In the fall of 2007, while I was a grad student in New York, I couldn’t stop listening to Back to Black. My roommate and I played it as we lined our eyes to go out in Brooklyn; I played it behind the bar at the half-student, half-uptown-townie dive where I tended twice a week. My best friend was Amy for Halloween; she stuffed a T-shirt under her thick chestnut hair to achieve the iconic beehive’s height.
We twisted, we swayed, we drank and smoked to her, like her and along with her. We listened to Amy while we knocked over candles dancing in dark bars and when we smoked cigarettes in our underwear out the bedroom window in the morning. A girl once asked me if I wanted to watch her dance to “Fuck Me Pumps.” I said yes.
Amy was a collision of eras–not so much anachronistic as timeless–a foxy retro minx, a Fast Girl if ever the term applied. She was our foul-mouthed Brit-Jewish Petula Clark, our own rangy little Diana Ross, the crusty-cute Dusty Springfield you found curled up still passed out in the corner of a couch with her panties showing when you got up to pick up the cans the next morning. She didn’t write about wanting a boy to ask her to the dance. She wrote about a boyfriend noticing the rug burns on her knees she’d gotten from blowing someone else on a thick carpet. She wrote about ex-sex,whiskey dick and smoking weed, asking “What fuckery is this?”
Finally, said the rest of us twentysomething girls out to get some in the city, in an exhale of relief. Someone said it. We clapped each other on our backs and traded knowing crows when she sang “little carpet burn.”
Amy wasn’t all swagger and brash, though. That’s why we loved her. She wrote about relationships as weaknesses, about the way it feels to know you’re not to be trusted around someone else, about the way it feels when you can’t be trusted even around yourself.
It’s never safe for us, not even in the evening
Cause I’ve been drinking
Not in the morning where your shit works
It’s always dangerous when everybody’s sleeping
And I’ve been thinking
Can we be alone?
Her duende was heartbreak. She might’ve known nearly as much about heartbreak as Billie Holliday, although no one’s ever known as much about heartbreak as Billie. Amy’s life was shorter, more privileged and less exploited, but you hear a heartbreak like that when she sings “we never said goodbye in words, I died a hundred times.” Hers was somewhere near that magnitude of sorrow, and we were grateful for that, too.
Soon she outpaced us with the twisting and drinking and smoking. Her tattoos weren’t coy when interlaced with scabs. It hurt to see her stumble. It hurt to see the drugs and rats in the videos. We waited for the next album, and even before Saturday morning we’d probably started to know it wasn’t coming.
What Amy gave us, she gave us whole. Like the Amy disclaimer: she cheated herself, she ain’t got the time, her daddy thinks she’s fine and life is like a pipe. She told us flat out she wasn’t ever going to change, even though we could see the romance had left her, just like it left Janis Joplin.
Now she’ll always be 27 and the rest of us still have to grow up. When I woke to the news that she’d died I thought of the poem Frank O’Hara wrote after Lana Turner died:
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
Back to Black is a slim album to match its slim feline author: 10 original songs, two remixes (at least on the iTunes edition I have), 42 minutes. Approximately the length of a subway ride from central Brooklyn to upper Manhattan. Approximately the length of just the right amount of foreplay or an unusually furious journal entry. The irony is tragic but uniquely hers: that Amy, who constructed her artistic identity so cleverly outside of time, who knew so much about the most intense ways to spend it, would end up being known for such a specific and brief amount.