Amy Winehouse: The Dangerous New Queen of Soul
Everyone's talking about this crazy bird Amy Winehouse...except Amy Winehouse.
It’s 2 A.M. and I’m waiting for Amy Winehouse in the lobby of the Soho Grand wearing a slice of tomato on my head. She bet me $100 that I couldn’t walk to the bar across the street without it falling off, but just as we were leaving, she made an unannounced detour to her room. That was a half hour ago, and to be honest, I’m starting to feel like an ass.
Finally, the elevator opens and Winehouse steps out — a leaning tower of raven-black hair, supported, barely, by a wisp of a body — and sighs when she sees me. I follow her onto Grand Street, my head tilted high like a runway model. Seeds dripping into my eyes, I am the picture of poise and dignity, mere steps away from earning my bounty. Then she slaps me on the back of the head, sending the tomato slice to the sidewalk.
“Oops.” Winehouse smiles impishly and bats her Cleopatra eyes like she knows it’s enough to keep her out of trouble.
So far, it has been. But since her brassy retro-soul album Back to Black and its unapologetic ode to overindulgence “Rehab” came out of nowhere this spring to go gold and counting, Winehouse has garnered a CV that any rooster-haired, skinny-jeans-clad rocker might covet: problem-drinking, scandalous romances, coke-nostril gotcha shots in U.K. tabloids, wince-inducing weight loss, Us Weekly photo ops with Paris and Perez, and a refreshingly unpolished don’t-give-a-fuck attitude toward all of the above. Three years ago she was an innocuous, girl-next-doorish, virtually tat-free, full-figured neo-jazz crooner with middling sales and no American distribution — now she’s Sid Vicious. Music’s most authentic punk is a 23-year-old white Jewish girl from the London suburbs who sings like a lost Supreme.
Winehouse walks into the bar, Toad Hall, hand in hand with her fiancé of two weeks, Blake Fielder-Civil, 23. He’s the one with the week-old amy tattoo behind his right ear and the Amy-as-mermaid on his right forearm that he got just four days ago. In a porkpie hat and Fred Perry polo shirt with the short sleeves rolled up, he knows a thing about impish smiles himself. (Two weeks from now, they will marry in Miami, and they were still married at press time.) Blake and Amy have matching crisscross scars and scratches up and down their left arms, presumably from a misbehaving house cat. The hickey on her neck looks fresh, and she’s missing at least one important tooth (reportedly thanks to a drunken spill in London last March). Her sparkling engagement ring barely obscures a tattoo of the letter A, for her last boyfriend, Alex. When Amy Winehouse is not onstage performing, she is making out with Blake Fielder-Civil, Nancy to her Sid.
The jukebox is broken, so Winehouse commands the bar’s iPod — with the exception of Nas and Mos Def and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she doesn’t want to have much to do with anything post-1960s funk and doo-wop. “I don’t listen to a lot of new stuff,” she says, thick accent tripped up by the hint of a stutter. “I just like the old stuff. It’s all quite dramatic and atmospheric. You’d have an entire story in a song. I never listen to, like, white music — I couldn’t sing you a Zeppelin or Floyd song.”
Fielder-Civil marches to the pool table in the back and writes his name on the board. One of the guys currently playing is bald, in his 20s, and seemingly hammered. “Hey, you know who you look like?” he asks Fielder-Civil. “You ever see Can’t Hardly Wait? You look like that guy from Can’t Hardly Wait.”
Fielder-Civil shrugs and takes a seat. He’s charming and smooth, eager to talk about Don DeLillo, less so about his pending assault charge back home. And he’s helpful enough to suggest that wearing a tomato on one’s head might not be the best way to earn someone’s respect.
“Ethan Embry! That’s his name. Ethan Embry. He was in Can’t Hardly Wait. Anyone ever tell you that you look like Ethan Embry?”
“No. No one. Anyone ever tell you that you look like Moby?”
Everyone laughs, albeit a bit uncomfortably. The bald guy continues to yammer to his friends about Ethan Embry. Fielder-Civil whispers into my ear cheerily, “Tell the guy who looks like he has leukemia I’m going to slit his throat.” I don’t.
Though they’ve been involved on and off for two and a half years — much of that while dating other people — Winehouse and Fielder-Civil have only been back together for a month, and they are in the grips of some intense puppy love. Most of the songs on Back to Black are about their tortured romance and the self-abuse it inspired, but they are visibly enjoying its current, decidedly nontortured status. To be around them is to stare at the ground uncomfortably while they grope and wipe saliva on each other — or alternatively, as increasingly seems to be the case, to gawk and take pictures. They couldn’t give a fuck either way. The name blake on the chalkboard has been amended; it now reads, AMY BLAKEY BIG BOLLOCKS.
Considering that Winehouse’s previous album, 2003’s Frank, was never released in the U.S. and that she was virtually unknown here before March, she must be taken aback by the alarming speed at which things have taken off, but she doesn’t act like it. Three days ago she played her biggest American show to date, at a packed-beyond-capacity Coachella tent just before sundown. And though every rock act in the universe would be appearing at some point during the weekend, her arrival — delayed though it may have been — created the most palpable buzz.
She makes diva music, but Winehouse couldn’t have looked less like one as she stepped onstage, wearing a white wife-beater and denim shorts that may well have been made for a nine-year-old. She strutted barefoot, and every time she took a sip of her drink, the crowd whooped appreciatively. Windswept, slept-on, and quite possibly ashed-into beehive notwithstanding, she looked no different from any other kid out getting wasted in the sun.
As celebrity well-wishers go, she seems to have a type: Before she took the stage, she was ambushed by Danny DeVito, who somehow managed to say he was “a huge fan” without anyone giggling. And immediately after her set, as she was rushing into the van that would bring her back to her trailer, there was this encounter:
“Amy, I’m Ron Jeremy. I just want to say I love you. You were great.”
“Oh, wow, thank you! This is my fiancé, Blake.”
“You’re a lucky man, Blake. Amy, if you ever get tired of this guy, you should give me a call!”
Winehouse cocked her head a little and climbed into the van. “Fuck off.”