A Song for Her: Back to Amy Winehouse

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I was honoured to be asked to contribute to Charles Moriarty’s book of photographs of the great Ms. Winehouse. My essay “A Song for Her” is included in Back to Amy, published this week by Octopus. I dropped into the piece this review of Amy’s awesome show at London’s Somerset House in July 2007:

From Silver Lake to Somerset House, via a Miami wedding and a Mercury Prize nomination: would Amy stand me up a second time? Well, she didn’t, and she told us – more than once – how she’d looked forward to this for “months”. I’m guessing she’s caught a show or two here herself, experienced its summer-piazza feel for the pleasant change it makes from your average concert venue.

I was instantly smitten by Winehouse’s sophomore opus Back to Black: not by novelty item ‘Rehab’ per se (I’m bored to fuck by Priory Rock) but by the album’s other treasures, which all did something I didn’t think possible: take the basic Sixties soul template, tweak it just enough for a tattoo’d post-hiphop generation, and turn the whole ritual into something vitally personal and contemporary.

Me? I was never convinced by Joss Stone and never will be. But this little slip of a Jewish street princess comes over 100% credible, customising her soul and ska influences to fit her fucked-up persona. Someone said Winehouse’s lyrics read like pages from a drunken teenager’s diary, but they’re more than that: they’re piercingly believable, achingly sharp, rid of cliché.

Great artists combine artfulness with something that’s rawly their own: the key is that we can’t separate the two from each other, to the point where it ultimately doesn’t matter anyway. With Winehouse we’re drawn in by an uncanny mix of hip (hop) toughness and about-to-implode vulnerability (which might just be part of her “act” – how can we know and why, frankly, should we care?)

Here she is, this skinny slumming hiphop Ronnie Spector with her mascara mask and piled-high beehive, the sole female onstage with a besuited band that look like rude-boy bodyguards: the two black dancer-singers, the three white hornmen, the guitarists and drummer who resemble some late Sixties Kingston session band.

Here she is, underplaying every vocal flourish and girlish provocation, and we can’t tear our eyes from her dark elfin figure. We want to know more, to know how dangerous this really is. The remarkable thing is, she’s not a brat at all. She lets her music do the talking. (Stop the press: she’s a total pro!)

She sings brilliantly, saving herself and placing every line just so, periodically letting herself go in a melismatic cry from the heart. The voice is essentially Lauryn Hill’s, as the passage from ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ tacitly acknowledges, but you don’t actually think Fugees or Miseducation when you hear it.

While the whole effect – the iconography and the choreography – is a hair’s breadth away from Stax-Motown pastiche, it never feels like that. In fact, the essential feel of Back to Black isn’t Stax/Motown at all but the early Sixties girl-group soul that came out of Chicago and New York’s Brill Building, infused with the street-sharp mood of ska and bluebeat (and even 2-Tone, as the cover of the Specials’ ‘Hey Little Rich Girl’ makes clear). ‘Me and Mr Jones’, perhaps her most startling song, almost feels pre-soul. ‘Wake Up Alone’ and the heartbreaking ‘Love is a Losing Game’ are more Luther Dixon or Berns/Ragovoy than Berry Gordy or Booker T. and the MGs. The genius of Back to Black is that it recreates the ornate feel of that music while emphatically yanking it out of the museum.

“What kind of fuckery is this?” I’m not sure I know, other than that Winehouse gets me deep in my gut. I dare say she’ll crash and burn like every other codep dipso celeb in London, but even if she does she’ll have left behind at least one remarkable record. As she winds up with the Zutons’ ‘Valerie’, everyone is smiling and jumping with untrammelled joy: live music doesn’t get any better than this.

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