Amy Winehouse: Heavenly voice told of life in pits
Amy Winehouse, dead at 27, was an extravagant talent. It is artists like her who help make life worth living. She knew suffering, and used it creatively, weaving the darkness into songs so strong they became instant classics.
She went to the lowest places a person can go - drink, drugs and desperation - and sent back pitch-perfect dispatches about life down there.
She didn't do gloom. She did despair - huge, melodic, defiant despair. She danced on the precipice in leopard-skin heels; she twirled in the vortex of her own personality. Invisible chorus lines high-kick and shimmy through every song, no matter how desolate its lyrics. At 21, when she released Back To Black, she had "died 100 times", and you believed her.
A born north Londoner, it would be fitting for her to rest in Highgate Cemetery, suitably full of the gothic and gifted from Lizzie Siddal to George Eliot. Her grave, like Jim Morrison's in Paris's Pere Lachaise, would be constantly garlanded with flowers, wine and fags. How else to pay tribute to her? Donate to rehabs? Get angry about parasitic dealers and plastic surgeons who took money in return for giving her what she didn't need and her body couldn't handle? Take better care of that wounded bird in your life, the person everyone is tired of worrying about? Press play?
As Black To Black climbed to number one in the iTunes Store yesterday, I repurchased Frank, her first album. It is painful to hear a new posthumous echo on that great voice, always so contemporary and intimate, like a friend's. Frank is light but acute, not yet solipsistic like Back To Black, but outward-looking, engaged. October Song is a riff on Lullaby of Birdland she wrote for her pet canary "and Ava flies, in paradise/She's reborn like Sarah Vaughan" - a poignant song today.
The catty, observational ditty F*** Me Pumps pokes fun at a barfly gold-digger: "You can't sit down right, cos your jeans are too tight," she smiles, her voice curdling with amusement. "With your big empty purse, every week it gets worse," and after a one-night stand "you don't even get no text".
She reserves most scorn for herself, of course, already developing her first-person confessional. In I Heard Love Is Blind she tells her boyfriend that, yes, she was unfaithful, "but he looked like you, Yes, he looked like you, You wouldn't want me to be lonely..." I saw her play this song at a private gig in 2003. She looked healthy and had all the world ahead of her as she stood up, strapped her guitar across her chest and belted it out, confident of her cast-iron talent, enjoying the way she subverted its lovey-dovey melody with dark, twisted lyrics.
She was funny. That gave spice to all her work, gave it that razor edge. When she was performing at Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park, and her husband Blake Fielder-Civil was in prison, she changed the famous "free Nelson Mandela" chorus to "Free Blakey my fella".
It was a story Gordon Brown enjoyed recounting to journalists afterwards.
She was the defining British singer of the noughties, and her soul-revival was in tune with its fascination with "vintage".
Yet she was a law unto herself. It was sad to watch her disintegrate, into a caricature of herself, all beehive and no hope. Yet we did hope. Until now.