The last time I'd had a ticket for Amy Winehouse was in March. The previous night she'd played L.A.'s Roxy, but I didn't have a ticket for the Roxy. With a certain inevitability she was a no-show at Spaceland in Silver Lake. That was the gig I had the ticket for.
From Silver Lake to London's Somerset House via a wedding and a Mercury Prize nomination: would the divine Ms. W stand me up a second time? Well, she didn't and she told us - more than once - how she'd been looking forward to this for "months."
I'd been instantly smitten by Winehouse's sophomore opus Back to Black: not by the novelty hit 'Rehab' so much as the album's other treasures, which did something I didn't think possible: take the basic '60s soul blueprint, tweak it just enough for a tattoo'd post-hiphop generation, and turn the whole trope into something vitally personal and contemporary.
Me? I was never convinced by Joss Stone and never will be. But this little slip of a Jewish street princess came over 100% credible, customizing her soul and ska influences to fit her deeply dysfunctional persona. Someone said Winehouse's lyrics read like pages from a drunken teenager's diary, but they were more than that: they're piercingly believable, achingly sharp, stripped of cliché.
Great artists combine artfulness with something that's rawly their own: the key is that we can't separate the two from each other, to the point that it ultimately doesn't matter anyway. With Winehouse we were drawn in by an uncanny mix of hip toughness and about-to-implode vulnerability (which might just have been part of her "act" - how could we have known?)
There she was, a skinny, slumming Ronnie Spector clone with her mascara mask and piled-high beehive, the sole female onstage with a besuited band that resembled rude-boy bodyguards: the two black dancer-singers, the three white horn men, the guitarists and drummer who resembled some late '60s Kingston session troupe.
There she was, underplaying every vocal flourish and girlish provocation, and we couldn't tear our eyes from her dark elfin figure. We wanted to know more, to know how dangerous this really was. The remarkable thing was, she wasn't a brat at all, letting her music do the talking at all times. She sang brilliantly, saving herself and placing every line just so, periodically letting herself go in a melismatic cry from the heart. The voice was essentially Lauryn Hill's, as the passage from 'Doo Wop (That Thing)' tacitly acknowledged, but you never thought Fugees or Miseducation when you heard it.
The whole thing - iconography and choreography - was a hair's breadth away from Stax-Motown pastiche, but it never felt like that. In fact the essential feel of Back to Black wasn't Stax/Motown at all but the early '60s girl-group soul that came out of Chicago and New York's Brill Building, infused with the street-sharp mood of ska and bluebeat (and even 2-Tone, as the cover of the Specials' 'Hey Little Rich Girl' made clear). 'Me and Mr Jones', perhaps her most startling song, almost felt pre-soul. 'Wake Up Alone' and the heartbreaking 'A Losing Game' were more Luther Dixon or Berns/Ragovoy than Berry Gordy or Booker T. and the MGs. The genius of B to B was that it recreated the ornate feel of that music while emphatically yanking it out of the museum.
"What kind of f---ery is this?" I'm not sure I knew, other than that Winehouse got me deep in my gut. I figured she'd crash and burn like every other codep dipso celeb in London, but she left behind at least one remarkable album. As she wound up with the Zutons' 'Valerie', everyone was smiling and jumping with untrammeled joy: live music didn't get any better than this.
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- Amy Winehouse