I can’t think about Amy Winehouse without thinking about relapse and that terrible, rotten word, “potential,” a word I learned by context and repetition as my mother would shake her head in rueful wake of her marriage to my father. “He was really just so full of potential,” she would say, and press her lips together in a grimace shaped like a smile. “It’s really such a shame.”
Writing about addiction sucks. It’s a disease rife with campy sex appeal, a black star for dabbling survivors and the minimum amount of fodder that might make someone feel like they’ve got a real story to tell. And a rock star? A tragic love for that strung-out, cat-scratched husband? It’s the trifecta of cliche, nothing but booby traps. Because to talk about Amy Winehouse isn’t just to talk about her rich, dark voice, a sound all fire and smoke. She wasn’t as obsessed with her voice as we are: there’s endless footage of her producing a sound that would be face-flexing, soul-emptying, scrambling-the-cosmos kind of work for Adele, Beyonce, Sarah Vaughan. But she stands—or, more often than not, sits—with that tiny, jerky jig in her shoulders and looks, on good days, bored; on bad days, comatose. Talent wasn’t her whole story.
There’s a school of thought that believes in parsing the artist from the art, and there are times when you’ll find me really digging in my heels on that side of the fence. But if there was ever an appropriate time to conflate a personal life with an album, it is Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
The album wrote itself, she said, amidst the wrenching ache of her not-yet-husband leaving her for his former girlfriend. She wanted to die. The songs cover the range of an off-and-on, drunken love: the messy spectrum of emotions, the contradictory ebbs and flows, all with a striking mix of a poet’s economy and precision for language. Lines that demand “What kind of fuckery is this?” and announce that “nowadays you don’t mean dick to me,” blend seamlessly into gut-wrenching soul even if the lyrics stand stark on the page. They’re honest, blunt words, exactly the sort you would use in the throes of reconciling a complicated break-up on the phone with your friends. Slang wedded with Motown, with a fresh R&B sound could be cheeky, if it wasn’t for the palpable anguish. “He left no time for regrets / kept his dick wet / with the same old safe bet,” opens the title track, a song that cuts to the quick for anyone who’s been left before. In the pause preceding the chorus break, with percussion like a heartbeat, she sings, “You go back to her / and I go back to black,” repeating “black” with the haunting resignation of someone realizing her own worst fears about herself. I’m gutted every time I hear it.
We have established specific methods with which to talk about love in songwriting, and Amy Winehouse ignores them completely. There is no timelessness, no buffing out details to make anything more universally relatable. My favorite example of this is “Just Friends,” a song that makes no strides to clear up the exact nature of a relationship that seems to involve at least another woman (“the guilt will kill you / if she don’t first”), and several people in the same living space (“it’s always dangerous when everybody’s sleeping”). But for anyone who has ever struggled with establishing a platonic nature with someone “off limits,” there are multiple parts of this short song that ring utterly on-point: diction about “safety” and “danger” when the stakes are simply whether or not to have sex; the seemingly conflicting but not mutually exclusive sentiments of “I’ll never love you like her” and “I wanna touch you; but that just hurts.”
Winehouse’s inclusion of drugs in her songwriting isn’t exactly flipping the bird at popular songwriting law, but it is certainly notable. Neither party favors nor jokes, drugs are the domestic stuff of her life, both the basis for a fundamental crack in the foundation of a relationship (“I love you much / it’s not enough / you love blow and I love puff”) and as ubiquitous and expected as furniture. In“Addicted,” we have a woman defiantly embracing her loneliness, in a classic stage in any burned lover’s recovery arsenal: to seize one’s abandonment and make it a choice. But she’s not really alone, not when she’s got something more potent and satisfying than any man had ever been: “Don’t make no difference if I end up alone / I’d rather have myself a smoke / my homegrown / it’s got me addicted / does more than any dick did.” Here, drugs aren’t just props; they’re supporting characters.
She’s been labeled a diva because to hear her sing is to be in the presence of a glorious, all-powerful queen: she is Aretha, Etta, Galadriel. And that teased-out, streetside Cleopatra look? I can see how you could read it all as ego. But the truth is she really didn’t give two fucks about fame. She was increasingly flippant about her talent, acknowledging it as any domestic party trick, like being able to fold a fitted sheet into a perfect square. She didn’t seem to realize or care about the heft of the commodity she possessed—even half-pissed and wearing the same ratty ballet flats and street clothes she was photographed in for a week, she could stand up on stage next to Mick Jagger and be a typhoon of sound. Drug use is supposed to catalyze confidence: how many times have we heard a celebrity on a substance-fueled rant about how critical they are, how vital! Doesn’t the high make you immortal, light all your fires of self-importance? Blaze all the guns and beat every drum to the endless beat of yes yes yes. But when asked if she would be sorry to give up touring and making records in a 2007 Rolling Stone interview, she only shrugged: “I don’t want to be ungrateful. I know I’m talented, but I wasn’t put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mom and look after my family. I love what I do, but it’s not where it begins and ends.”
A few weeks ago, my high school crush blew up Twitter with news of his overdose. I hadn’t kept up with him personally, but I watched the TV show he wrote for and cheered every time his recurring character, a dopey caricature of the sweet stoner boy I used to know, came on screen. In the days following his death, interviews surfaced where he spoke candidly about his addiction: it wasn’t a secret, featuring heavily in his standup material, but the interview I listened to was during a season of sobriety, humorless and straightforward. “I’m still trying to value my life,” he said. It’s almost surreal to hear someone say that so candidly, particularly someone whose life seems to overflow with everything we consider valuable: talent, success, fame, a thousand Twitter followers. But for me to assign worth to what I think did and didn’t matter in his life is insane—we each have a list of what enriches us, what makes us whole, regardless of what anyone else might value on our behalf. And to add a substance dependency into the mix is to throw the whole game into wild terrain. “The thing that happens with opiates if you stop taking them is you get fucking sick,” the interview ends. “...Now it’s like, oh I have to do this, I have to take drugs, or I’m not well.” To dismiss this as some weakness of character, some lack of discipline, is a reckless affront to our humanity.
What I hate about this notion of mourning the loss of someone’s potential is the idea that we as collective strangers could decide anything about this one woman’s life trajectory. It’s an infinitely judgemental way of dismissing the most straightforward and bald facts of a human reconciling her own existence, her own way. To say it’s such a shame that a woman who could do one thing well didn’t do it for fifty more years is to dismiss the work she has produced, not to mention her individual life as she lived it, her own loves and needs and struggles. “I wish I could say ‘no regrets’ / no emotional debts / and as we kiss goodbye the sun sets / but we are history,” she wrote, a comment on the endless forward momentum of living that feels, in the wake of her death, apocryphal. Maybe it’s a kind of coping, to lament the loss of this talent. But I also suspect there is a grain of deep disrespect for an individual’s immense and whole self, all the parts that swell and recede, that break and sometimes don’t repair. We cannot mourn the loss of some cloud-vision of what a million strangers have for an individual’s applied talents, not when we have albums like Back to Black to take us in, and cover us up.