x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Amy Winehouse: a little girl lost in Dubai

Within seconds of Amy Winehouse stepping on stage in Dubai last February, it was clear she was a wreck.

Within seconds of Amy Winehouse stepping on stage in Dubai last February, it was clear that the singer, who died yesterday, was a wreck.
Within seconds of Amy Winehouse stepping on stage in Dubai last February, it was clear that the singer, who died yesterday, was a wreck.

We knew she was no good.

That, after all, was what we'd paid for. Come on, I incited unkindly, it'll be a car crash. A disaster. She probably won't even turn up. They'll drug test her at Dubai Customs and send her packing. She'll try to bring in a sockful of crack and they'll bang her up.

She made it on stage, at least. But within seconds of the start of her gig in Dubai this February, it was clear Amy Winehouse was a wreck.

A little girl lost, she staggered around the stage, barely singing as she scratched furiously at her arms and neck.

Was she drunk? On a comedown? Was she going cold turkey? Or was it a less immediate consequence - was this all the booze and drugs had left behind, a tiny, addled girl with a scruffy beehive and a sad, ravaged remnant of the voice that made her famous?

I was late to Amy, barely clocking her for months, years even as the British tabloids went crazy for pictures of her spilling out, yet again, of a pub, of her clothes, of a clinic. But suddenly, sometime in 2007, the music mattered. That album was everywhere, on jukeboxes, in shops, in TV trailers, her raucous, soulful voice speaking of more cigarettes - more living - than a woman her age had any right to.

Amy - always just Amy - was everywhere, too, in Camden. I never saw her, but plenty of people had their stories of wild nights in scuzzy bars and wilder nights after closing, of long, fruitless sessions in the studio trying to keep her straight enough to sing.

And here she was, four years on, in Dubai Festival City, and there was nothing left of her. She mumbled through songs, losing her place even in the hits that she must have performed a thousand times.

She stared out at the crowd, confused, resentful. Behind her, in bitter contrast, the band were tight, sharp, giving every support to the star who was giving the crowd nothing because she had nothing left to give.

Meanwhile the crowd stared at each other, disbelieving. We clasped our hands to our faces, watched through our fingers, aghast yet thrilled at seeing an icon unravelling before their eyes, exactly on cue. We told you. We knew it.

Occasionally she found a song, and for a few bars there would be Old Amy, the singer who could rule the world with a voice straight from the Sixties. And then she stumbled again, as unsteady in her singing as on her feet.

Two songs, she made it through. Three, just barely. We could hardly hear her; the first murmers of booing rippled through the crowd. Did she hear it? She must have done; she went to remonstrate with the band leader at the side of the stage. He had to physically block her path, send her back to her duty like a naughty schoolgirl. Another half a song, and she darted off, quick enough this time to get past the teacher.

Would she come back? The backing band gamely played two songs, three, maybe four. Eventually she made it back on, but she'd lost the crowd who were by this time streaming out of the venue. Those that stayed watched, fascinated to see how much further she'd get.

But really, she'd lost them, too. With each song, we were willing her to find her stride. Maybe she was nervous. Maybe she was jetlagged. Maybe she'd just had a bad start. Her rep later claimed technical problems, explaining that apparently she couldn't hear herself during the gig.

With each song, she retreated further; after each song, the boos were louder. She didn't want to be there; and by this point, we didn't either.

'Do you wanna be in the band?' she demanded after a rendition of Rehab that would have disgraced an X-Factor auditionee. 'Thaswot I fought,' she sneered.

No, Amy, we didn't want to be in the band. We wanted you, we wanted your voice. We wanted, despite our sneering and our Schadenfreude, to be entertained by a woman who we knew had it in her, once, to be the singing talent of a generation.

But in our hearts we knew it, and that was why we booed that night. We knew you'd gone too far, you'd thrown it away. We knew you wouldn't get better, that you couldn't, even if you wanted to. We knew that one day soon we'd hear the news that you'd been found dead in a dirty flat in Camden.

We knew it because you'd told us, Amy. We knew you were no good.

ksmith@thenational.ae