Amy Winehouse: the magic, the tragic and the art of being classic

Rachel and I went to see the documentary film Amy last weekend.

It’s not possible for me to explain how I felt/feel about Amy Winehouse. I simply don’t have the words to do her justice.

She was an instinctual artist, in the true sense of that word. Before she was out of her teens, she had soaked up a phenomenal amount of influences that generally mean nothing to others of her generation.

Her contemporaries rarely have a cultural reference point that goes back further than the day before yesterday. I have a name for for them. I call them ‘one note sambas‘.

Of course, as a description of their current pop fave, it’s lost on young people. Post-punk generations don’t know what a samba is. The idea that they may ever have heard (or at least be conscious of) Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim’s clever and jokey One-Note Samba would be presumptious at best.

There’s an entire thesis to be written about this, but briefly it has to do with the proliferation of media. Why look back when just a sideways glance reveals an oasis of distraction?

When I talk to Rachel’s father, Don – 87-years-old and plenty old enough to be my own father – there’s barely a cultural or political reference we don’t both know. Despite our age difference, we grew up at a time when the past informed the present in a very direct manner.

The entire 20th century and even bits of the 19th furnish our playground.  But we’ve also had to keep pace with cultural and technological developments that sped up mightily from the mid-60s on. We’re not too shabby about the first decade and a half of the 21st century.

Post-punk generations can scarcely believe there was ever a world without computers and mobile phones. As for watching a black and white film, well, why would you? It never occurred to me that generations might grow up not knowing who Charlie Chaplin was, let alone Buster Keaton.

The first act I ever referred to as a ‘one-note samba’ was Oasis. They took their look from the back cover of Revolver and their sound from a Beatles B-side. For their entire career they barely varied anything. The only thing that noticeably developed was Liam Gallagher’s yobbish ego.

The Beatles had been steeped in Music Hall, Variety, big bands, crooners, jazz, Latin America, comic songs, war, silent movies, blues, Hitler, rock’n’roll, country & western, modern art, Labour and the unions, the establishment and the anti-establishment.

They had 60-odd years of popular culture and politics to draw on, and they drew on every single bit of it – from the late Victoriana of Marie Lloyd through Louis, Bing and Frank, Elvis and Buddy to the Everlys.

At their peak they didn’t stop. They imbibed inspiration from their working contemporaries. Their battles with the prodigious Brian Wilson are legend. But Shankar, Stockhausen, Moog and Dylan also kept them constantly on their mettle and moving forward.

And that’s how you get magic.

What separates contemporary greats – Blur, for instance, and Amy Winehouse – from the one-note sambas is an open mind and open ears married to a singular talent. You don’t repeatedly create magic by knuckle-headed adherence to a single card in the pack; nor, for that matter, to a single deck of cards.

I mostly hear Dinah Washington in Amy’s voice, with occasional echoes of Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. Others cite Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. I’ll allow the first two; but not the third. If you hear Nina Simone when you listen to Amy Winehouse, you’re not really listening to either of them.

Despite and because of her influences she was her unique self. But what made her unique also made her a huge star, and that made her uncomfortable. The letters a, r and t may be in the word ‘stardom’, but they’re not – necessarily – in the right order. They spell out instead something sticky, dark and vaguely unpleasant – which seems to be how Amy viewed her status.

As Tony Bennett says in the film: “Amy was a true jazz artist. And no jazz artist wants to look out at an audience of 50,000 people.”

Amy Winehouse’s lyrics told her story, and she was happier telling her story to a few properly appreciative and attentive listeners than to a huge crowd attracted to her stardom rather than her art.

There are moments in the film when she talks about writing, and it’s a revelation to see her working around a guitar fretboard looking for the perfect, or at least the most interesting chord for the note she’s singing. Not for her the repetitive four-chord turnaround of modern pop writing.

But her lyrics are the key. It’s easy to ignore that this fragile slip of a girl – so sassy, funny and tough, but also vulnerable – had a mind like a steel trap when it came to noting the passage of her minutes and days.

The way she wrote down her life was not as other writers do (except the very greatest). There’s the searing honesty for a start, not to mention the frequent and unembarrassed mentions of sexual moistness.

More to the point, reading her words, it’s not always easy to see the scan, catch the rhyme, feel the rhythm. That’s all in the phrasing, the performance.

In her song Wake Up Alone, she ends successive lines with the word ‘him’. Few would be so brave. But she ensures the rhyme with the preceding words: I stand before him; it’s all I can do to assure him.

If I was my heart
I’d rather be restless
The second I stop the sleep catches up and I’m breathless
This ache in my chest
As my day is done now
The dark covers me and I cannot run now
My blood running cold
I stand before him
It’s all I can do to assure him
When he comes to me
I drip for him tonight
Drowning in me we bathe under blue light

The scan, the rhythm and the rhymes are mostly in her head till you hear her sing it. Then it’s a heartbreaker.

As we sat in the cinema watching the film, you could have heard a pin drop. No munching, no scrunching, no slurping. I was very conscious that Rachel, mother of the pop star who lives in my house, might well be thinking: “My daughter? No way!”

As indeed she was. Any parent looking at Amy would have to take a close look at their own musically ambitious child – measure their strength, evaluate their vulnerabilities, assess the risks.

Amy Winehouse wasn’t best served by some of those around her – and that’s putting it kindly. Her friends were stalwart. Her record company boss did his damnedest for her. Others shouldn’t be sleeping too well.

But we have to get past that and simply celebrate a blazing talent, in no way a one-note samba.

The actual One-Note Samba by Tom Jobim perfectly demonstrates how the ear can be fooled into thinking it’s hearing a melody, when what’s really happening is that the underlying harmonies are changing under a single repeated note. It’s technical, but it’s fun.