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Spirit of the Beehive

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In my favourite picture of Amy Winehouse, she’s holding a hoover. It’s partly the thought that Amy Winehouse did the hoovering, partly that she looked like that – hair aloft, fag askew, lids weighed down with liner – full-time. She always mixed the real and the unreal. Her voice, described in the New Yorker as a kind of ‘aural blackface’, belonged in several decades at once. Her version of ‘Valerie’ made the Zutons’ sound like a cover; the way she sang it, it could almost have been an original Motown song – the reverse of what Phil Collins once did to ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Detroit met Southgate somewhere in her voice. A North London Jewish daddy’s girl, who was photographed last year sucking her thumb with her father’s arm round her, Winehouse might have seemed an unlikely Lady Day. Still, she certainly suffered for love of the wrong men, notably her effete yet thuggish ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who hasn’t been let out of prison for her funeral.

I was in a pub on Saturday when I heard that she’d been found dead. ‘Where? In her flat?’ one of the three women behind the bar asked another. ‘Was she naked?’ They all giggled. I was surprised by the number of people smirking. It wasn’t only the usual schadenfreude aimed at famous young women. They seemed almost impressed that Winehouse had completed her old-fashioned rock-and-roll story, just as the next day’s papers kept bringing up the other members of the so-called ‘27 club’ (Cobain, Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix). Despite the endless tabloid shots and YouTube videos – Winehouse half-undressed, or bleeding, or apparently smoking crack – it was hard not to think that she’d get older, that there would be more albums, comeback tours, that she’d end up going to rehab after all. Even the paparazzi hanging around her house, feeding on her antics, used to think so: ‘I just want for her to get better,’ one of the photographers was quoted as saying in 2008. ‘I’m hoping someday for that set of pictures of her riding her bike in the park or something healthy.’

A gift to gossip writers, Winehouse was nonetheless famous for actually being good at something. She was retro even in her celebrity; one of the most exposed in a culture of unprecedented over-exposure, she still appeared mysterious, as if she was disguised as herself. ‘I heard that she wakes up every day four hours before her husband to put on her face,’ she once said of Dolly Parton. ‘Four hours! I think that’s cool.’ The look that spawned a hundred Halloween costumes was an oddly flexible one, which seemed to compress Winehouse’s whole story, just as her lyrics often did: the witty, cartoonish glamour was there, but also the cracks, the ruin. She looked as if everything had already happened to her.

Comments on “Spirit of the Beehive”

  1. alex says:

    Great article – really evocative and observant. Thanks.

  2. lostlit says:

    The best epitaph I’ve read for her. Respectful, appreciative but knowing. I wasn’t a huge fan of Winehouse but fascinated and appreciative of her talent in a way that I couldn’t better have expressed than Haas has. This is temper and tone of how everyone should be assessed.

  3. Martin says:

    Perhaps she has ended up in rehab.

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