Double-sided 33 rpm. The vinyl is faded and black and already sitting in the record player, needle paused in the middle of a song that had been abruptly stopped. The album cover is placed carefully to the side, her eyes staring somewhere over your shoulder, only slightly out of focus. Empty in the sense that they don’t need to be full. You lift up the needle of the record player, placing it carefully at the edge of the vinyl. Her mouth not moving on the album cover by your side, Amy starts to sing.
I don’t have a specific moment that the music of Amy Winehouse entered my life. No ground-breaking experience that altered my state of being forever or changed my outlook on life. Just little things, small anecdotes and slivers of memory that accumulate into 11 songs, Side A and Side B.
The first song on Side A is “Rehab”, one of her most popular and well know. Its smattering of brass and percussion open Amy’s performance with a bang. The blaring horns and upbeat rhythm accompany a story of an addiction that she struggled with for much of her adult life, one that ultimately led to her death. There’s irony in the pairing of the light music with the dark lyrics; words better suited for a slow, melancholy ballad, but instead give the song truth. It describes the epitome of her struggle, broadcast over the news, slathered on the front of every celebrity magazine; no such thing as privacy, never an opportunity to let your guard down and cry.
When I was younger, maybe four or five, before I had started school, my mom used to take me and my younger sister everywhere with her. We would go grocery shopping, to the gym (I despised the dreaded “Kid’s Area), the post office, and around our suburban Dallas town doing errands. I used to think they were called ‘errands’ because her name was ‘Erin’, and that she had made up that clever name herself.
What I remember most were the car rides. More specifically, the music. Before a time of Apple Music and bluetooth connections, we used to listen to CDs. Sometimes my mom would let me or my sister choose, and we would listen to Corinne Bailey Rae, or a nauseating Taylor Swift album (from her country music days, of course). Sometimes, when she thought we were asleep or too distracted to notice, she put on Amy Winehouse. While the complex meanings and lyrics of each song flew over my head, I remember listening to those songs. I remember loving them.
The cover of Amy’s “Back to Black” album on vinyl is different than the original album cover. The original cover art depicts Amy sitting on a stool, the background a dusty blue chalkboard covered in faded images drawn in the sloppy hand of a child. She is staring forward, slumped and slouching as if it had taken her great care to even sit up. On the vinyl album cover, Amy is lying down in a bathtub, only her head visible above a foamy layer of bubbles. Her hair is elaborately done in her trademark beehive, her nails painted, makeup perfect; the picture of elegance. Her eyes are focused so slightly to her right, it could be mistaken that she is looking right at you. A tattoo is on display on her arm, tying elements of her life into the image. Not all champagne bubbles and pink lipgloss.
I’m sitting on the carpet of my living room floor, a growing pile of CDs besides my small, 7-year old feet. Next to me is the basket where my parents have organized their music collection which I am, one by one, taking apart. Sifting through CD after CD of names I don’t recognize, I pick up one with the name ‘Amy Winehouse’ written big. Her name sounds vaguely familiar to me, as if it had been whispered into my ear as I slept. I popped the disc out of its case and into our CD player, letting the abrupt melody of the first song hit me.
“Can I take this up to my room?”, I ask my mom, who’s sitting on the couch a few feet away. I had just bought (with my own money, mind you) a CD player, and was anxious to listen to as much music as I could.
“No”, she says, getting up to stop the music, “What kind of parent would I be if I let you have an Amy Winehouse CD?”
She gives me a quick smile and grabs the CD case from my hands, placing the disc back in it’s case. Reaching up to a shelf above my head, she sticks the CD out of my reach.
The album’s namesake song, “Back to Black”, is 5th on Side A, the second to last song. It’s slower, an adagio tempo to match the controlled nature of the music; it is quietly fierce, her anger subtly burning through the lazy, dragging rhythm. Despite the simplicity of the melody, Amy’s voice fills up the song, feeding her boiling emotions to the lyrics piece by piece, building anticipation slowly, calmly. The song has the same raw emotional depth of a ballad, yet Amy does not need to belt her highest note or build up to a startling climax in order to achieve its goal. The consistency of the melody creates a feeling that has not yet been put into words. It makes your stomach expand and well up with emotion; you can’t help but smile, you can’t help but cry.
We’re on a family road trip, and I am 10. Old enough to sit in the front seat and have lofty opinions of my own worldly knowledge. It was just me, my two younger sisters, and my mom driving. My dad was in another car a few miles away, taking our family dog, Maggie, with him. Our destination is a small town in the middle of nowhere, Michigan. A place where the lake expands as far as the sky, and trees are more common a sight than people.
I am sitting up front with my mom, my two sisters asleep side-by-side in the back. My mom looks back in her rearview mirror at them, and turns off the ‘family-friendly’ radio station we had been listening to. She smiles at me and puts on an Amy Winehouse playlist. The first three chords hit my ears and I am singing along under my breath, my voice barely a whisper against hers.
The final song on Side A of the vinyl album is “Love is a Losing Game”. It’s short, only 2 minutes and 35 seconds, making it one of the shortest on the album. It’s simple; both the lyrics and the melody are repeated throughout, but there is something about it that makes it inherently extraordinary. My record is scratched and worn from being constantly used, and is full of skips and jumps. This song, however, glides straight through, every chord played.
Like many of the other songs on this album, “Love is a Losing Game” is about heartbreak and the realities of love. But unlike her other songs, it is whimsical and hopeful, as if Amy herself does not truly believe what she is singing, or moreso is acknowledging the futility of her warning. Sad in the way that it has already been accepted.
12 years old, Barnes & Noble. I don’t have a romantic story of stumbling upon my vinyl in a shady corner of a used record store, battered and worn and barely able to be played. I bought my record new at the bookstore, and wore it out with countless listens. I had grabbed a Led Zeppelin album and was on my way to checkout when I saw it stacked in the discount section, marked with a red 30% off sticker. I picked it up and immediately flipped it over, making sure it was in perfect condition, no songs missing from the list on the back. My fingers set down the Led Zeppelin album next to the display, and left the store with Amy.
Side B of the album is shorter than Side A, with only 5 songs. Side A has always been my favorite, just because of the mix between the upbeat cynicism and the down to Earth emotional simplicity. Side B, though, has a different sort of beauty. Full of her lesser known songs, it finishes off her story of heartbreak. Less and less is her emotion masked by catchy choruses and clashing percussion, and we are shown more and more of the inner turmoil that made Amy who she was.
I listen to the album when I can’t fall asleep. It doesn’t help me relax so much as it makes me feel grounded. It lifts me up above reality, binding me to my dreams in a way I could never be bound to real life. I move the table with my record player close to my bed, and turn the volume on low as not to wake anyone. I always start with Side A, listening in the order that was intended.
I can’t begin to fall asleep until the first song of Side B is over; I have to stay awake to hear all of my favorite moments, and finally let myself begin to doze off towards the end. I never fall asleep before finishing the album. Some part of me always wants to hear the end, and I don’t stop myself no matter how exhausted I am.
I’m not impatient, and cherish each moment of the music that plays. The effects are adverse to what I always hope will happen; the music wakes me up, excites me with emotion and somehow hope, despite the darkness the album consumes. For 34 minutes and 59 seconds I don’t have to think about waking up the next morning to a day of school and stress, I only have to live. And I do.
Amy to me has never been a fully formed person. All that I know about her comes from her music, from the art that she put out into the world. I don’t need to read countless articles gossiping about her personal life; I only need to slide the black button to ‘On’, and wait for the music to begin.
As the last few chords of “He Can Only Hold Her” are played, I hear the whir of the record spinning and the needle tracing the final grooves in the vinyl. There is a click. It’s over, I take breath. I lay there with my entire life above my eyes and I am asleep.