When I heard Amy Winehouse died my first reaction was one of scolding. “Of course she did,” I thought. “The woman treated her body like a hazardous waste bin. That was only a matter of time.” But after that sort-of natural knee-jerk sociopathic defense against death had passed, I realized that I was actually, startlingly, sad about it. And I didn’t really know why. I listened to her music, but only casually.
For a long time, if you heard Winehouse’s name, you immediately thought of an emaciated, stumbling, hair-all-asunder enigma. That was her image—cultivated by a media more interested in gossip than greatness.
Not that Winehouse did herself any favors. She ruined her concerts. Her stunts were public and eventually YouTube-public. Her interviews were terrible and you could always count on echoes of “She was totally on [chemical]” when it was over. You’d be challenged to Google “Amy Winehouse” and find many flattering pictures.
And maybe that was why I cared. Like any addict or anyone riding a recreational poison, she existed with that “toxic aura that prevents connection,” as Russell Brand beautifully phrased it. You couldn’t sense her. You couldn’t access who that person was—until she started singing.
Her voice let you pass through the muck and took you to a place that seemed impossible; an authentic beam of light through, and slightly colored by, that toxic aura. It revealed an unexpected soul, while making you notice your own. Even if you didn’t know about her tortured existence, you felt the resonance in her voice.
Someday we will talk about Ella, Billie—and Amy. But because she died at age 27, she will likely be more linked to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, who all went to the great gig in the sky at the same age, for the same reasons. Whether dying at that age is coincidence or the culmination of a tormented, drug-addled gift—who knows.
I’d like to believe genius doesn’t abide by rules.