Her Greatest Performance

I recall sending this clip to a friend (see below) who agreed that it was indeed a profound moment and he was sorry for Amy Winehouse’s need to crash into the same brick walls Billie Holiday crashed into previously. We hoped she wouldn’t die. (This was back when we both always hoped more people we loved didn’t die.) I recall looking at this video of her performance at the 2007 Mercury Awards, and somehow Billie singing at the end of her career, clavicles so sharp and so vulnerable above the decolletage, the epitome of a kind of “don’t carish,” hip (as a little girl, Billie’s elders called her “don’t carish”), converged with Amy singing here, her clavicles so sharp and vulnerable above her decolletage and maybe caring just a little. And it was during this performance that I first recognized Winehouse’s seriousness as an artist, and how the audiences one cultivates to show one’s artistry off generally ends up being too much–the body can’t handle that much attention. As a result of success, you either crumble, or become a machine, like Madonna, or The Rolling Stones, or U2. No amount of good or bad parenting, or shrink work, or, indeed, rehab, can prepare your being for the amount of adulation that comes with popular success. If you’re an artist, you want to reciprocate this adulation with some form of intimacy outside of a song, outside of a performance, but what? You cannot kiss the world. To the singer, singing is as natural as breathing, but to the audience the effort feels super human, and it is, since it’s the projection of one’s soul. I didn’t see Amy Winehouse’s soul until she made the video for “Tears Dry on Their Own,” where she projects what I find completely charming: a white girl who can hang in a multicultural world. Winehouse’s multiculturalism was not self-conscious, or another role, but evidence of how she had grown up: in a world of difference, a girl who sang in her local synagogue as a teenager, and who hung with displaced Jamaican dudes along the way, sometimes sucking on a spliff. Music brought all these strains together, and then her greatness isolated her–a cliche no one wants to come true, but it does, time and again, encased in different and then the same stories, whether in the jazz clubs on W. 52nd Street that Billie Holiday more or less owned, or tripping along in your bloody ballet slippers in NW London. After Winehouse Fielder-Civil sang at the Mercury, I watched her ask Jools Holland what to do next. As he cheered her on, Winehouse went off with her then husband, Blake Felder-Civil, and her security guys to maybe obliterate the honor she just picked up, which was already in the past as she walked away. Looking at all this, another friend said, I hope she doesn’t die. But she did.