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I first saw Amy Winehouse live in January 2007, at Joe's Pub in the East Village: her American debut. By the end of the gig, everyone knew that Amy, all 85 or so pounds of her, had smacked r&b back to life. In four-inch pumps. The intimate club was filled with unabashed love, and she knew it. But between her flashes of genuine happiness, Amy was distracted and disengaged. She constantly fiddled with her weave and tugged her cocktail frock; outside of acknowledging Mos Def (her friend) and Mark Ronson (her producer), she rarely made eye contact with the crowd. Maybe it was just nerves. And yes, she was drinking, but no more than anyone else there. She sounded great, but acted like she didn't believe it. It made me fear that Amy had the talent to be a star, but might not have the strength.
My personal Amy fixation had kicked off two years earlier with Frank, originally an import-only debut (released domestically this past fall) with a smiling, curvy, weave-less Amy on the cover. Much like Back to Black sans the throwback sonics, the record articulated a wise-beyond-her-years wisdom with smoky jazz phrasings and hip-hop/r&b shadings. (Think Lauryn Hill without the preachiness.) My love only increased with Ghostface Killah's 2006 remix of her salty "You Know I'm No Good." But of course it was Back to Blacka chart-topper in the U.K. and very nearly a poll-topper herethat sealed the deal for everyone with its odes to getting fucked over and up.
Now Amy's a star: six Grammy nods, multi-platinum status for Black, and Pazz & Jop accolades at both album and especially single, where "Rehab"bolstered by votes from last year (the record hit the U.K. in October '06)pushed her ahead of the seemingly unstoppable Rihanna. Yet these days Amy's looking less like a soul savior and more like a lost soul, tsked-tsked by the View ladies, mocked on late-night talk shows, and lumped in with Britney Spears, another troubled (if lower-on-the-totem-pole) pop star whose music has been eclipsed by the train wreck.
You could see it coming. Even when her fan base was limited to Anglophiles, industry types, cool musicians, and folks who still can't understand why Craig David never became Justin Timberlake, you heard the dish: cancelled gigs, puking onstage, dramatic weight loss, punching out a fan (Amy's rationale? "The bitch was rude"), and drinking. Lots of drinking. (But come on! Girlfriend's English! Isn't that what they do?) Of course, after she went from cult artifact to Letterman guest, it only got worse. The blood. The bruises. The cancelled tours. The drive-thru rehab (no smirks). The staggering around her neighborhood in the dead of night in a push-up bra. Those goddamn pink ballerina flats. Her scumbag freeloading husband hauled off to jail. (Oh. That's good!) The next Ronnie Spector slowly, grotesquely transformed into the next Nancy Spungen.
In March, a few days after Back to Black entered the U.S. charts at #7the highest-ever Brit female debut, and #6 after Spin and Rolling Stone both put her on the cover the same weekAmy played the first of two shows (the second cancelled due to "exhaustion") at the Roxy in L.A. The club, the crowd, and the celebs (e.g., Bruce Willis and Courtney Love, probably there to pass the Hot Mess torch) were all bigger than they'd been at Joe's Pub a few months before. But the audience was similarly blown away, though a noticeable number of people paid as much attention to Amy as she paid to them (i.e., none) until "Rehab," when the vibe suddenly shifted from "concert" to "kegger."
Watching anyone implode isn't pretty, especially an anorexic, drunken, codependent, beehive-rocking mega-talent. But what's almost as sad is that her anthem, the song that made her a star, is now Amy's albatross. Grammys be damned, "Rehab" is now a cheap tabloid joke, wildly misconstrued by critics and fans alike. In some ways, it's unavoidable: The song is about her former manager's futile efforts to get Amy sober, and it certainly didn't help that it exploded just as Hollywood made rehab the new yoga. Even so, it's hard to figure out how "I don't ever want to drink again/I just need a friend" or other Black lyrics like "I stay up/Clean the house/At least I'm not drinking" now inspire concertgoers to order another round of lemon drops.
In May, I saw Amy again at a sold-out show at the Highline Ballroom in NYC's meatpacking district. It was the first time I saw the personal affect the professional: Midway through the set, Amy was so smashed that she started missing cues and drifting off-pitch. She eventually fled the stage, confused and defeated, a meltdown greeted by a smattering of boos, though others just laughed and egged Amy on to drink more. I vacillated between fury and depression. It reminded me of Replacements or Johnny Thunders shows, where the more wasted the band got, the more the crowd ate it up, hoisting plastic cups like they were actually drinking together. Like they were bros, dude. Throw your hands in the air, 80-proof stylee. But when Amy shows us that "Rehab" is no party song, people get mad that her pain is messing with their night out.
A few hours before that L.A. show, I interviewed Amy in the lobby of West Hollywood's fabled Château Marmont, best known as the spot where John Belushi died. Her beehive and the omnipresent eyeliner looked slept-in. She was sweet and friendly, smiled broadly, and had downed two amaretto sours by 3 p.m. It didn't do much to put her at ease. She occasionally stuttered and rarely met my eyes. Girl didn't have stage frightshe had life fright. "I'm not too good about talking about myself," she admitted. She was only fully engaged when talking about music, especially jazz.
Toward the end of our conversation, she mentioned that she'd just broken up with a boyfriend. "I'm sorry," I said. "He got out of it easy," Amy muttered. "Trust me." She knew she was no good. I wanted to hug her. At Joe's Pub, I'd seen the future of r&b. Now I just hope Amy has a future, too.
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