New music is one of life’s great pleasures; falling in love with a new sound or voice is like walking into a pocket of warm air in a frigid room.
Every week, the online music service iTunes offers free songs for listeners to download. These “Single of the Week” or “Discovery Download” choices tend to be from new bands trying to break through, giving music fans a risk-free taste of new sounds.
According to my iTunes info, on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007, I downloaded the free track “You Know I’m No Good” by singer Amy Winehouse. While many free iTunes tracks are as disposable as a candy wrapper, the Winehouse track announced itself with authority from the first beat and demanded multiple plays.
The song begins with a light, scratchy hip-hop drumbeat, which is soon accompanied by a rubbery, insistent bass line. At the 14-second mark, an otherworldly, confident female voice begins its sermon.
“Meet you downstairs in the bar and hurt,
Your rolled-up sleeves and your skull T-shirt,
You say, ‘What did you do with him today?’
And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.”
The voice, jazzy and funky enough to be black but too self-aware and lacking in melisma to be anything but British, eased through the opening lines like a powerful swimmer taking her time, gliding through calm waters. The way she clipped through the first few words, then, slurred “with” into four syllables, showed immense command of her voice. The carnal contempt she layered onto “sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray” was simultaneously alluring and jarring. Within that opening verse, Winehouse name-checked Roger Moore, chastised her man for doubting her fidelity, then admonished, “I cheated myself/Like I knew I would/I told you I was trouble/You know that I’m no good.”
Winehouse sang those last three words with the unretractable conviction of the Bad Girl, and I was hooked.
The track is unbelievably sexy and sordid in its details of infidelity (she admits to thinking of one man while “in the final throes” with another and a cheating episode is revealed when her boyfriend, who is watching her bathe, notices a new carpet burn on her body).
Here was a frank and brutal female sexuality missing from the female stars of the time, the growling but nonthreatening Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Fergie and Kelly Clarkson. Winehouse played user and used, player and victim, with such organic clarity that she made those singers’ best shots at sexy sound like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”
A series of mouse clicks later, and Winehouse’s two albums, 2003’s “Frank” and 2006’s “Back to Black” were safely nestled on my PC. Diving into “Back to Black” first, I settled in and started the track “Rehab,” hoping the album could keep the promise made by “You Know I’m No Good.”
I couldn’t believe the music the tiny computer speakers tried to reveal. “Rehab” was as politically incorrect as anything Prince ever wrote, as funky as any girl group single, as vocally confident as Chrissie Hynde at her best and as defiant as early Madonna.
Based on the next two hours of listening and repeat listening, I decided that Amy Winehouse was uniquely talented, bold as love and possibly crazy. Her blunt-force street-level writing about sexual politics and drug and alcohol addiction collided with a soul music sensitivity that namedropped Ray Charles, Donny Hathaway, Erykah Badu and sampled Marvin Gaye.
Any time Winehouse released a remix, B-side or soundtrack cut, I loyally added it to the iTunes playlist, and for most of 2007, “Frank” and “Back to Black” remained in my mobile music library. I foisted her songs onto fellow music lovers with the fervor of a true convert. As her music demanded, Winehouse became a star. “Rehab” became a Top 10 song; “Back to Black” topped the charts; Prince and Jay-Z proclaimed themselves fans; and with the videos, live performances and Grammy success (“Rehab” won Record and Song of the Year, though “Back to Black” inexplicably lost Album of the Year to a Herbie Hancock album of Joni Mitchell songs), she dominated music news.
A July 2007 cover story in Rolling Stone offered a prophetic glimpse into Winehouse’s troubles with drugs, alcohol and relationships. As the next year or two rushed by and the triumphs of “Back to Black” faded into pop culture history, Winehouse’s fame changed from being about her music to being about her issues with addiction and tabloid-fodder behavior. I went from looking forward to her next album to tuning her out as her exploits showed she seemed unable to conquer her many demons.
Now, if I am in Toledo, Ohio, and I was fully aware that Amy Winehouse’s London days and nights were being eaten away by addiction, surely the people close to her knew she was in trouble. With all the family, friends, professional contacts and fellow artists, it’s hard to accept that no one could help her — even if she did not want the help.
As the July 23 news of her death at age 27 spread, the fans mourned and the cynical maintained they weren’t surprised; they had seen this one coming. I saw the words “addict” and “junkie” as often as I saw the word “artist” used to describe her.
As the pile of memorial items grew outside her home, many people left bottles of alcohol among the flowers and drawings and stuffed animals. In 1997, I lived in Washington, D.C., and daily walked by the mountain of items left outside the British Embassy when Princess Diana died. But no one tossed paparazzi cameras and steering wheels on her memorial. It struck me as more mocking than mournful to leave alcohol on the site of an acknowledged addict’s memorial.
There is nothing romantic about it when a talent as great as Amy Winehouse is beaten by addiction. Her beautiful eyes and face, the throat that issued her aching voice, that famous beehive hairdo, all were reduced to ashes in a London crematorium July 26.
The first time I heard “Rehab,” I imagined that Winehouse could mock the process through her art because she had transcended addiction and earned the right to celebrate.
Hearing the song today, there is no defiance, no celebration. It’s the wail of a spirit that knows it will be a ghost in death, cheated of the chance to be an angel in life.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.
Tags: Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, iTunes, Jay-Z, Joni Mitchell, Lighting The Fuse, Madonna, Marvin Gaye, Michael S. Miller, Prince, Princess Diana, Ray Charles, Roger Moore