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The Queen of the Jews

Remembering Amy Winehouse’s musical brilliance, humor, caring, self-loathing, and pain on her ninth yahrzeit

Eve Barlow
July 23, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“I’m of the school of thought where if you can’t sort something out for yourself then no one can help you,” Amy Winehouse once said in an interview, speaking like a Jew who knows better than to expect anyone else to hand us life on a silver platter. She was her own worst critic. She desperately wanted to have children. She claimed to not be ambitious, yet she never stopped putting pen to paper.

I met her once, but it was less a meeting and more a run-in at the sink in a toilet cubicle in a London club. If you lived in London in the 2000s and you went out at night, you may have a similar story. Her music soundtracked my coming-of-age in the mid-2000s. Her style taught me how to wear makeup like war paint, use waist belts as suction, and carry ballet pumps to replace cheap stilettos for the night bus home.

Since her death nine years ago today, I’ve often wondered how Amy would have reacted to almost anything: the new Gaga, Tiger King, the price of milk. Cancel culture and trial by Twitter feel a far cry away from a time when Winehouse would run her mouth on anything and everything, getting away with it by deploying a mischievous giggle or a brush of the tattooed shoulder. “I’m not a lesbian,” she once said in an interview. “Not before a sambuca anyway.”

At this current intersection of pandemic, civil rights activism, and rising anti-Semitism, you watch her old interviews, listen to her records, and know she wouldn’t have resisted putting her heel in it. Back To Black still is the one CD my mother has on loop in her car, probably because she doesn’t know how to eject it, but that doesn’t detract from her exhaustive love of Winehouse’s voice, one that reminds her of Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis Jr.

Winehouse was unlike any performer of her generation. She came up against a backdrop of squalid-looking guitar bands, and British R&B/rap stars such as Ms. Dynamite, Craig David, and Mike Skinner. It was a period of drainpipe jeans and angular haircuts. The infamous British weekly rag the NME would dub it “The New Rock Revolution.” You either wanted to be The Strokes, or you were The Strokes. If neither, you were Jack White of The White Stripes punching the lead singer of The Von Bondies in a bar in Detroit, or Pete Doherty of the Libertines burglarizing his own bandmate Carl Barat’s house while avenging his firing from the group due to his heroin habit. Indie bands then were a dime a dozen, and if you were a 20-something young professional living at the epicenter of the scene in London, you were downing lager to indie pop in pubs and then sliding your high-top Converse across sticky dance floors until it was time to get a kebab en route to bed. This was the lifestyle Winehouse lived, which is why she became a pal of a troublemaking school that included the likes of Russell Brand and Kelly Osbourne.

But her music was bred of entirely different influences. “I listen to music that is of our time and I just get angry,” she said once. When her debut Frank came out in 2003, the biggest British female artist was Dido, singing a song—“White Flag”—about never surrendering from a failing relationship. It sounded less like a battle to keep the flame lit as it did a passive acceptance of a bum deal. When Winehouse sang about standing by her man, her voice effortlessly traveled from female subservience to swaggering domination. She could be lovelorn, and then turn that emotion on its head in a stinging couplet: “Yes he looked like you/But I heard love is blind.”

While it’s reductive to compare and contrast female stars (and there’s some hysterical footage of Winehouse taking unkindly to such inquiries), Winehouse’s vocal war against the bad-boy fate she ultimately accepted was a rebellion. It was activism. Amid the loungey swagger of “Stronger Than Me” she challenged her no-good boyfriend because he was seven years older than her, not in spite of it. “Don’t you know you’re s’posed to be the man!” she cried. “Not pale in comparison to who you think I am.”

Hers was a Jewish triumph; a tale of making something from nothing; of never asking a system to help her out; of defying the limited worldview of the music industry; of being uncompromisingly Winehouse without quietening her excesses, making herself less than, belittling that which made her proud. She got drunk, smoked crack, had a tattoo of her Jewish grandmother Cynthia on her arm, and performed with a Star of David around her neck, which is more than can be said for almost any publicly Jewish performers now, even the ones whose notably Jewish names light up the marquee.

Winehouse’s commanding vocals always placed her front and center even if the spotlight often made her sweat and unravel. She’s been portrayed by peers and friends as a shy, quiet, and submissive soul. Her mental health battles with depression and anxiety have been overlooked in favor of the gutter press’s fixation on her drug and booze-addled late-night antics.

None of these contradictions were new, and they were inherent in the music she sang and loved. Winehouse reared herself on the pain and joy of Black singers and rap groups: from Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk to The Shirelles, Salt-N-Pepa and TLC. She merged soul, jazz, doo-wop, and Motown groups. She wasn’t religious but she related to the “truth” of Gospel, and once described Vaughan’s vocal as being “like a reed instrument, like a clarinet.” It was the sadness that drew her in, and from the depths of that despair she brought forth a light that flickered bright and dangerously.

If you rewatch a performance of Winehouse’s rendition of “Don’t Go to Strangers” (originally performed by Etta Jones in 1960) you see the gift that both cursed and cured her. It’s one of her most extraordinary televised moments on British TV: on Later… with Jools Holland, you see a slight yet glamorous goddess standing between two male maestros on piano (Paul Weller and Holland himself), hiking the hem of her dress up and holding onto it for dear life as she projects her pleas down the barrel of the lens and into the hearts of the viewers. Most of the song is performed by those sharing the stage, but Winehouse is the real whole of it. She’s the joyful smile on Weller’s face, she’s the bounce in Holland’s hands, she’s the toot in Michael ‘Bammi’ Rose’s saxophone solo, and as she pips them all to the post with the final chorus, her grief becomes our collective celebration.

The world tried to put upon Amy Winehouse a tragic quality, but she never bought it.

Amy wasn’t merely inspired by Black voices, she built a band resplendent with Black musicians. Her first collaborator, Salaam Remi, a New York-based hip-hop producer, would link her with rap icon Nas. She worked with the Dap-Kings on Back To Black and intended to collaborate with Questlove but visa issues derailed that plan. Her list of aspirations included singing with British ska legend The Specials.

Her embodiment of jazz and R&B met a visual presentation that evolved between her two records Frank and 2006’s seminal Back To Black. It graduated from Topshop streetwise to Teddy Boy rockabilly pin-up, influenced by the fashion emerging from vintage throwback stalls in her home of Camden Market. Her broad kohl eyeliner and sky-high hair became the armor she required to face increasingly hostile scrutiny from the press—even as her fans continued to love her.

It seemed the more Winehouse projected toughness and whip-smart humor, the more her public wanted to test her mettle. As Back To Black elevated her from respected critical darling to platinum-selling, chart-topping, tabloid-baiting household name, her musical life began to tragically play second fiddle to a caricature that was beyond her control. The 2015 Asif Kapadia documentary Amy wagged the finger of blame at the public. It argued that after emancipating herself from crying on the kitchen floor, heartbroken and jilted, with an album that liberated a generation of listeners, that very same audience then imprisoned Winehouse by projecting her victimhood back onto her.

Amy’s death on July 23, 2011, at the age of 27, from alcohol poisoning, after sobering up from drug addiction, felt inevitable. I lived off Haverstock Hill at the time, sharing a Venn diagram of pubs in Winehouse’s stomping ground. There’s a part of the London Tube’s Northern Line where—in the age before WiFi was available—you got a flash of phone signal heading north. It was a Saturday afternoon. I had been into town, and was returning home. While traveling past Camden I got a text from my mother to tell me “Amy’s dead.” As the doors of the train bleeped shut and I looked up from that message, the universe immediately became emptier.

In January this year, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles invited me to interview two of Winehouse’s former friends onstage for the opening of a new exhibition. Beyond Black has been designed to unabashedly celebrate Winehouse, mainly through her iconic wardrobe, and her personal items, diaries, and record collection. Her handwritten lyrics are on display; girlish, with hearts scribbled around them. Behind a glass case there was a list of her ambitions for fame, including a desire to make a movie alongside Steve Buscemi, collaborate with rapper Missy Elliott and producer Timbaland, and to own more than 300 pairs of shoes. The display speaks from a love that was lacking in the Kapadia documentary.

I walked up to a stage shared by Catriona Gourlay, who once lived in a flat in Camden with Winehouse and was one of her closest pals, and Naomi Parry, who Winehouse spotted when Parry was young and hired as her personal stylist. The pair had never spoken publicly about Winehouse until our conversation. They shared the experience of coming across bags of their friend’s belongings. Gourlay recalled herself opening one case, and Winehouse’s odor suddenly washing over her—a mixture of perfume (Givenchy Hot) and crème brûlée-scented body cream. It caught her off guard. She looked at me about to cry, then made a joke about how intense Amy smelled. That flit from irreparable loss to laughter felt like Winehouse. It was as though she was in the room.

Spending time with these brilliant women provided an insight into the star, or rather a confirmation. Their vivacious company felt like holding back tears in favor of far too much to celebrate, howl over, and marvel at. What struck me again is how very Jewish it all felt. The world tried to put upon Winehouse a tragic quality, but she never bought it. “I don’t care if you don’t love me, I will lie down in the road, pull my heart out and show it to you, know what I mean?” she said.

No matter how many times she got beaten down, her heart was wide open to receive. Her belief never wavered. She sashayed her troubles away in favor of entertaining with a story. She turned insults into compliments. If you told her she had the accent of a London cab driver, she’d clap back and tell you that she schooled herself as a singer in the passenger seat of her father Mitch’s black cab. Her signature hit “Rehab” began as a joke, in a conversation with her producer Mark Ronson, who told her the line, “They tried to make me go to rehab and I said no, no, no,” was worthy of embellishment. The rest came to her in five minutes.

Winehouse hated going to cheder and only prayed on Yom Kippur. She was in the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade, but you don’t imagine for long. She once said, “Being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family. It’s not about lighting candles and saying a bracha.” Her great-great-grandfather arrived from Minsk in 1890 and her family followed a typical trajectory from the East End of London to its northern quarters. In her letter of application to the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School at the age of 12, she wrote: “The only reason I have to be this loud is because you have to scream to be heard in my family.” According to Gourlay and Parry, she was a feeder, and would often make chicken soup for her friends. Rumor had it she fed the paparazzi who camped outside her front door.

Nourishing her own foes! The portrait reminds me of a North London Jewish girl I met on Birthright. She had the same countenance as Winehouse, smoked weed with troublesome boys and was a break-dancer, which seemed ludicrously un-Jewish to me. But the fact that she refused to dwindle herself in deference to the secular world rendered her an eternal Jewish asset.

Recently, Amy’s father, Mitch, has been more open to discussing the mental health issues that plagued his daughter, admitting that the Jewish mindset of brushing such things under the carpet has never been helpful in his family’s battles. Winehouse suffered from eating and anxiety disorders from a young age, and fame exacerbated these plagues. As she wielded an image of strength through adversity, the public forgot to show her empathy and kindness, instead deepening the chasms of her self-loathing by rendering her the butt of their jokes and making her the excuse for their daily procrastination.

For the last five years of her life, Winehouse wasn’t able to match her peak recording or performance days. In 2007, she would be booed offstage and jeered at. On July 20, 2011, she surprised her goddaughter and protégé Dionne Bromfield onstage at her local Camden Roundhouse. It would be her final public appearance.

Amy Winehouse loved to take care of people, and in turn society let her down. Community failure helped to destroy a superlative superstar, and it’s our continuing loss. Wherever Amy Winehouse is now, her eternal light demands better of the place she left behind.

Eve Dov Ber is an LA-based, Scottish freelance music journalist, and former Deputy Editor of the NME. She currently contributes to New York Magazine, The Guardian, the LA Times, Pitchfork, and GQ, among other publications.