“Troubled” was the adjective most commonly used to describe Amy Winehouse, the dynamic British belter who rose to international prominence thanks to her defiant 2006 single “Rehab” and the near-constant coverage of her sundry of personal problems (drug addiction, public punch-ups, onstage meltdowns, to name just a few). But in light of Winehouse’s death on Saturday (July 23), it’s clear that “troubled” doesn’t quite fit; perhaps “haunted” is a better choice.
Because Winehouse was vexed in ways that were beyond troublesome; she was pursued by specters in life — addiction, love, even the paparazzi, against whom she obtained an anti-harassment injunction in 2009. And in death — her body was discovered Saturday in her home in London, under conditions which police are calling “unexplained” — it appears those specters finally caught up with her.
There was a darkness to Winehouse, a quality that went beyond the tabloid pages or her low-cut dresses or her frequent binges on drugs and alcohol. It was most apparent in her voice, smoky and smoldering and, at times, savage, but always imperceptibly pained too, just like Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin or even Kurt Cobain. It’s no wonder then that like those talents, she found solace — and, ultimately, escape — in controlled substances. Anything to numb the pain.
It remains to be seen whether Winehouse’s struggles will come to define her life; at minimum, they’ll forever be mentioned whenever folks talk about her legacy. Unlike other members of the so-called “27 Club” (of which she is now, sadly, a member), her recordings were relatively few — just two full-length albums and a handful of guest appearances — but it is perhaps a testament to their power that she’s already being mentioned in the same breath as Joplin or Cobain. Go beyond the eerily prescient sentiments of “Rehab,” to the slow-burning transcendence of “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back To Black” or “Tears Dry on Their Own,” and you’ll discover that Winehouse was a true artist … and a truly pained one.
And, as is the case with all the true greats, Winehouse became an icon, almost overnight. Her tattooed arms and towering beehive made her an instant antidote to the Britneys and Christinas that had for too long dominated the pop-music landscape, and her constant run-ins and flare-ups (and lack of concern for her public image) made her a true rebel in every sense of the word. She seemingly was not of this era, a throwback to a time both more glamorous and gritty than we could possibly remember. And because of that, no matter where she went or what she did, we couldn’t take our eyes off her.
Of course, it didn’t hurt matters that Back to Black sold like gangbusters, and her success paved the way for several retro-leaning stars, including Lily Allen, Duffy and, most notably, Adele, the Brit who currently dominates both sides of the Atlantic. And, in some ways, maybe that will be her endearing legacy: She was the one who changed it all, and nearly six years after the release of her breakout album, we’re still feeling the effects of that change.
And yet, despite all of that, in the years following Back to Black’s release, Winehouse was never truly able to escape her ghosts. Her trips to rehab facilities were nearly as numerous as her arrests, and her live performances became increasingly erratic. In some ways, it seemed like she knew she’d never follow-up that album’s success, and maybe she didn’t want to. And perhaps it’s fitting that she never will.
And, fittingly, in death, Winehouse has now cemented her status alongside all of the other sublimely talented, supremely pained stars gone too early. Carrying a weariness beyond her years, hers was a story that is sadly repeated all too often in music and one that, more often than not, usually ends the same way.