YOU don’t have to be dead long before somebody makes a joke; you don’t have to be dead long before people decide whether what you achieved in life was worth much salt. So, poor old Amy Winehouse. Her choking drug and drink problems, that awful video with the baby mice, the slurred singing in Serbia, and so on and so on didn’t make her an obvious role model. She made more mistakes than many – and even the little ones made big headlines. It is a more than fair point that her more manic moments often appeared entwined with her devotion to Camden Town, leading to the accusation that every bleary-eyed blow only added to the area’s sticky reputation as a haven for misguided souls. But Camden Town is more than that and Amy Winehouse was more than that too.
Truth was, the trail of confusion she left behind her masked someone who often seemed sweeter and more caring in real life than the gossip pages suggested. She came across as a brat on television screens, but when you bumped into her in Camden Town she was often the complete opposite. I didn’t know her but met her in the street a few times, once many years ago when the New Journal‘s Dan Carrier introduced me to her as she walked down Parkway with her laundry. She laughed and joked, complimented the paper politely, played with chewing gum between her teeth and was on her way. You couldn’t imagine it was the same girl who became known for making caustic comments about other musicians. I wondered at the time whether she was encouraged to be more – what’s the word? – gobby as part of the whole Amy package until gobby became the norm for her and she couldn’t go back to her non-gobby self. Certainly, recalling the girl clutching a bag of ripped jeans and sporting a few less tattoos that day only heightens hatred for drug addiction and the lives ruined by it.
If Winehouse is just remembered simply as a spitting drugs fountain with mad tattoos across her chest and a beehive that bounced between perfect and raggedy depending on her frame of her mind, then her undeniable brilliance as a musician will be unfairly overlooked. She didn’t kill anyone. She wrote a new chapter in Camden Town’s music history, post-Britpop. Her supercharged lungs told a new story, a new tale for The Good Mixer long after Blur had gone their separate ways. Personally, I needed convincing. At first, she seemed to be mimicking an American accent whenever a mic was put in front of her, trying too hard to trace a way back to Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald. That’s a long journey from Ashmole School and then The Hawley Arms. Yet, she had the craft to win people round. Her two albums are gorgeous documents of her productive periods, placing her above her contemporaries. Even those fatigued by the stinks she made with Pete Doherty or Blake Civil-Fielder could appreciate a pretty unique voice which compares favourably to British female singers of both the past and present. Back To Black is a charismatic, classy record which should inspire. The aching ballad Love Is A Losing Game is a mini-masterpiece, recently borrowed by Prince.
The one time I saw her sing live was in the back room of The Dublin Castle – you probably couldn’t have picked a better venue. The gobby girl – not the sweet girl with the laundry basket – was in full swing between the songs but the beauty of her performance took hold. She clearly looked at home on a Camden Town stage – almost as if she could quite happily never sing in a stadium or large arena again. It was an unforgettable evening. We left making excuses for her bad behaviour – much like this post does tonight – because we knew we had seen a genuine star capable, if she felt like it, of conjuring the most delicious birdsong. Her passing is a loss indeed.