'I've never felt so free'
It was a dark and stormy night when Amy Winehouse performed at ‘Other Voices’ – today, a year after her death, producer PHILIP KINGremembers her visitWHEN SINGERS, musicians and artists make the journey west to Dingle to sing and play at Other Voices, they find themselves in a place that is between worlds at the edge of a continent, a place of exceptional physical beauty that they find inspirational. West Kerry has its own language and accent, a rich literature and a living music.
The itinerant musician and troubadour, weary from the impossible way of life that is the road, sense that here is a safe haven and good place to sing a song, to lay down a weary tune, a good place to rock and to roll.
Over the past 10 years there have been many memorable Other Voices moments – but something very special happened the day Amy Winehouse came to Dingle.
DECEMBER 3RD, 2006, and Other Voices producer Tina Moran is worried. It is stormy, wet and windswept in west Kerry. Sheeting rain rattles like gravel against the narrow glass windows of the Church Of St James’s.
By 3pm, the light of day is already swallowed up. I go for a wander around Dingle, fretting and anxious. flights are delayed, cancelled, rerouted, rescheduled.
“Who have you on tonight?” I am asked as I make my round of the town.
“Where is she from?”
“Can she sing?”
West Kerry people love a good singer . . . but will Amy make it? It looks bad.
We are about to bow to the black weather when word arrives that Amy, bass player Dale Davies and guitarist Robert Bannerjee have boarded a flight from Heathrow to Cork. The drummer and some others didn’t make it. We send the bus the 100 miles from Dingle to pick up the Amy Winehouse trio and bring them west.
While we wait I listen to some Amy, early recordings I had from the late Chips Chipperfield of Ronnie Scott’s and Beatles Anthology fame, and the jazz-inflected Frank. It’s a great voice and, at just 22, one full of promise and expectation.
Back to Black was released at the end of October. It’s a big production, thanks to Mark Ronson, and it’s a hit.
The bus pulls up outside Benner’s hotel and out she hops, stick thin, bright and full of brio. She is not dressed for the weather – flat black pumps, skin-tight drains and zippy leather jerkin topped off with a Ronnettish beehive, a feat of hair engineering. She is cold, needs a packet of crisps and wants to go to work. A touch-up of the Cleopatra eyes, a little beehive backcombing and she heads to the church. No manager, no minder, no photographers – just Amy, Robin, Dale and the music.
The church is full: 80 people.
Amy Winehouse begins to sing, her voice compelling, vital and vulnerable. There is no excess, each of the songs stripped bare of embellishment, no drummer to hold the rhythm, so Amy holds it herself, the songs sing her.
I close my eyes and hear the blues and the sean nós in her effortless, heartbroken ornaments, an east end Jewish girl in a Protestant church in the Irish-speaking Dingle peninsula in the depths of winter.
Here are songs full of innocence and experience. Tears Dry On Their Own, Love Is A Losing Game, Back To Black, I’m No Good and the petulant Rehab, written by Winehouse. An artist on the edge of greatness about to undertake the loneliest journey of all.
She is fully present, headstrong and funny but the songs are dark, suffused with pain, rejection and failure. I hear the sorrow in her cracked voice and wonder how one so young managed the pain. Five weeks after her visit to Dingle, she is the most sought after artist in the world. Five years later, she is discovered dead, alone, at 27.
She heard the music early on and absorbed it like a traditional musician from both sides of her family. She chats with John Kelly about her Russian gran, singing jazz for the rich Russians when they come to London, her voice full of music and charming elongated east end vowels, everything from her teen infatuation with Madonnaaaah to her discovery of Ray Charles in her brother’s room and on through Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Monk.
WHEN AMY DIED, a year ago today, I called my music mate of 20 years, and Dingle visitor, Anthony Wall. Wall, the series editor of the BBC’s Arena, has created a very rich body of work and a priceless archive. We ask some questions. Arena archive producer Andrew Wright says “yes we have Monk, yes we have Ray, yes we have Dinah”. This is good news. Later, director Maurice Linnane will weave together the Other Voices RTÉ material with this BBC archive and some newly shot footage. The film sets Amy in the company of some of the world’s greatest singers, and honours her. A year after her death, here is a great artist singing her true feelings, her voice a salve and a succour to all who know the blues.
Today I am brought back to that black December night in Dingle. Amy lit up our lives, sang the blues and chased the blues away. Music producer Aoife Woodlock told me that, before she left late in the evening, Amy asked to see the sea. “I can smell it, I can hear it but I can’t see it.”
They headed for the harbour. She stood on the pier, arms aloft, her tiny frame rocking in the wind and the rain and shouted to Aoife, “I never felt so free in my life”. After a moment she turned, walked to the bus and headed away into the night. We never saw her again.
“I tread a troubled track, my odds are stacked and I go back to black.” No more black now, Amy, no more black. Ní bheidh a leitheid arís ann . . . her likes will not be seen again.
One year later . . . Checking in on Amy's legacy:
A YEAR AFTER her death, Winehouse’s music, influence and indeed imagery lives on, partly because she managed to squeeze so much into such a short life, and partly because her fans, label, and her father won’t let the world forget about Amy any time soon.
Lioness: Hidden Treasures was released in time of the Christmas market of 2011 to lukewarm reviews. Posthumous releases are always depressing, but Winehouse’s was especially so, considering it was pretty obvious that she couldn’t get it together to create a substantial body of work in the five years between the release of Back To Black and her death.
Although Winehouse was apparently “working” in St Lucia in 2009 with producer Salaam Remi, who shared the production credits with Mark Ronson on Back To Black, by 2010, Ronson said he still hadn’t started working on the album. Talking to people at Island and Universal at the time, everyone seemed quite vague about when the record would actually see the light of day. People spoke about demos and a more reggae-influenced sound, but nothing actually surfaced. There was to be no third album.
The final recording Winehouse made was released two months after her death: Body Soul, an inoffensive duet with Tony Bennett. Her father Mitch launched the Amy Winehouse Foundation with a remit to support organisations that deal with young people suffering from addiction. The proceeds of Body Soul went towards the foundation, and the duet won a Grammy.
Mitch’s book Amy – My Daughter was released last month, and he has indicated that there are plans to release more Winehouse material. A duet with Nas, Cherry Wine, appears on the rapper’s new album, Pete Doherty will be using some of her song lyrics on his next record, and Mitch has indicated there are up to two albums’ worth of unreleased material – primarily covers – in existence.
Other musicians haven’t been shy of paying tribute, with the most unlikely ode being Green Day’s Amy. But it’s Patti Smith’s This Is The Girl that really resonates: “This the girl who yearned to be heard / So much for cradling a smouldering bird.”
Arena: Amy Winehouse – The day she came to Dingle is broadcast tonight on BBC4 at 10pm