling Winehouse “an artist of immense proportions” and “an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a vocalist.” “It had been my sincere hope that she would be able to overcome the issues she was battling,” Bennett said.

The kind of personality required to evoke, maintain and transcend the strong emotions of love songs is often a fragile and addictive one. Naked passion and bravery are valued traits in music, but these can translate as addiction and acting out in daily life, especially one in the 24-7 glare of the British press. As we watch a particular chunk of that country’s tabloid media implode amid a separate scandal, we have the opportunity to consider the boundaries of celebrity muckraking and its contribution to this kind of end in a troubled person’s life.

Much has been made in the last two days about the age at which Winehouse died, 27, because so many other significant musical figures also died at that same age — Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain. Winehouse already has been called “a Janis Joplin for the 21st century” simply by virtue of both female singers’ membership now in the 27 Club.

But that’s another easy headline that skirts the real issue. As British folk-rocker Billy Bragg tweeted late Saturday, “It’s not age that Hendrix, Jones, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain & Amy have in common — it’s drug abuse, sadly.”

Sadly, indeed. But like those other members, the innovative and charged music she eked out before her untimely passing will live on, and we’ll continue to enjoy what she left us.

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