"I SWEAR TO FUCK, I'M NOT USUALLY THIS SHIT." Amy Winehouse and the Dap-Kings are on the TRL set in the MTV studios, now decorated to resemble a swanky nightclub. She's flubbed the opening of "Tears Dry on Their Own" twice. This is the taping of the first episode of a new show, 45th at Night. Flickering lightbulbs on cocktail tables appear to the camera's eye to be classy candlelight, and the studio audience isn't shrieking at Damien Fahey, but rather sitting silently and awkwardly. The beer they're drinking is real, for that extra night-on-the-town touch. In the greenroom, a cabal of label muckety-mucks pick silently at their cheese cubes, watching pop's great white hope regain her composure.
"Where's Blake sitting?" Winehouse's manager grumbles under his breath.
Nearly every song requires at least two takes, which may not entirely be what the network had in mind when it proposed this intimate, spontaneous performance series, but Winehouse is more interested in getting it done right than getting it done quickly. One of her heroes, Mos Def, arrives (late) to freestyle a verse on "Mr. Magic," a Frank outtake that is, Winehouse tells the audience, "about weed," and requires four takes. "You guys get to go home if you want," she tells the audience, "but I'll be here till Thursday if I have to." This winds up not being necessary. After two hours, the taping finally wraps, and Winehouse works the industry-heavy receiving line like a gracious pro.
"That was fucking horrible," she recalls a few days later, sitting on the sidewalk outside a housing project on West 16th Street. It's a flawless day, cloud-free and 78 degrees. She tilts her face to the sun. "When I'm nervous, I stutter, and I had to keep stopping and starting. I wanted to die."
This is in stark contrast to the experience of riding with Winehouse to the stage at Coachella, when she was casually bullshitting in a van with her BFF Kelly Osbourne and Fielder-Civil, admiring a Polaroid he'd just taken of himself with his cock out. ("It's me with my cock out!" he explained.) Less than a minute later, she was accosted by DeVito, and less than a minute after that, playing the biggest show of her career. None of this fazed her in the slightest.
A fat man with a camera approaches. "Hey, Amy, you know what would be so funny?" he says. "If I take a picture of you in front of that beer truck. That would be so funny." He cackles so horrendously that I'm quickly introduced to my own inner Sean Penn, but Winehouse is unfailingly polite, allowing this interloper to snap a quick photo of her, but right here's much better rather than next to the truck, thanks so much. This is the byproduct of the particular brand of celebrity she has cultivated, willingly or not, and it's the reason her audience hoots and cheers every time she takes a chug of her Jack and Coke onstage. Maybe she isn't Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson. Maybe she's Dean Martin.
"It doesn't bother me," she says after the would-be paparazzo waddles away. "I mean, I write about it. I'm not going to turn around and kick the camera out of his hands. But I haven't been getting up and drinking and playing pool all day and sleeping it off, and getting up at one in the morning and going out again. I've been working. If anything, people saying stuff like that to me makes me miss going out and fucking having at it, you know what I mean?"
Winehouse claims the best advice she ever got was "Shut up," but she became a British tabloid editor's dream by consistently failing to heed that counsel, detailing her bouts with manic depression, bulimia, and boozing with a candor rarely heard from chart-topping superstars-in-waiting. She's largely complying with it now, though understandably perplexed as to why having a gold record means having to justify herself to strangers bearing tape recorders. Ask Winehouse why she thinks her classic-sounding songs and nakedly unmanaged (or unmanageable) persona are striking such a chord at this particular time, and she doesn't grasp that she should even be part of the conversation. Explain to her that one reason for her newfound mass appeal may be that her messiness feels so human and that audiences are starving for a little humanity in their pop stars, and she says she wouldn't know, she's not a pop star; she's a musician. Inquire as to whether she's proud of helping to introduce Motown and classic soul to a new generation of curious music fans, or what she thinks of the fact that the most productive source of new singing talent is a contest on TV, and she just stares through you, weary. Wonder aloud if she finds it hypocritical or unfair that the media go after her for partying, and those staring eyes glaze over entirely. Her reticence can't be due to shyness — this much we've already gleaned — but maybe to a genuine bewilderment over her rapid ascent that renders her unable to properly contextualize it just yet. Or, even more likely, she genuinely doesn't give a shit.
"I don't care," she finally says with a sigh. "I don't care about any of this, and I don't have much of an opinion of myself. I don't think people care about me, and I'm not in this to be a fucking role model. I made an album I'm very proud of, and that's about it. I don't think I'm such an amazing person who needs to be written about. And if I did, I'd be a fucking right cunt, wouldn't I? Just ask me a silly question, like, What's my favorite flavor of Tootsie Pop?"
Okay, Amy. What's your favorite flavor of Tootsie Pop?
"Cherry," she says, flashing a grin that's perhaps seen one Tootsie Pop too many. "See? It's easy! I'm just a very silly girl."
But she seems more exhausted than silly. "Maybe I'm a bit resentful because all I do is work now. If I'm not working, I'll be up for three weeks at a time, just like the old me; but I guess I'm just bored at the minute." She softens a bit. "I suppose that sounds ungrateful. I'm a lucky girl."
If staying awake for three weeks straight is her idea of stress-relieving R&R, and if making it to a 3 p.m. soundcheck and a 9 p.m. sold-out show feels like drudgery, maybe she could use a supervised time-out. And if being packed off to the Priory or Promises isn't the answer for someone who might be losing the plot, what is? Winehouse's shoulders slump. This again.
"Personally, I've had friends who have really benefited from rehab. I'm gonna go find Blake." She stands up. "We're done here, right?"
It's a rhetorical question.