When Amy Winehouse died in 2011, I was not a particularly big fan of the singer. I knew her big hits like “Rehab,” and “Back to Black” because who didn’t?
My boyfriend, however, really liked her, and her premature death at the age of 27 seemed to send him into a breathless swoon. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it, but I thought his interest was largely hormonal – she was a pretty woman with long, lush brown hair who sang. What’s not to like? I decided I wasn’t going to lend too much of my mental energy to her, particularly as the years since her death began to accumulate. After all, so many artists’ lives are cut short.
But then at some point during the years following her death, I became obsessed with a version of her song, “Tears Dry on Their Own,” which appears on the CD, “Amy Winehouse at The BBC.” Especially while driving – driving alone, where I can listen to the CD over and over. I can turn it up. I can sit close to the steering wheel as I do when I want to pay close attention to something, staring out at the street in search of an explanation.
And I’ve found a form of genius inside of the song. She sings about a failed love affair that ends when the man “walks away,” and “the sun goes down,” while the narrator, the jilted one, stands and watches, forced to accept this turn of events. The inflection of her voice, and the rise and fall of the notes have the same effect on me as the love affair in the song had on Winehouse, or the song’s narrator (possibly, one in the same). When the song ends, I sit in my car, flooded with the same sense of longing and doubt and resignation one feels after any kind of disappointment which requires you to say, ‘It’s okay’ when it’s not okay. I’m not okay. And that’s what I would call musical genius. Nearly a decade has passed since the young singer’s untimely death, yet I find my interest in her only growing.
There’s something arresting in the ache of her voice in the version that appears on the BBC album. Especially her straining-to-be-business-like manner in which she accepts that she must take the abandonment in stride, and reasons that she, too, knew it wouldn’t last. I find poetry in these lyrics: “So we are history/Your shadow covers me/The sky above ablaze/That only lovers can see.” The song, and her tone, are up-tempo but not upbeat – and that’s a one-two punch for me. No ballads, thank you. What I like: A song that relentlessly and vigorously pursues, musically and lyrically, the sadness inherent in certain aspects of life on Earth. With her voice, she sounds in the song as if she were walking boldly into the ocean, against the current, a wave advancing upon her as water washes over her, toward sure death.
The track originally appeared on the 2006 album “Back To Black.” But forget that version. It’s like a warmup, compared to the song on the BBC album, which came out in 2012. By comparison, it lacks intensity. It lacks urgency. Amy’s delivery is light, airy. Her voicing isn’t crisp; she’s not living what she’s singing. Or at least, not compared to the BBC album version. That version sounds so intense, so convincing, a transfer takes place. It becomes as though she were narrating my life, no matter what’s actually happening to me on any given day.
Of course, I thought I was past this, given the much-cherished pivot away from drinking. But also because of this reason: I’m the grown mother of a toddler, for Chrissakes! Someone with too many other pressing things on her mind to lose herself in a song. I also thought my obsession would die down. But on certain days, I cue up the song and go to my special place. I just want to be alone with the song on those days.
I’m slightly embarrassed whenever I participate in the public mourning of someone whom everyone else has always ever raved about – but also slightly relieved. It’s like, oh thank God. I’m human, too. I suppose that was Winehouse’s specific gift. That heartache? The losses stacking up? She’d been there, too.
The song makes me think no amount of fame or fortune can attenuate the heartbreak you feel when someone decides he or she no longer wants to be in your life. A damning regret that I share with Winehouse, even though I shared almost nothing else. Maybe “Tears Dry on Their Own” is all a fiction and Winehouse created a character I could believe in. All I know is it injects me with a sense of loss, it moves me to reconsider all of those moments when I, too, had to stand there while something slipped through my fingers.
In fact, I’m not only thinking of love stories that end. I’m thinking of so many scenarios in my life where something perfectly wonderful ran its course, as I knew it would, but nonetheless when the end looms, I’m forced to accept ‘no’ when all I can think is ‘yes.’ Where I’ll never fully recover from the rejection. The intensity of my attachment to the song has resuscitated every regret I’ve ever had, every bit of pining that I’ve done. I find myself thinking about a friend from London, and wondering, if I have been a good friend to her. While I listen, I think about Italy and what could have been had I stayed longer when I lived there in my early 20s.
It makes for an odd situation. I’m wary of the way our society lionizes young music stars. Interviewers gush over them – even in august publications – as though they’d cured cancer. And this is especially true of the ones who supposedly die in their prime, like Winehouse. It’s as if a tragic death, as Winehouse’s was, somehow sweetens the story, and intensifies the hero worship.
But here I am, years later still under the spell of this song, and so I’m forced to pay tribute to Winehouse because she’s managed to get under my skin and stay there. Something I cannot fully explain, like Winehouse’s premature death. She’s gone and our tears will just have to dry on their own.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**