In the idiocy of my own close-mindedness, I’d seen and listened to Amy before and immediately decided she wasn’t for me. The flared eye liner, the messy makeup, the beehive hair, the not-so-straight, not-so-pearly-white teeth and the squawking chorus of “Rehab” were all too much. I tuned her out and never returned. Boy was I stupid. Luckily for me, I had my friend Tim. Back To Black turns ten today, and because of him that actually means something to me.
Tim and I have been exchanging bits of pop culture with each other almost since the moment I met him. He’d explain his reverence for Kid Cudi one day, and I’d tip him off about a song by Future called “March Madness” another day. Throughout the years it had all evened out somehow until it came to Amy. I’ll never be able to repay the debt I owe him for finally getting me to hear Amy.
Tim spent years driving me around, for reasons neither of us really understand, so I spent years hearing the soundtrack of his life until eventually, parts of it became the soundtrack to mine, too. Part of the reason our friendship works is because music seems is always at the center of it. That day, we sat in his car, following the old adage that our moms used to scold us with “when you drive, you get to pick the music.” Tim hadn’t spoken a word to me about Amy Winehouse before, but when he played “Stronger Than Me” from her debut album Frank the struck such a deep chord in me that the only response I could come up with was the was the eloquent “Yo, what the f*ck is this?”
I almost didn’t believe him when he told me it was Amy Winehouse. This was the “Rehab” singer, too? That night I downloaded both her albums, Frank and Back To Black, not knowing then it’d be the only music she’d get to release in her short lifespan. Ultimately, Frank was intriguing, and special in the way only a debut album can be, but it was the brooding, jazz and Motown-infused ride of Back To Black that has forever left a stamp on my psyche, my marriage and my life. Simply put, Amy’s music transcends genre, or creed, style or gender. I was a fan.
Amy was barely 23 years old when she released Back To Black, but she still managed the extraordinary task of taking her own flaws, all jagged and misshapen, and somehow fitting them together to make a perfect puzzle. Over eleven songs, a brief 35 minutes, she ruminates and divulges every nasty detail of her demons, her vices, and relationships with the beloved and troubled Blake (and briefly, Nas). She hid nothing, and refused to paint herself in a sheen of perfection or retain the security of a glossy exterior or polite embellishment.
Often, the songs we appreciate most aren’t the ones that make us happiest — it’s the song that speak to us when we’re at our worst that we end up feel ingthe deepest. Above any other art form, music has an odd quality of turning the most painful things beautiful. At her best, Amy did this effortlessly, willfully turning her own trauma into something therapeutic for all of us. As a listener, Back To Black was blissful; a reminder that struggle of all kinds is inevitable.
Hearing her croon about an unshakable, toxic relationship on the title track is still a heady experience, even ten years later. But on the right, rainy drive home alone it could be agonizing. Each verse slowly crescendos into that booming chorus, each word stretching slightly longer than the last, remniscent of an addiction you can’t let go of. Speaking of which, later, when she warbles out “You love blow, and I love puff,” the parameters of the relationship become more clear. On the the reprise she repeats the word “black” over and over, using her incredible voice to wrap the depression in a dark elegance.
But pain is not elegant, in reality, we know these situations can be deadly. In her case, eventually they were. The reason we loved Amy so much was because she was flawed, too — that’s what made her perfect. It was her ability to share her pain — to forge it into something so dazzling with her voice — that made Amy special. That same pain took her away far too quickly, but it’s that same pain that guarantees she’ll never be truly gone. As long as we’re down here struggling without her, Back To Black will be the ideal soundtrack to that fight.
I cried when I heard the news that she’d died in the summer of 2011. Amy had demons, clearly, and losing her was always a possibility, but the shocking and sudden realization that this genius would no longer be able to create her therapy, and pass it along for my own releif was too much for me to handle in the moment. Amy was flawed, but so are the rest of us, she was one of the few brave enough to embrace those flaws and display them in a way that impacted the world for good.
Eventually, when I was driving myself around without Tim, Amy became my soundtrack as well. When my then-girlfriend, now wife fell into a routine of long, doting drives, Amy became our soundtrack for those too. The pain of Back To Black remained somehow reassuring; it was soothing to hear someone else’s flaws laid out bare, it seemed to polish and soften our own. The whole process was pleasantly excruciating, but it became one of the key memories of our early relationship, something I treasure even now.
In essence, I stole Amy from Tim, and when it came time to name my second daughter I stole one last bit from him as well. Amy’s middle name was Jade, and he’d toyed with the idea of naming his future daughter Jade one day, if he ever had one. Well, our new daughter’s first name was already decided, she would be Khaleesi, our own little Queen of Dragons. But her middle name? Well, Jade just felt right. Khaleesi Jade. A little queen powerful enough to spawn and conquer dragons, beautiful and perfect no matter what her flaws are, and even because of those flaws not in spite of them. Just like Amy. Just like Back to Black. Even if she’s gone, we can still hear her.