We Only Said Goodbye With Words: A Tribute To Amy WinehouseBy Laura Bogart
July 26, 2011
Somehow, I’m still expecting that, in another six months, year tops, I’ll be able to preorder the next Amy Winehouse album. Somehow, I’m still expecting word that she’s joined the 27 Club to be just a rumor, like the sudden death of Zach Braff that bobs through the tide of Internet grotesquery about once a year.As news outlet after news outlet confirmed the countless Facebook statuses I’d seen to be factually true, I still found myself, if not surprised (not exactly), then in shock.
Shock ceded to anger as the inevitable troll patrol rolled out with sanctimonious declarations about the frivolity of mourning “a strung-out singer” after the devastation that wrecked Norway only a day earlier (grief is not a zero-sum game; those of us with fully-developed senses of empathy are actually capable of feeling bad about more than one thing at a time), feigned disbelief that she’d been alive at all, and smug riffs on the title of her breakthrough single “Rehab.”
I imagine that if Facebook or twitter had been around when Kurt Cobain — who also publicly flouted pleas to go to rehab, gave interviews while (as my friend Jolie would say) “high as Jesus,” and remained in a codependent marriage to a person accused of piggybacking on his talent — died, the reactions would be a bit more reverent. His career may have felt more expansive than Winehouse’s since Nirvana put out more albums, but in emotional resonance, they’re equals. Male artists who’ve fallen over that fine line between brilliant and broken end up on dorm room posters while women who slip short are laughingstocks, trainwrecks, and crazy whores. My friend Jolie, a feminist scholar, dismantles this double standard with ninja-like precision in her essay “If My Daddy Thinks I’m Fine.” (It appears on her blog, Freudian-slip.org).
Despite the unfettered ugliness that had me in an unfriending frenzy, there are still a few oases of empathy out on the Web. In a lovely tribute running on Jezebel, Lane Moore writes, “ For every one of her documented missteps and fuck-ups, I never once thought, ‘ How is she still alive?’That felt defeatist to me. I just saw her as a person struggling the way a lot of artists — famous or otherwise — tend to struggle. Some of the greatest writers, musicians, actors, and artists have battled some unspeakable demons; many of them made it out alive and better for it. It’s completely human to hope that an artist who affected you — as Winehouse did, certainly — will go on to do more, create more, and feel better, especially when they have so many years still ahead of them.”
The reason Winehouse affected us is the very reason so many of us are shocked — though not surprised — to hear of her death. Her lyrics, which were simultaneously rich with wit and heartrendingly raw, gave us such a candid look at her life that we couldn’t help but feel that we knew her. Bawdy yet sensitive, impulsive yet smart as hell; she embodied all the messy contradictions that remind us of ourselves. She was that friend whose sloppiness only makes her foxier, the one who might occasionally wake up in your bathtub but won’t judge you when you take a call from that ex your other friends made you swear to never speak with again.
She used her lyrics to create scenes with such stark intimacy that listening to her songs could sometimes induce déjà vu. The lyrics from “You Know I’m No Good” are as wryly-observed as anything from a Mary Gaitskill story: “We’re like how we were again/I’m in the tub, you on the seat/ Lick your lips as I soap my feet/Then you notice little carpet burns/My stomach drops and my guts churn/You shrug and it’s the worst/Who truly stuck the knife in first?”
Winehouse had been more or less out of the public eye around the time of her death, save for a few news blips about a show she’d blown by slurring and swaying on stage, forgetting the words and insulting the audience. She’d been supplanted by fellow Brit Adele, who had the mantle of “the next Amy Winehouse” thrust upon her as soon as she half-bellowed half-crooned the half-promise half-threat “You’re gonna wish you/Never had met me.”
No matter how powerfully sung those words are, they lack the face-slapping sharpness of “What kind of fuckery are we?/ Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me (dick to me).” The layering of dick to me with dick to me is especially deft because it comes across so simple: The titular Mr. Jones of “Me and Mr. Jones” doesn’t mean dick to her because he was a dick to her. Yet the potency of this brush-off is coyly undermined when Winehouse half-teases half-demands “I might let you make it up to me (make it up)/Who’s playing Saturday?” This adroit display of subtlety rivals most of the work coming out of MFA workshops today.
Adele named her album 21 for the age she was when it was written and recorded, and that youthful sensibility — at least lyrically — diminishes its emotional impact. How, exactly, does one “set fire to the rain”? Lines like “But my knees were far too weak/To stand in your arms/Without falling to your feet” are buoyed by the sincerity of Adele’s delivery and the swooning pop sensibility of the music itself. The words, stripped of artifice and laid on the page, belong to a Twilight fan fiction (or my own adolescent poetry journal, properly burned a long time ago). Amy Winehouse may have written a pop classic about drinking herself to death because her boyfriend left her, but she was no simpering fool.
Even an anthem of defiance like “Rehab” has a streak of self-awareness that slithers through the beats like a snake in a rainstorm: “I don’t never want to drink again/I just, oooh, I just need a friend/I’m not gonna spend 10 weeks/Have everyone think I’m on the mend/It’s not just my pride/It’s just ‘till these tears have dried.” Implicit is the suspicion that, deep down, Winehouse might not agree with her daddy that she’s fine; still, she’ll be damned if she’ll be told what’s for her own good. The invocation of “daddy” as the one who decides whether she’s well enough sarcastically correlates the intent of the “they” (who try to make her go to rehab) with a “Father Knows Best”-type condescension.Of course, in the end, “they” were right; if Winehouse could have made an honest go of going on the mend, she’d still be alive and (hopefully) making music.
Still, there is a perverse impulse against what is “for your own good,” especially when your actions, however unhealthy, soothe an emotional ache — even if this soothing is tantamount to blowing cool air over a third-degree burn. That thunderous “no, no, no” became the throb of my heart when a well-intentioned, though dogmatic, counselor urged me to drop weight for my health; when my mother insisted that “even just 30 pounds” would open up “a new class of men” for me to date; when a friend of a friend offered me the chance to join her “diet club,” which involved consuming a single shake (which was the color of spearmint gum left to bake on the sidewalk) for breakfast and lunch with a “sensible dinner” of three ounces of broiled chicken and broccoli with no butter.
No doubt dropping weight would do wonders for my health; no doubt even just 30 pounds would open up a new class of men for me to date; and though I won’t begin to defend the single green shake for breakfast and lunch, no doubt downsizing my portions and forgoing the butter and olive oil that, as a Siclian girl, I was practically weaned on, will most likely add years to my life. I don’t mean to mitigate Winehouse’s addiction, which was, sadly, strong enough to kill her. I don’t even mean to mitigate my own issues, (or the issues of countless other Americans who must lash themselves to the mast against the siren song of carbohyrdrates), but when your circumstances have slipped so thoroughly beyond your control that the people around you feel as though they can guide your life better than you can, “no” is all the power you have.
Amy Winehouse sang for our sins, and our deepest grief, in ways that only the nerviest confessional poets, the Plaths and the Sextons, had dared. When I was fresh out of graduate school, grading papers until I fell asleep on the sofa just a few hours before I’d have to get up and go to job number one out of three, and parting ways with a charismatic alcoholic my friend (rightly) called “piglet,” I listened to Back to Black like it was my fourth job. My final conversation with piglet had been a cell-phone screaming match with bluffs called and three years of petty resentments, lies of all sizes, and nights of unlacing his shoes before leaving him to sleep it off blasted to the fore. I would never hear his voice, let alone see him, after that call.
“We only said goodbye with words” was my lament, laid bare; the starkness of the words endows them with an indelible, nearly primal, resonance. She sang those words with the same tearful reserve that clenched my belly from the moment I woke each morning to the moment the sleeping pill would fuzz me under again. Each time I heard the opening notes to that funkadelic durge, “Back to Black” would, if not relax me, at least set me more at ease.Amy and I had died a hundred times, but at least we kept coming back again.
Even though my friends assured me, implored me, to consider myself well-rid of him (and at that point, they were beyond weary of his name — and justifiably so), I’d become accustomed to the way he’d say “goddamn” with a post-coital reverence after he read my stories, the way he’d stick birthday candles in my baked lasagnas, the way he’d do that Hunter S. Thompson shuffle-stumble when he knew I was angry; his absence, however justifiable, was a withdrawal.A withdrawal that my shit-talking, take-no-prisoners “I was a riot grrl before Hot Topic sold baby doll dresses” self should’ve considered a weakness. Amy Winehouse shucked aside the “could haves” and “should haves” that gnaw most women to the bone, whether they’re Southern belles or feminist attorneys, stay-at-home-moms or budding anarchists. She honored her feelings with an unabashed, unpretentious explicitness that still remains rare among the women of top 40 radio.
Her grief was a sizzling wire stripped of its cord. It thrummed with an incandescent rage — nobody stands between her and her man, not even her man himself. Despite the codependency evinced in her lyrics, Winehouse stubbornly refused to be victimized, or, at least, played without her consent. In “Tears Dry on Their Own,” she concedes that she hasn’t met her match; the man with whom she shares “every moment we could snatch” isn’t good enough to be anything but a bed-jockey. Still, we’ve all been stuck at the crossroads of girl, fuck him and I hope he calls again. This see-sawing between the you-go-girl hopefulness of “I shouldn’t play myself again/I should just be my own best friend” and the caustic aside that “ I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon” is so heartrending because it taps into the unsettling truth that, no matter how many times we’re told that we must love ourselves exactly as we are, sometimes we can’t help but live in the “no, no, no.”
We’ll find out more of the nitty-gritty about what actually, technically killed Amy Winehouse in the coming days. I think, simply, it was that she couldn’t stop living the “no.” Many of us can’t. Some of us — through therapy and that look on the dog’s face when she paws us for her supper, through really good sex and sex so bad we have to text our girlfriends from the bathroom; through impromptu potlucks with good friends and nights we dare to sit alone at a restaurant with no book or laptop to armor us — will step into “yes,” and we’ll be, if not happier, a bit more at ease in our own loneliness.
Nicely done, Laura. It’s discouraging how easy it is for people to de-humanize a celebrity to the point that their death is mocked.
Thank you, Erika. I was really in a defriending frenzy on Saturday because I was so thoroughly disgusted by people who really should have known better. You’re right, it’s frightening to think about how easy it can be to disregard each others’ humanity, and about the consequences of this.
It is a sad thing that she has gone. Who deserves that? Nobody.
Winehouse was relentlessly publicized. During the height of the Iraq war, her Lexis-nexis ratings were higher than GWB. And not by a short margin. If “out of the public eye” means that President Obama is getting more press than she on a given day, then … That girl was RUTHLESSLY publicized.
Her discography will settle into it’s own level in the Lists, regardless of our opinions today. Once the feeding frenzy subsides. I wonder if the future will be as unkind to her recorded legacy as the present was to her personally.
Thank you for remembering she was a person. It seems to have slipped the minds of so many.
You’re welcome, Amber. Thank you for reading.
I enjoyed your piece. However I’m not sure that Billie Holiday or Janice Joplin were railroaded as females in quite the way you imply with the culture’s double standard with males who abused substances. I don’t see any extended sympathy toward, say, Charlie Parker that Billie Holiday didn’t likewise receive. I went over to see the friend you mentioned who cited Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan compared to Hunter S. Thompson and Keith Richards. Surely this is apples and oranges in terms of substance rather than gender, isn’t it?
Thanks for reading, Asia. You do bring up a good point regarding Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.
That said, we may not think that Lindsay Lohan’s work is comparable with, say, Hunter S. Thompson’s (and it isn’t), but my friend’s point, really, is that even when you do more of an apples-to-apples comparison, like, say Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan is portrayed as the wanton mess unworthy of sympathy and Charlie Sheen launches countless internet tributes and sells out tickets during his “comeback tour.” I don’t think it’s fruitful to get into debates about who is or isn’t more talented, because that’s so subjective (my friend is getting a lot of people responding to her post with “but ‘Nevermind’ is waaaaaaaay better than ‘Live Through This,’ ” which wasn’t her point to begin with).
Whatever their level of talent may or may not be, many times the vices of male artists are simply treated as part of their badass allure, whereas women with the same issues are “problems.” Another comparison that comes to mind is Drew Barrymore and Robert Downey, Jr. Barrymore, who has proven her worth as a multiple Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated actress, had to slug her way out of a number of B and C-level movies to prove that she was reliable enough to return to work. Robert Downey, Jr., who actually went to prison because of his illness, rebounded with “The Singing Detective” and “Iron Man.”
One thing that Jolie pointed out on my Facebook wall, in response to a similar comment, is that even though we may not like Britney Spears’ music, she has been an indelible force in popular culture, and that alone gives her a significance that (whether we like it or not) means we have to look at her the same way we’d look at a more “serious” artist.
A beautiful tribute, Laura. You have a gift with words.
Thank you so much, Gloria. I really appreciate that.
This is a great piece. Brings Amy to life, gives her a soul. Kudos.
Thank you, Laura (great name!). I really hope we don’t lose site of the fact that we lost a really talented artist and a ferociously intelligent woman.
Gorgeous, Laura. One of the most salient pieces I’ve read on an artist who touched me, too. I look forward to what your write next. And like you, I kept hoping we’d have more from Winehouse. Though you illuminate why the work she left will endure.
Thank you, Litsa. I really appreciate that. And yeah, I really wanted to believe that she’d be like Keith Richards somehow, and just keep truckin’ despite the odds against her. I do hope her music lives on … it certainly will in my iPod.
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