Friday, November 16, 2007

Why the knives are out for Amy Winehouse

Every now and then a music critic opens rival newspapers to find opinion of a previous night's concert entirely at odds with their own. But, on the train back from Birmingham yesterday morning, I found myself increasingly angry at the coverage of Amy Winehouse's NIA show which I reported to be slurred and emotional - but mighty powerful for all that. The Daily Mirror website crowed over a "shambles" in which the tearful singer "hurled down" her microphone. Under the headline "Amy's crazed rant at her fans", the Sun's took a pious tone on her apparent drunkenness. When I got home, I watched their footage of the worst moments of the gig: they were tame and I was struck by the deafening cheering. Then, I tuned to the BBC to hear of Winehouse's "appalled" fans demanding their money back. And I wondered: what on earth did these people expect? The 24-year-old's troubles have been fodder for months now. She has been photographed drunk and bloody. She cancelled shows due to "health issues" and confessed to chemical addictions, bulimia and bipolar disorder. Then this week her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, was arrested and later remanded in custody on a charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. If the "appalled fans" had bought their £20 tickets to see a slick, wholesome pop show, they'd have had cause for complaint. But they can't pretend that was the case. Whatever else Winehouse might be accused of, the self-proclaimed "ugly drunk" can't be charged with mis-selling herself. She lives a life of high drama. And she has used that troubled experience to create an excellent album's worth of highly dramatic songs about desperate love, alcohol addiction and drug smoking. Her "appalled fans" must have heard them or they wouldn't have paid for tickets. I should have known that parts of the media had decided how the story would run before Winehouse even hit the stage. Before she did, I was approached by a gossip columnist -himself "several pints down" - who told me what he wanted out of the night. He had to leave before the show ended and phoned me up afterwards for scandal. "Tell me she fell over - go on!" "She dropped her mic," I told him. "She stumbled a bit. But her voice, her own songs: when they were great, boy, were they great." He didn't like it. "Yeah, but she insulted the audience! I heard that!" So now we come to the "crazed rant". When a group of young men booed, Winehouse pointed out that if they didn't like her music they were "muggy ****s" for buying tickets. While indecorously phrased, she had a point. There was definitely an element of rubber-necking in some groups. They'd come to leech off the drama. To participate in it. As she cried and drank and proclaimed that she loved her husband, I hope they got their money's worth. It takes guts to walk out on stage and perform your personal tragedy for public consumption, stadium-size. It takes even more to defend yourself when a few people think your emotion might get the better of you. I couldn't do it. I doubt many of the booers could either. Because Winehouse is a real, honest talent. A great unflinching songwriter with a raw voice. And, in the tradition of artists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, she came out and gave it to us, how it felt. Passionate, desperate, tragic and lonely. She was a little lost girl with the strength to howl it like it was. I've seen Winehouse perform many times, apparently drunk and seemingly sober. To be honest, it's hard to tell the difference. She always slurs, wanders, wobbles, gets caught up in the emotion. I saw her sing to a tent of about 12 people in Texas with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. She poured her soul into those songs. She didn't seem to care who was listening. And that's true artistry. I hope she beats the booze. I am sorry she's in the mess she's in. But I wish the jeerers wouldn't take away the one thing she really has, which is a huge ability to sing songs I suspect will still be around decades from now. Perhaps the most depressing criticism of Winehouse came from a young fan I met on my way out of the venue. "I didn't think it was bad," said the girl, "but she didn't sing it the way she sang it on the album." Isn't that the whole reason we go to see musicians perform live? To catch something different? A moment of unrepeatable emotion? Although Winehouse messed up several songs, when she poured her present distress into love songs to Blake I felt my own heart break for her just a little. It must have been like that to see Holiday or Simone. Flaky. Brilliant. Honest. Live. And, even for the "appalled", surely unforgettable.