I’m just now realizing how brilliant Amy Winehouse was and it’s killing me

amy-winehouseI’ve been listening to a lot of Amy Winehouse lately. It’s pretty much all I’ve been doing. That and watching her videos, interviews and documentaries. I should have realized how brilliant she was a long time ago, but I didn’t. And now that I have, it’s like I’ve become obsessed.

A guy I briefly dated in 2007 burned me a copy of “Back to Black” and told me I should check it out. He said something about it being “different” or “retro.” But because he was kind of lame, and because people would regularly send me terrible music they claimed was incredible, I was skeptical. I dismissed his words, ignored the Amy Winehouse buzz and didn’t bother to play her album a single time. I mostly knew her as the girl who sang that kind of cool song “Rehab,” the one with the beehive who looked increasingly emaciated and troubled. I glanced at her from a distance but never really looked. 

Four years later, she died the night before my birthday. I absentmindedly tweeted “RIP Amy Winehouse” in between drinks at a club and felt nothing.

Then late last year I got a new car with an iPod hookup and put my 3,000-plus songs on shuffle. Among those songs were tracks from “Back to Black” that weren’t “Rehab,” songs like “Love is a Losing Game” and “Wake Up Alone.” I was stunned. Speechless. Here was this incredible music I’d had in my collection for years and completely overlooked.

I stopped the shuffle and put “Back to Black” on repeat. I actually listened to the “Rehab” lyrics I’d heard so many times and finally understood what they meant. Here was a window into Amy’s personality — her love of Ray Charles, Donnie Hathaway, alcohol and a man she couldn’t have, a tough, sassy exterior that hid a vulnerable core.

On weekends I searched for songs off her debut album, “Frank,” and watched all of the interviews, documentaries and live performances I could find. It was strange, seeing her spiral out of control as if it was happening in real time. At Glastonbury in 2007 she owned the stage. At the same show a year later she was a bumbling mess. And then in 2011 she disappeared altogether.

People say that the most brilliant are also the most psychologically troubled, but that’s not really the truth. The truth is that these people have more capacity to think and feel, more capacity to transmit those thoughts and feelings, more capacity to make us feel things. When they turn that power outward and share it with the world we get incredible art. But turned inward, that power can crush them and cause them to self-destruct.

Drugs and alcohol are the usual causes of death for great artists who die young, but the underlying cause is this need to numb the intensity of theirs feelings — feelings that are their gift and their curse. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, all musical superstars who imploded at 27. And let’s not forget Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, extraordinary talents whose music changed our lives and made us feel things we didn’t know it was possible to feel. But what price did they pay for being this conductor, this lightning rod for emotion and beauty?

It’s funny when people try to compare Amy Winehouse to other soul singers, because there is no comparison. Even Pandora’s attempts to play “similar” artists are laughable. Amy Winehouse was a true individual. She imbued every aspect of her artistry with all of herself, from her look to her voice to her lyrics to her inflection. She had no regard for the boundaries and boxes artists so often rely on to define their careers. She blended soul, R&B, reggae and pop, flipped a sanitized Motown sound on its head and made it uniquely her own. Her music was three-dimensional in a world of straight lines.

“We only said goodbye with words/I died a hundred times/You go back to her and I go back to black”

As with all great soul singers, Amy Winehouse channeled pain, and she could convey a lifetime’s worth of despair in a few lyrics. “Back to Black” is literally framed by the theme of addiction — it begins with “Rehab” and ends with “Addicted.” It was a portrait of a brilliant individual who had become trapped in a dark place. Amy Winehouse shed light on the darkness and made it sound beautiful. But we went on with our lives and she never got out.

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