When Amy Winehouse was a girl she told her mother that she needed to be rougher with Amy, that she was too soft and that she could get away with murder around her. That was my first clue to Amy’s nature as I watched the documentary about her entitled “Amy” last week at Upstate Films in Woodstock.
Amy’s father left her and her mother when she was still a girl. Her mother claimed she could not handle Amy’s overwhelming and intense energy. And Amy couldn’t handle the overwhelming and intense illusion of fame that came with her success as a pop singer. She was bold and brash, outspoken and seemed incapable of keeping her feelings in but at her core she was highly sensitive, a raw and open wound that needed more than anything else to feel loved, understood and protected.
I didn’t start to really pay attention to Amy’s music until after she had passed. But like anyone in the America I could not get away from her music when she was the height of her short lived career. It was everywhere, this old soul jazz vocalist in the body of a young Jewish girl and the face of a lead actress in a Pedro Almadovar film crossed with a Ronette. Where did she come from? Why was she like this?
What struck me mostly about Amy’s songs were how personal her lyrics always were. Nothing about any of her songs were just about partying bragging and having a good time. I heard the fatalistic strain in the hits that radio played endlessly and frankly they worried me. Somehow, before it was all over I sensed that to get close to Amy through her music where her heart was on display, inside out, was to get close to someone not long for this earth. Her honesty was so raw it scared me but not even this kind of speculation prepared me for the moment when it was announced that her life was over.
It was then that I felt I had to let her music into my heart. Her voice was like some improbable fusion of pop, jazz, soul, pain and something else uniquely her that could not be contained. It was urgent, melancholic, irreverent, classic and timely. There was nothing else and no one else like her on the charts at that time and I doubt there ever will be.
Yasmin Bey (MOs Def), Salaam Remi and her Jamaican (he sounded Jamaican) bodyguard seemed to be the only three dudes in the industry that actually gave a fuck about her or with whom she shared anything intimate aside from her a-hole of an ex-husband. But in the end, they couldn’t save her. No one can save anyone I guess. It’s really a matter of wanting to save yourself.
Some of the most telling documents of Amy’s true nature are the recordings of voicemails she left for friends like Salaam Remi. Voicemail recordings can be very revealing because it’s this person in a one way dialogue with someone they wish they could communicate with. Depending on the level of urgency, you can hear so much more in the person’s voice than they even planned to share. Salaam Remi was someone she had a great deal of respect for and vice versa. Their collaboration was one of two great artists with a love of classic sound that produced something together which could not be done with any other pairing. It was musical intimacy.
The most haunting of her lyrics for me has always been, “We only said goodbye with words…” from her album “Back to Black” which was about her break up with her ex-husband a man who in her own words, she would have unquestionably died for. Perhaps she did. That shit just breaks my heart. If you know anything about unrequited love, you don’t have to analyze that verse. There’s no need to break it down. You just know. You feel it. Saying goodbye only in words is never quite quite final. And for those who loved Amy and her music dearly, saying goodbye to her will never be final either.