Alongside the world's tallest free-standing tower, one of the world's tiniest pop stars is crouched next to a garbage pail, collecting a pile of eyeliner pencils and mascara tubes between her hands. While Amy Winehouse wanders the courtyard of Toronto's 1,815-foot CN Tower in search of a plastic bag to hold her cosmetics, the man who was her fiancé on that May but who would be her husband five days later smokes a cigarette from my pack and looks bored. Blake Fielder-Civil — or "Baby," as Winehouse calls him, in an array of inflections that strains imagination — gestures toward the trash can. Her soda spilled inside her fake Louis, he says, pointing at the beaten-up mock Lois Vuitton purse atop the rubbish. "She had that bag for ages."
In the universe of a twenty-three-year-old, "ages" is as relative as age is. Winehouse might say she's been singing for ages, though it's been less than a decade. Or that she's been in love with her Baby for ages, though it's been only a couple of years, with a span of months off in between. Or that the scars that cover her left forearm come from wounds she inflicted on herself ages ago, though they look considerably fresher than that. She might say any of those things, if she said much of anything at all.
During those months when Winehouse and her Baby were not together — among the things she will not say, even upon prolonged consultation with Fielder-Civil, is how many months it was — Winehouse wrote an album's worth of heartbroken songs that has made her famous at home in the U.K. and increasingly so here in the States. Back to Black, a stylized collection of R&B throwbacks that sound like a British hip-hop brat's interpretation of Sixties Motown soul in the best possible way, gave Winehouse the highest-charting U.S. debut ever by a British female. Prince has taken to covering her "Love Is a Losing Game" and suggested that she join him onstage during his upcoming 21 Nights in London Tour. The Arctic Monkeys have added their own version of "You Know I'm No Good" into their set, and rap's top MCs are also fawning over Winehouse: Jay-Z appears on a new remix of her hit single "Rehab," Snoop Dogg has proclaimed his fanhood and Ghostface Killah was wowed enough by "You Know I'm No Good" that he rhymes over the track on his album More Fish.
Those who have only heard her voice express shock upon seeing the body that produces it: The sultry, crackly, world-weary howl that sounds like the ghost of Sarah Vaughn comes from a pint-size Jewish girl from North London, world-weary though she may be. In Toronto, she is attired in the nearest thing she's got to a uniform: Rizzo from the neck up, Kenickie from the neck down. She's wearing her ubiquitous ratty beehive atop a thick mane of dark waves, oversize candy-cane plastic earrings and her black eyeliner drawn into exaggerated Cleopatra swooshes. Her exceptionally thin frame fails to fill out her pencil-straight black jeans, but she wears her black wifebeater nice and snug, and her arms display an assortment of old-school pinup-girl tattoos, some with their tits hanging out, others — like the one with "Cynthia" inked next to it — in coquettish Fifties garb. Winehouse has also become notorious for allegedly drunken public appearances, including one time in January when she ran offstage during a performance to barf. At an awards show in the U.K. last fall, she heckled Bono during his acceptance speech with "Shut up! I don't give a fuck!" And on the popular British game show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, she was visibly inebriated enough that host Simon Amstell joked, "This isn't even a pop quiz show, it's an intervention." Then there are her album's frequent references to booze, weed and blow — most notably "Rehab," which narrates how her former management company, run by American Idol and Spice Girls mastermind Simon Fuller, tried to make her go to rehab, but, oh, you know what happened next.
"Amy is bringing a rebellious rock & roll spirit back to popular music," says Mark Ronson, the DJ-producer who helmed more than half of the tracks on Back to Black. "Those groups from the Sixties like the Shangri-Las had that kind of attitude: young girls from Queens in motorcycle jackets. Amy looks fucking cool, and she's brutally honest in her songs. It's been so long since anybody in the pop world has come out and admitted their flaws, because everyone's trying so hard to project perfection. But Amy will say, like, 'Yeah, I got drunk and fell down. So what?' She's not into self-infatuation and she doesn't chase fame. She's lucky that she's that good, because she doesn't have to."
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