The day the music truly died

THE last time I wrote about Amy Winehouse, she was 25 and I wondered if she would live to 30.

The day the music truly died

She didn’t. It’s a year ago today that she died in her house in Camden, not from crack or heroin, which she had kicked, but from vodka. Booze, that most acceptable of drugs, had killed her, aged 27.

She left only two albums, which took eight years to record — one good, one astonishing. She could not be rushed, could not write songs to order. She didn’t write as much as gestate — months of brooding, then a song delivered fully formed, straight from her head. Such was her genius. The more pain she was in, the more heart-stopping her music. “My destructive side has grown a mile wide,” she sang, in what now sounds like a premonition.

Amy’s pain has been well-documented. The catalyst for her creativity, she channelled it to produce her best work; she lived her songs, which are about loss and abandonment and loneliness.

Tonight, BBC4 are showing Amy Winehouse – The Day She Came to Dingle, the story of the day she recorded a short acoustic performance in a church in Dingle, in Dec 2006. Her recording was part of Other Voices, the music series filmed in Dingle every winter. She sang to a crowd of 85, backed by a guitar and bass, performing six songs. She was on form, enthralling her audience.

Later, in a local hotel, she talked about her musical influences — Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, and her adored Shangri-Las. Brought up by a jazz-loving father, Amy’s musical taste stretched from traditional jazz, and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, to hip hop and R&B; she soaked up music, hooked on the songs of 1960s girl groups like the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, who sang of heartache and obsession.

Amy Winehouse’s emotional precocity remains captivating. It was as if she had been born without an outer protective shell to shield her from the ferocity of her own feelings; added to her intuitive intelligence, and she was a talent far beyond her years, a scrawny white London teenager who sounded like an old black American soul singer. Her lyrics were acutely honest — the name of her first album, Frank, was not just a nod to Frank Sinatra, but to how she interacted with the world. She wasn’t into guile or pretence, but was eye-wateringly up-front. “She didn’t do polite conversation,” says producer Paul O’Duffy in a Q magazine interview. “She was unfiltered.”

Born to London cabbie Mitch and his wife Janis in 1983, Amy was affected by her parents divorce nine years later; not outwardly, not until years later when her dad heard her song What It Is About Men, and realised it was about him leaving.

To keep himself sane in the aftermath of her death, Mitch has been pouring his energy into raising money for the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which helps young addicts.

Mitch has been working hard — his latest project is a book, Amy: My Daughter, which gives a non-sugar-coated account of what is was like watching his extraordinarily talented youngest child self-destruct as the whole world gawped, camera bulbs flashing in her face. It is not an exploitative book, more a sad recounting of the hopelessly repetitive behaviour of addiction. All profits go to the foundation.

Amy’s late grandmother Cynthia — featured in one of Amy’s tattoos — was also a singer, and urged her granddaughter to go to music school. Such was her obvious talent that she was signed up to Island Records aged only 19, and writing lyrics way beyond her years. She released Frank in 2003, won an Ivor Novello in 2004 for her song-writing, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.

Then she met her great love, a drug addict called Blake. When Amy fell in love with Blake, she didn’t just fall a little bit in love — she leapt headlong over the cliff of love, crashing on the rocks when he left her for an old flame. She was distraught. This agony of her heartbreak resulted in Back To Black, her definitive album.

They got back together, marrying in 2007. By now, Amy was no longer happy with just beer and spliff; she was drinking her head off, and all her rescue fantasies for Blake had gone exactly the opposite of how she had hoped. Instead of getting him off crack and heroin, she had joined in.

This was when Amy’s private life began to take over from her music, which was quite an achievement, given than she broke musical records by winning five Grammys for Back To Black in 2008. Earlier, when her drinking had begun to take hold, her former managers drove her to a treatment centre; she lasted five minutes, and reacted to their attempts to clean her up by firing her management team. She then wrote her classic song Rehab by humming it in her head as she walked down the street.

Lots of well-documented messiness happened between her and Blake, but in 2008, according to Mitch, she finally stopped drugs. With Blake out of the picture, Amy went to St Lucia for an extended holiday, to recover from her drug addiction. She did not, however, recover from her alcoholism, which had been overhadowed by all the class As. Her last live performances were horrendous, and she had produced barely any new work. But just as her dad was starting to think that she might be on the mend from her drinking — she was having longer gaps between binges — one night last July she downed such a quantity of vodka that her thin, tired body just gave up. She didn’t woke up the next day. And the world lost one of its greatest modern musicians.

* Arena: Amy Winehouse — The Day She Came to Dingle is on BBC Four tonight at 10pm

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