I keep trying to write this, and I can’t. I keep trying to write about Winehouse, and end up writing about myself. News of her death came to me via text message, two at once; my body started and shook. ”No,” I said aloud. ”No. No. No.” I responded to those who had informed me. Running errands for a wedding later in the evening, I found myself wandering around a Wal-Mart, forgetting what items I’d entered the store to buy. Once I gathered my senses enough to grab what I needed, I left the store, returned to my girlfriend’s parents’, and found myself unable to be around people. I needed to hear her music. I borrowed the girlfriend’s car, plugged in my iPod and drove around in circles and circles, playing and replaying Back To Black. (I was furious that I’d absent-mindedly removed “Valerie” from the iPod because it’s filed under “Mark Ronson.”) It is an album I’ve discovered only in recent months, over about the last year or so, as I’d stoked my admiration for her work for years with a mix of tunes from Black and her debut, Frank. That admiration caught fire after I heard “Valerie,” which is one of the greatest things ever recorded by anybody in the history of anything, and I ripped a copy of the album from somebody. It improves with every listen–there have been many–but yesterday, it never sounded so wonderful. It broke my heart.
She was so talented. It shouldn’t have ended this way, it shouldn’t have had to. Stars, real stars, the ones with talent–they don’t really OD anymore, right? Too much spotlight on them anyway, especially a tabloid megamagnet like Winehouse. They may get into trouble, grave trouble, but they’re not going to die. Somebody will save them. Somebody has to save them.
Alone in her apartment. What was it, Amy? Why? Why this time was the darkness too much to bear? Did you know? Did you know this was the one? Did you feel it slipping away, life, the mottled, lunatic life about which you told us with such cleverness, such wisdom, such joy? Did you let it go?
I should feel anger, but I can’t yet. Her work moved me, but I suppose I never realized how much I connected to it, how deftly it had cleaved to my soul without my realization. I’ve celebrated tunes and film and the rest of it with mad intensity since adolescence (probably before), but the death of an artist has never devastated me as did this death. I was long before conception when Lennon died. Was a little too young for Nirvana and 2Pac, though I recall my sister crying at both events. Joe Strummer’s passing shook me up; I took a long drive after that one, too. George Harrison’s passing was long in coming due to cancer. Ledger was a tragedy, but none of us had yet seen The Dark Knight. I did watch the coverage of Princess Diana’s death, but with the unemotional curiosity of a fourteen-year-old dude (though I remember thinking even then, as cynics bemoaned the lack of notice Mother Teresa’s death received in Diana’s wake, “Oh, give it up. People value celebrities. It’s symbolism. It’s natural. Get over it.”).
This is different. God, was she fabulous. That joy–that joy is real. It’s what made her music, that and her soul-staggering instinct for vocals. None of the many pop chanteuses to follow Winehouse’s path possess that instinct, the knowledge of what a song needs and what it doesn’t, innate, without any manipulation. She sang with the ease we use to do basic tasks. Opening a door. Washing a dish. It was just there, she opened her mouth, sounds came out, and she knew how to use them.
And that voice. The power of a waterfall, in the tiny throat of this diminutive pub-crawler. How was that possible? Winehouse did herself in with the tabloids, plummeting to rock-bottom as loudly and proudly as she did, but we knew of her first because of that voice. Fuck, I thought I was hearing a snazzy remix of some old black soul tune when I first found “Rehab” on the radio. The bottom in those notes. ”Nooo, nooo, no.” Unbelievable. She could just as quick, too, slip into a croon, soft notes melting like a butter pat over those delicious arrangements. (Mark Ronson is a fantastic producer. He will never produce work as magnificent as his with Amy Winehouse.) There was nothing she could not sing, and she sang beautifully.
She’s gone now. We got home from the wedding very late. I was drunk on beer, and tried to sleep. I couldn’t. I heard her voice in my head. One lyric, not even a lyric, really: the “Ah-oooh” she unleashes a few seconds into “He Can Only Hold Her,” what is now the final released song in the official Amy Winehouse oeuvre. I started to get shaky again. I went out for a cigarette. The volume in my head only heightened, and I wept.