Friday, 29 July 2011

Amy Winehouse: Meeting and remembering a truly great Londoner

Amy Winehouse came out of the London suburbs to become an essential part of the city’s pop hierarchy with a voice, attitude and words all of her own. That she was born and grew up in Southgate is only worth a mention in passing. To dwell on that would be as pointless as highlighting David Bowie’s origins in Beckenham or Kate Bush’s birth in Bexleyheath. The pull of London’s centre for those born and raised on the fringes of it is inexorable. Ask anyone which place they think of when they think of Amy and “Camden” will be the only answer worth hearing.

The north London district that was a base for punk, Britpop and more became Amy’s playground. She stumbled into kebab houses, pulled pints in The Hawley Arms, spanked all comers at pool in The Good Mixer and stood waiting impatiently, cursing the Northern line, as so many Londoners have, on the platforms at Camden Town tube station.

Since she passed on up to the Pyramid stage in the sky last Saturday afternoon, 30 Camden Square has been visited by fans of all races and ages, with some receiving Amy’s clothes from her devoted dad Mitch. There has been talk of a permanent shrine memorial being built in the square, while this week police have been called to stop punters celebrating her memory too enthusiastically. There are flowers, cards, posters, scrawled slogans, bottles of vodka, cans of beer and cigarettes laid out in her memory. On Tuesday I paid my own respects and put down one of the latter, left at my house by a friend after a night of partying.

A more apt tribute than a static memorial, though, given the remarkable talent she had, would be a music school named in her honour. As the most gifted pupil to have graduated from Croydon’s BRIT School, Amy left all her alumni in the shade. Even Adele Adkins, the Tottenham-born and Tulse Hill-raised singer currently sitting at the top of the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Amy’s second album Back To Black, the only one she was really satisfied with, sold three million copies in the UK and 2.3m in the US before her death. But numbers ain’t everything, despite what the accountants think.

On Friday afternoon in December 2006, I was privileged to spend a couple of hours in her company. A friend and colleague of mine was filming the interview, while I kept the conversation flowing. There was no difficulty in that. Her personality was as striking as her music and her looks. Five feet three, but she might as well as been ten feet high. She was covered in confrontational tattoos and a mass of hyper-coiffured jet black hair. Full of mischief and wit, she sat there like a contemporary femme fatale, albeit with a microphone and an Oyster card instead of a gun and a Cadillac. Fittingly, halfway through the interview she had a violently angry, swear-heavy phone conversation with her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil. In a typically unafraid and honest gesture, when we suggested allowing her privacy for the call, she shook her head while we remained in the room. She told me I reminded her of a garrulous Camden pal and admitted she’d been drinking that day, but bore no tell-tale marks of the serious drug and drink problems that would ultimately contribute to her early death. She was exactly the sort of person you’d want to spend Friday afternoon with.

At the time many of the other amazing songs from Back To Black were almost impossible to avoid anywhere within the M25, much as they have been in the week since she passed away. At the time, they’d only been released two months and were still cementing themselves as modern classics. Artists had written about love, sex, heartbreak and despair before and have since, but has there been another line as enticing and as “I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good”? As unflinching as Back To Black’s opening, “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet”? As defiant as any in Rehab?

She could have sung the instructions on a Toilet Duck and made men weep in the street. That she could tear out her heart and sing about the only thing that really matters – love and why it breaks you and makes you like nothing else – turned her into a superstar. The world is sadder without her.