For the last hour, Winehouse has been getting ready to meet the paparazzi; she's been carefully drawing the dark, thick Cleopatra swoops around her eyes, over smudges of makeup past, her long, manicured red fingernails masking a black resin lining, her lip gloss glittering pink, foundation covering little scabs that raid her face. "What are you going to say, Amy?" I ask her from the couch where I've been slumped over, scratching notes for the past few hours. At 4 a.m. — after I'd spent half the night outside her apartment, hoping for an interview — Winehouse had, much to my surprise, opened the door and invited me in for beer. Since then, Winehouse has been puttering around her house in varying states of consciousness, disappearing every half an hour or so upstairs to her bedroom and returning to talk to me a little about her music, a little about her drugs and a lot about her imprisoned husband. Through it all, she's an attentive and open hostess, boiling me tea and giving me extra slips of paper to take notes. Now, thinking about the waiting paparazzi outside, she keeps her eyes fastened on her image in the mirror.
"I could just go out there and say … I don't know." Her mouth is slack. "I don't know, really." Winehouse gives her hive one last tease and trots gamely down the stairway. She opens the door, and on cue a firestorm of flashbulbs surrounds her, voices crying her name. "Amy! Amy! Amy!"
"I guess I should apologize," she starts, fluttering her eyes, swaying her hips, flipping and tucking her hair innocently.
"Don't apologize, Amy, don't apologize!" the photographers shout as they blast her with their flash fusillade. "We love you, and your friends love you!" "What next, Amy?" they cry. "What are you going to call your new album?"
She smiles, making them wonder if she'll answer, and then wickedly says, "Black Don't Crack."
This past year, Amy Winehouse, 24, has gone from being one of pop music's most ascendant and celebrated talents to a tragicomic train wreck of epic proportions. Winehouse has insisted from the beginning of her career that she is a simple girl crazy in love with her man. Her life, her history and talent all seem barely worth talking about when one could talk about Blake, how fit he is, how perfect for each other they are. "We are so in love, we are a team," she rhapsodizes to me. "Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake." It's as if she's putting herself in a trance.
The daughter of a taxi-driver father and a pharmacist mother, Winehouse grew up in a North London home where jazz voices such as Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra were always on the record player. Sam Shaker, the owner of a longtime club in Soho, Jazz After Dark, remembers the night four years ago when Winehouse asked him if she could sing a few sets with the blues band. "She goes on the stage," says Shaker, "and I didn't know what she was doing: Was she drunk, was she stoned? It didn't make any sense. But then I heard her voice. The band had to stop."
At 17, Winehouse got a record contract with Island, and in 2003 she released her first album, Frank. It was dedicated entirely to an ex-boyfriend, and choice tracks did well, including the saucy "Fuck Me Pumps," which took a critical look at British tarts. The album was nominated for a 2004 Mercury Music Prize. But Winehouse was building a reputation as a wild thing, showing up for concerts trashed. In 2003, she met Blake Fielder-Civil at a local bar. A handsome hanger-on from rural Lincolnshire, Fielder-Civil worked part time on music-video sets. Winehouse fell hard; his name was quickly tattooed on her chest. But the romance was rocky, and during one breakup, when Fielder-Civil left her for another woman, she wrote the bulk of Back to Black, her second album. Following incidents of public intoxication, her management tried to pack Winehouse off to rehab. Famously, she refused. By the time Back to Black hit the U.S. last year, Winehouse was hailed as the future of soul music. The album sold 2 million copies in America and eventually earned her five Grammys.
But things got weird not long after Winehouse married Fielder-Civil in Miami in May 2007. In November, he was arrested for the assault of an East End bar owner in June 2006. (Fielder-Civil pleaded guilty.) With her husband gone, Winehouse slid into a despondent place. She canceled her tour at the end of 2007, saying, "I can't give it my all onstage without my Blake." And in January, after a clip of her smoking crack was released to the tabloid The Sun, she was sent to rehab by her record label again. She didn't stay long, and she happily tells me she did drugs the whole time.
This spring brought story after story in the tabloids, parading images of Winehouse wrecked and wretched, usually high and half-naked. There were rumors of extramarital affairs, and she was arrested (and later released) on drug charges and cautioned by police for assaulting a man. Her smacked-out haze of an existence went viral in May, when Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty posted videos on YouTube of the two of them in a dark room playing with just-born mice, their fingernails encrusted in black resin, using the animals as puppets to beg Winehouse's husband not to divorce her. Also in May, Mark Ronson, the DJ and producer who worked with her on her hits, canceled her recording sessions for the title song of the upcoming James Bond film. "I'm not sure Amy is ready to work on music yet," he said at the time. It is now rumored that the wholesome and beautiful young British singer Leona Lewis will replace Winehouse on the Bond song.
Winehouse says all of this is the product of heartbreak from being separated from her true love, whose name appears in a little heart pin she often wears in her hair. "To be honest, my husband's away, I'm bored, I'm young," Winehouse tells me. "I felt like there was nothing to live for. It's just been a low ebb."
Winehouse is rarely alone. Her home is on a hushed cobblestone lane off the main drag of raucous Camden, but throughout the night, musicians, dealers, masseuses, friends and fans come and go freely.
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