I'm not famous and I don't do drugs. And I identified with Amy Winehouse all the same.
Last Saturday, after I found out from Twitter that Amy Winehouse had died, I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed watching YouTube clips of her early performances, eating a block of cheddar cheese, and crying. Considering I had never met her, or even listened to her records in the last six months, my reaction might seem excessive. It shouldn't even have been a surprise — at the time of her death, Winehouse was far more famous for her personal issues — her heroin addiction, her tumultuous relationship with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, her spitting attacks on ample-bottomed English socialite Pippa Middleton — than her prodigious singing or songwriting talents.
Yet for whatever reason — sadness, shock, the effects of cheddar-cheese hormones on my endocrine system — I spent a good part of the afternoon quite upset. And as I watched her belt out "You Know I'm No Good" on Top of the Pops, followed by her most recent performance of the same song at Belgrade, I figured out why. I was not sad for Amy Winehouse as a fan, but because I strongly identified with her on many levels. In a strange way, she felt like a talented, famous, drug-addled version of myself. Thousands of people probably felt the exact same way, particularly if they, like me, listened to Back to Black incessantly after it came out and sported black bras under wife-beaters during the summer of 2007.
I will never come close to encountering the demons that haunted Winehouse throughout most of her adult life — crack cocaine, knife fights with boyfriends, physical dependence on copious amounts of liquid eyeliner. Nor do I have an iota of the talent, musical or otherwise, that she had, and so I'll never achieve the same level of success that she did. (It's safe to say that if I'm ever found dead in my apartment at the age of twenty-seven, no one will ever compare me to those other illustrious members of the twenty-seven club, Jim or Janis or Jimi; I'll be lucky if I get Pete Ham or Kristen Pfaff.)
But, like Amy, I grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish home, with a supportive mother and a loving father who provided my first exposure to the music of his generation: classic rock, pop, soul, R&B, and to a lesser extent, jazz. Like her, I was interested in writing and performing from a young age, and like hers, my family was unwavering in its support. And, as a few of my friends have pointed out, I even bore a passing physical resemblance to Winehouse, which is just another way of saying that we were both pasty and relatively large-breasted and obviously Jewish.
So when I first read about Amy in a 2006 Rolling Stone profile, I felt the tug of a connection to her. For an unconventional-looking, mouthy, fucked-up Jewish girl with performing-arts aspirations, the way I felt about Amy Winehouse was akin to the way I imagine little black boys felt in the '40s when Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers, or how women in law school felt when Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice.
Granted, Amy Winehouse was not Rosa Parks, but here was a famous member of the tribe who was allowed to pursue a path other than summer camp in the Adirondacks and a major in public relations at UMich or Indiana and a nose job for her nineteenth birthday. Here was someone who routinely described herself as "a nice Jewish girl," but of course was anything but, whose bad behavior — spitting at debutantes, swigging Jameson between sets, cupping her boyfriend's balls during interviews — was truly a shanda fur die goy. (I took a semester of Yiddish in college.)
I could also empathize with a lot in Amy's songs, albeit on a different level. In most of the tracks off Back to Black, she sang about experiencing the sting of guilt after making bad decisions, but it was clear that that sure as hell wasn't going to stop her from making them again. I could relate; I had lots of ambitions beyond getting stoned, watching TV, and hopping from boyfriend to boyfriend like a slutty Frogger, but I wasn't doing a whole lot to realize them. It was the latter tendency that was probably the most self-destructive, not to mention the most Winehouse-esque: if I jumped on someone else's lily pad along the way, or straddled two lanes at once, I didn't feel great about it, but that sure as hell didn't stop me from hitting the restart button and doing it all over again.
So when Amy recounted her various betrayals and infidelities, reciting a laundry list of her transgressions against the people who loved her, her biting yet unapologetic frankness felt much more organic and closer to my own experience than anything Dylan or Patti Smith or Kurt Cobain ever penned. She wore her indecisiveness and poor judgment proudly, like a full-body tattoo; even when she sang about waking up with carpet burns on her back and fucking her ex-boyfriend on the kitchen floor, you never got the sense that she was playing the icy seductress. She was more like the vulnerable, insecure girl who complies when the handsome bartender/artist asks her for a blowjob in his Bushwick studio, partially because she still hasn't learned how to play hard to get yet, and partially because she really doesn't want to play hard to get at all.
It was nice to know that there was someone else out there who had issues with fidelity and impulse control and the need to (as she wrote in her application essay to a London performing-arts school) "be the loudest voice in the room" while never feeling like you've reached more than a whisper. Then Amy began to sink deeper into her vices and addictions; her ambivalence and self-destructiveness, once charming and relatable, were now simply tabloid fodder, a joke that was a punch line in itself. She was no longer reaching for the mic instead of the needle, except when she was getting booed off the stage for cursing at the audience and forgetting the words to her songs. Still, even when she was making a mess, it seemed to me that she was somehow okay; at least making a mess proves that you're still kicking.
Of course, she's no longer around to make a mess, and now I wonder how I failed to see it coming before everyone else did. I feel sort of like the friend of a recent suicide, the one who stupidly marvels that her friend's death came out of nowhere when everyone else could easily see the cuts on the arms, the unwashed hair, the cryptic messages. Still, that glib acceptance that her death was predictable bothers me; I don't understand how someone could listen to the opening licks of "Stronger than Me," or look at childhood photos of Amy dressed as a (Jewish) Minnie Mouse for Halloween, and feel anything other than sadness at having lost someone so special so soon.
I don't want the totality of Amy Winehouse's existence to be summed up by an ironic hashtag; I want her to be remembered as someone who fucked the bartender-artists because she wanted to, who spat at Pippa Middleton because she could. (And who the hell wouldn't want to spit at Pippa Middleton, anyway?) And if she's up in dirty filthy rock-star heaven right now, trading hangover stories and tales from life on the road, I hope that she is making an absolute mess of the place, and that hers is still the loudest voice in the room.