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Amy Winehouse Remembered: A Unique Artist Gone Too Soon, But Not Forgotten

Amy Winehouse Back to Black
Mishca Richter

THR music editor Shirley Halperin recalls meeting the troubled singer and seeking Winehouse out in her North London neighborhood.

The first time I met Amy Winehouse wasn’t in a smoky rock club or backstage at a regal theater, it was at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Sunset Blvd. just west of Fairfax sometime in 2007.

I had stopped in for an afternoon cappuccino when I spotted Perez Hilton typing away in the back corner and went to say hello. “Amy Winehouse is coming,” he blurted excitedly, trying to wrap up his blogging so he could devote his full attention to her. Not thinking she would actually show, I made my way to the coffee line and four minutes later, the sugar counter when I felt a blast of air from the door nearby. Amy Winehouse had made her entrance.

She was exactly how I’d seen her on TV, in the papers and, of course, on perezhilton.com: ridiculously skinny and slipping out of her dirtied white flats, the belt buckled to the absolute last notch so she could keep her cut-off denim shorts in place. Her hair was, not surprisingly, a total mess – a lopsided beehive mop of stringy extensions held in place by an improbably fastener. And she had cuts all over her arm.

Of course, I couldn’t help but saunter over for an introduction, which Hilton  happily obliged. I shook Winehouse’s hand and remember observing how firm her grip was, even though her hand was almost skeletal. We spoke briefly about her upcoming shows and how much I wanted to interview her, but realizing she and Perez had business to tend to, I left after a few minutes thinking about how pleasant she seemed, you could even say clear-headed. 

Today, Lavandeira, a longtime fan and friend of Winehouse's, reflects: “Sweet is the one adjective I can best use to describe her. She really was such a sweet person.”

The next time I saw Amy Winehouse was at South By Southwest, the annual music industry gathering in Austin, Texas where new talent is rolled out by the hundreds. She was scheduled to perform a slew of shows, ranging from afternoon slots at the Fader Fort to evening gigs at tiny (for Austin) Tex-Mex bars and legendary venues like La Zona Rosa – six in total, some were full sets, others no more than four songs, and “Rehab” was pretty much a requirement.

I caught three sets and considered myself especially lucky. For one thing, the lines to get in were ginormous. It’s a classic miscalculation that the festival puts forth year in, year out: where thousands of festival badge holders converge on the city hoping to see the next big thing and end up spending half their time waiting in line for that one buzzed about show. Winehouse’s gig at a Sixth Street venue called Eternal was just that.

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It started almost three hours later than the time advertised, just after 1:00 a.m., leaving many in the crowd wondering whether she would actually show – Winehouse’s reputation, after all, had preceded her -- but no matter which way you sliced it, an Amy Winehouse show was a commitment and nobody was budging.

By the time she hit the stage, the audience, now several margaritas in, was in the perfect headspace and clearly so was Winehouse. She positioned a cup of what looked to be a Jack and Coke for easy access, cleared her throat and grabbed the microphone. It was an uh-oh moment but also a thrilling one. Here was a talent unlike any we had seen in the post-9/11 era of politically correct, pristinely produced pop (your Ashlee Simpsons, Pussycat Dolls, etc.) -- one with grit and gravitas, who wasn’t shy about using the “C” word on stage, who sang from the depths of her soul, not to a metronome clicking in her head.

The set list had all the hits -- “Valerie,” “Back to Black,” “Tears Dry on Their Own” and, of course, “Rehab” -- and surprisingly little banter. In fact, I remember thinking Winehouse looked nervous performing in such an industry-heavy crowd, almost as if she longed for their approval. Of course, as we’d learn through the years, Winehouse didn’t give a shit what anybody thought of her.

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She loosened up as the hour-plus show went on, dancing as the crowd sang along to “You Know I’m No Good,” breaking into a reggae jam for “Me and Mr. Jones,” delivering her “Rehab” closer with a wink. She was trying. Wearing a black sleeveless Tee, jeans and those same white slippers, the sight of this frail but confident singer with a voice that seemed to defy her time brought to mind the greats: like Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.

I would have several more run-ins with Amy Winehouse during that trip to Austin, at Lavandeira’s birthday party a week later, where she giggled and gabbed with Paris Hilton and Kelly Osbourne, at the Coachella festival a month later and over the years, but an interview never materialized, so one day, I put the Britney Spears song “If You Seek Amy” into action and went to look for her in Camden, the London neighborhood Winehouse was living in around the time she won five Grammys in 2008. It wasn’t the reason I was in England (the purpose of the trip was a Coldplay interview), but I had a day off and she was still very much on the public’s mind – and mine --  so I figured it was worth a shot.

It wasn’t all that hard to figure out where she lived -- walking by Camden rock-n-roll watering hole Dingwalls in the afternoon, I struck up a conversation with what looked like a sound guy who pointed me in the right direction. He even drew out a handy map. I followed the cobble stone streets that were once regularly traveled by punk bands like the Sex Pistols and Madness, until I arrived to a group of paparazzi staked outside her door, nary a gate to keep them away from their prey.

There were only three of them, each on shift either out to make a buck for themselves or an agency. She hadn’t been seen since the night before, one of the shutterbugs told me. They surmised that she wasn’t home. It’s not unusual, however, another explained, that she would make her first appearance at around 3:00 in the morning. For good measure, he pressed the buzzer, and got no response. 

With that push of a button, he crossed a line that I hadn't fully appreciated until that moment: just how stifling the machine of fame came be, and I was part of that machine.

I remember thinking how incredibly difficult it must be to live on the other side of that door, knowing that you’re hunted 24-7, that to walk down the street to the pub is a news-making endeavor that’s probably not worth the hassle, how frustrating it must be to constantly have to occupy yourself indoors. No wonder Amy Winehouse was drawn to drugs -- it was her mental escape, since physically running was not an option.

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I gave up on my guerilla interview idea and returned to admiring Amy from afar as just another fan.

The next image I would see of Winehouse performing was her disastrous attempt to slur her way through a set in Belgrade, Serbia last month, where some 20,000 countrymen had forked over the equivalent of $57 (in a country where the average take home pay is $428 per month) for 90 minutes of tragedy. That’s what it felt like to see a helpless Amy Winehouse lean on her trusty backup singer Zalon Thompson for support, seemingly begging to be allowed off the stage.The crowd booed. 

I was asked about the incident on Good Morning America the following day and noted her precarious age, since we've lost so many rock stars at 27 -- Jimi, Janis, Jim, Kurt. At this point, it's hard to know why she died, but it's easy to speculate because the last few years have been so tumultuous. No matter what happened, it's a damn shame not knowing, as with all those legendary singers before her, what could have been.