In January 2007, I was at Amy Winehouse’s debut live performance in America, hosted at Joe’s Pub in New York. It had been a few months since she’d released “Back to Black” in the U.K., and the label was starting in on a formal introduction to the Mercury Prize-nominated singer here in the ‘States.
She performed on an elevated stage over dinner tables, her tiny dress proving all the more scandalous. She took the stage with the Dap-Kings, each like props or toys around which she would weave, her knees like a foal’s capping over her towering heels. Her body was thin, but that voice rattled out of it with a shambling boom. One hand held the mic as the other held a wine, almost perpetually, as if one were dropped she’d keel over like a tippled scale. When she wasn’t holding a glass, she’d fuss with her short hemline, smooth her hand over her stomach or cup her breasts and bodice.
I thought she sounded magnificent. I remember the title track and how she bowed down over the chorus, “I died a hundred times,” emphasis on the “hundred,” and found it delicious that even after an early evening show, this raw-nerved rambler would be dragging her North London-drawled banter and throwback tunes into a second set, later after ours was done. I didn’t know how she’d get there, but she did. (“Back to Black” turned out to be my No. 2 favorite record that year. She released two albums total.)
About a month after that show, Britney Spears was in the news because she shaved her head. It was in the middle of what seemed like an inevitable and heartbreaking descent for the pop star, a breaking point that wasn’t altogether expected but also unsurprising. She had divorced only a couple months before, and bounded in and out of rehab treatment centers after. Spears was many, many moons into her fame. She was acting out, or acting up in rebellion, or shutting in, a coping.
Spears has since seemingly grabbed hold of the yoke and climbed up from her rock bottom, but the moment was poignant to me at that time, because I’m the same age as her — 26 then — and I grew up with her, in a way. After she lost custody of her kids and her parents had to fully take control of her handling and handler, jokes abounded, on the tip that Britney Spears was not a girl but not quite a woman.
Toxicology reports pending, it seems Winehouse — who ultimately became known more as a punchline than the bundle of raw talent that she was — similarly had her lyrics bite back, having written her own obituary with a festive and resounding “no, no, no.”
A lot has been made about the age 27, how many famed musicians have died so young (including Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, etc.). It’s weird, to be sure, but within the context of meteoric rising fame combined with any innate demons and hobbling predispositions plus the natural arc of coming-of-age, there’s something writ in never making it to 28 or thereabouts. It’s an age things hit the fan in a hurry, if the whole world’s watching.
Winehouse’s death has been a reminder to me that there is no “famous” without “us.” None of us made Amy Winehouse piss away her life on booze and drugs, but there’s still this aching, cynical, music-loving heaviness that accompanies the fame we collectively issue and withdraw from our stars. We were part of the singer’s life, as much as she was a small part of some of ours. Some famous people just don’t hold such a load very well.