Credit: Rory Rockmore
Buzzworthy writer Jason Newman was among the lucky few to be on hand for Amy Winehouse's first U.S. show. In his piece below, Jason recalls that show, the big impression the tiny singer left on him and the permanent influence Amy Winehouse had on the pop music landscape.
The first thing you noticed was the hair; that ostentatious beehive perched atop a delicate, diminutive frame. Then the mouth. "Anyone here from Universal, get me more gigs," Amy Winehouse yelled to no one in particular during her U.S. debut at New York's Joe's Pub in 2007. "Just wheel me on stage."
Her breakthrough album, Back to Black, and the tabloid circus that would follow, was still two months away from its U.S. release. No one was using the now-clichéd "train wreck" to describe Winehouse. If anything, her buzzed appearance at Joe's made her more likable. "Mr. Bartender, can I get another amaretto sour?" she would ask in a coquettish lilt from the stage. Everything about those early Winehouse performances is encapsulated in that sentence: The brazen request for booze to calm her nerves, the politeness of the plea and the temerity of not caring what a show is "supposed to be," but rather, what she feels like doing at the moment.
+ Read more from Jason after the jump and tune in to MTV's Amy Winehouse tribute special, airing tomorrow on MTV at 6:30 p.m. ET/PT.
Months before, Mark Ronson, Winehouse's Phil Spector and co-producer of Back to Black, had given me a burned disc with one word scribbled across it in black Sharpie: Amy. "This is who I've been working with recently," Ronson said. "She's already big in England, but she's going to be huge here." I rarely remember the first time I hear an artist, but nearly five years later, I still have vivid memories of popping the disc into my now-extinct Discman in that crappy 41st Street pizzeria and hearing the opening lines of "Rehab."
It took about 20 seconds to get hooked. The Dap-Kings, Winehouse's backing band on Black and linchpins of the New York funk and soul scene, had long proved their bona fides, but they backed up vocalists singing about lost love, found romance and second chances. Winehouse, of course, did this too, but long before classic soul found its edge via Duffy, Lily Allen and, later and most notably, Adele, Winehouse's words gave no quarter. She was the girl who could go shot for shot with you and win, throw a glass at somebody for provoking her and then take you record shopping with a smile on her face.
Her lyrics, both on 2003's aptly named Frank and Back to Black, enraged, provoked and cracked up. It wasn't just the odd turn of phrase that her male U.S. counterparts often utilized, but entire themes and references –- missing a Slick Rick concert, drunkenly cheating on her boyfriend with a similar-looking guy -– previously unheard in soul or jazz music. Most artists begged for your love. Winehouse couldn't care less. And we loved her more for it.
Other artists appropriated 1960s soul; Amy Winehouse reinvented it, avoiding pastiche by injecting the genre with her own life stories and attitude. Like Tupac, she would grow up to be a precocious, artistic teenager -- a gifted and rebellious artist who learned more from performing to actual crowds than a traditional education.
When Back to Black was released in the U.S. in March 2007, it entered the Billboard albums chart at No. 7 behind Musiq Souldchild's Luvanmusiq, Lloyd's Street Love and Akon's Konvicted, three R&B albums that, in retrospect, don't even compare to Back to Black. As Mark Ronson told MTV Radio last year, "It's hard to remember, but before [Back to Black] came out, there was nothing else really on the radio that sounded like it. And then it kind of influenced things and became quite regular to hear something that would sound like that. I don't think there's anything that was as good as it, or as raw as Amy's vocals and her songs."
Death has a way of reducing a person's sum total of achievements and shortcomings into a few convenient sentences. In her time, Amy Winehouse was demonized and lionized, and you got the sense that she didn't care either way. But 20 years from now, how will she be remembered? As a brilliant, revivalist soul singer who imprinted a classic genre with her own brand of caustic wit and attitude? Or the constant tabloid fodder for sideline takedowns, constant publicized meltdowns and celebrity death clocks?
As much as I hope it will be the former, I'm not optimistic.