Like her cross cultural ancestors ( Dusty Springfield, Laura Nyro) Amy Winehouse was an R&B wonk; a diligent stylist whose cognitive appreciation for the genre endeared her to many a misanthropic soul fan. Unlike them, however, she danced on some dark cultural fault lines. Where as Springfield and Nyro intimated ( In Dusty In Memphis and Gonna Take A Miracle respectively) that solace from the blues could be had by immersing and intermixing musical ideas; Winehouse took her blues and drenched them on every fiber of her being. More than any R&B record of recent memory, Back to Black was consumed with loss, darkness, depression and sorrow; so much so that, for all her virtuosity, one got tired of it by a fraction. When I first heard it in 2007, I thought “ She’s got a case of the twenties, and she’s a financially backed star. She’ll quit dope, find a new man and make a record better than this one by half. Life isn’t this terrible for her. She’s a tremendous talent, but It cant be this terrible.”
I was wrong. For in listening to Black again, I hear a subtext of “ I’m sick, I don’t want to be here anymore, and I mean business” hanging over nearly every word. Now, the backdrop of stardom sounds less like her suffering in style and more like the background for her tragically public mental breakdown. More than anything, however, Black showed that she understood deep blues, and that sometimes the drive to transcended it( the cornerstone of black music) sometimes isn’t honest. Winehouse couldn’t be as resilient as Springfield or as authentically joyful as Nyro, because she wasn’t Springfield or Nyro. She was herself: messy, complicated, dark, and not beholden to neat narratives cultural critics try to box in artists with.
In the end, however, Winehouse’s best songs show a will to transform her sorrow into something that mattered on a record. In this, she is tied to not just Springfield and Nyro, but Gaye, Holliday, Hyman, Charles and the “Mr Hathaway” she so coyly name checked in the song “rehab”. For all her deep and public demons, she was a genuine artist of tremendous quality, and her sensitivity toward and understanding of soul music will be sorely, sorely missed