Published July 23, 2011
NEW YORK – There may not be another singer whose life was so defined and embodied by one song.
When Amy Winehouse first released her biggest hit, 2007's "Rehab," it was received as wry, witty, and brilliant form of self-reflection, given her history of drug and alcohol addiction, already well-documented though she was just 23 years old then.
As the album that it came from, "Back to Black," became a multiplatinum sensation and the singer behind it fell deeper and deeper into addiction, the lyrics — "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, 'No, no, no,'" — became harder to enjoy.
And as she repeatedly relapsed after several rehabilitation attempts and went into a drug free-fall, the lyrics became cautionary, and later, contributed to the caricature of a deeply disturbed woman whose stunning talent was wasting away, along with the body that talent occupied.
With Winehouse's death Saturday at age 27 — joining the ranks of drug-addled rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison, who died at the same age — perhaps now people will be able look past that one song. Perhaps now we can appreciate her for what she was — a dazzling, versatile singer blessed with a mind that produced lyrics that were coarse, hilarious, heartbreaking and revelatory, and always spellbinding.
Just as Winehouse was so much more than a drug addict, her music was so much more — and richer — than "Rehab."
Certainly, it was the song that made her a worldwide sensation — it also captured her record and song of the year at the Grammys in 2008. But the former teen celebrity came into her own as an artist a few years before, with the 2003 album "Frank." Whereas "Black to Black" relied heavily on a retro, 1960s soul groove, "Frank" hearkened to an even earlier time. On the album, she enveloped a world inhabited by jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, yet decidedly modern: One song was titled "(Expletive) Me Pumps."
Her malleable voice had great range, and expertly embodied the emotion of the moment — from sassy defiance to lovelorn longing. The album made her a hit in her native Britain, and also made the spotlight white-hot on the singer, and her apparent demons.
Tabloids chronicled her drunken behavior, drug use, dramatic weight loss, and troubled love life — it was around this time she became involved with Blake Fielder-Civil, who would later become her husband, as well as her drug partner.
Though Winehouse would remain a fixture in the press, it would more than three years for "Back to Black," her next album, to come out. A triumph when it debuted in Britain in late 2006, its release in the United States was highly anticipated: At one intimate showcase before its release, VIPs like Jay-Z showed up to get a listen to the much-heralded performer.
Musically, Winehouse delivered. The album was considered one of the best of that year, and will likely be considered as one of the best of her generation. Delving into her own warped mindset, the album chronicled her troubled romantic life and the despair over it with sultry brilliance: Her drug troubles only took center stage once, on "Rehab" (A song "Addicted," about her love of marijuana, was left off the album's American edition).
"Rehab" was the album's biggest single, becoming a top 10 hit in the United States. While the album didn't spawn any follow-up hits, it was a cohesive gem that transfixed the music world.
Although she was a musical triumph, she became better known to the masses worldwide for her precipitous decline into the depths of drug addiction. When she put out "Back to Black," she declared herself sober: by the end of 2007, she was dealing with troubles with the law, failed attempts at rehab, erratic behavior, and canceled concerts.
Still, she was the belle of the Grammys in 2008 as she captured five trophies, including two of the night's most prestigious trophies for "Rehab." The fact that she could not attend the Los Angeles ceremony because she was in rehab — and performed from London after getting a brief reprieve from her facility — only crystallized her reputation as an extremely fragile, self-destructive persona.
The night, during which she won five trophies, was the highlight of her life, and a moment she could never recapture.
Instead of taking the path toward sobriety, Winehouse descended into more drug-induced madness. She appeared at concerts sporadically, and when she did, often gave incoherent, disheveled performances that angered the crowds. At times, she also flaunted her drug use in the media.
Musically, with the exception of an occasional recording here and there, she faded into the background, as other new talents — Adele, Lady Gaga — took her place as the sensation of the moment.
Still, many music fans were still waiting for her comeback. But with each moment that passed, it seemed unlikely that she would be able to get herself together for such an undertaking. Though a new album was teased for 2011, she clearly wasn't in any shape to sing; In June, she checked into a clinic that treats drug problems. Later that month, she canceled her European tour after embarrassing herself yet again with another disjointed mess of a performance in Serbia.
So, like so many deeply disturbed performers, Winehouse's life ends with no chance for another act: She becomes yet another cautionary tale that some will follow, and others choose to ignore.
But like Hendrix, Joplin, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland and other celebrities with tragic downfalls, her musical legacy — though ever so brief — will provide that comeback, for her musical legacy.
Nekesa Mumbi Moody is the AP's music editor. Follow her at http://www.twitter.com/nekesamumbi