(Photo Courtesy of Pete Dunlop, Photographer for Amy Winehouse, 2008)
Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning, 2011. Found dead in her bed face down with two empty bottles of vodka and a laptop computer, all by herself.
A housekeeper discovered Marilyn Monroe in bed, dead of a drug overdose, 1962. A telephone receiver was clutched in Marilyn's hand and she was naked.
"Even if it's sad in a personal way," Amy said of the songs she writes, "I always put a punch line in there somewhere."
Amy commented after the first album Frank (after Frank Sinatra) that if she died now, she would feel fulfilled -- she'd made her mark creatively. Amy never met Frank Sinatra, but Marilyn was said to be dating him at the end of her life and to have overdosed more than once at his Cal Neva Lodge on Lake Tahoe's shore (Chicago mobster Sam Giancana frequented the place, too).
"I died a hundred times," Back to Black is about the love of Amy's life leaving her for another lover: Blake walks out and Amy's music escalates in quality.
When Blake comes back, they marry. The UK media begins to show photos of the couple lurching around like cadavers in public. High on crack and smack. In 2007, Blake's prison sentence sunders the couple.
I watched a lot of video of Amy when writing this article. In one instance, a reporter asks Amy if she'd like to do a track for a James Bond movie. Back in Black has been suggested as perfect for a Bond film. Amy rolls her eyes, smacks her chewing gum: "Yeah!" (she toots a bit of air out between her lips) "Standard! Sorry," and her hand goes to her pretty, songbird mouth. Then a big smile. Amy has a large mouth that gets even larger when she smiles. It's a megawatt smile.
Amy takes pink chewing gum from her mouth and twirls it into a lump between her fingertips, like an olive fished out of a martini at a soirée on Fifth Avenue. She could be wearing a de la Renta, but she's wearing a tank top with bra straps and an armload of tattoos. Amy is a bona fide fashionista, only it's Amy who sets the fashion. Beehive hairstyle. Egyptian doo-wopp eyes.
Amy and Marilyn. In the midst of their personal vulnerabilities, they enthrall and dazzle.
"Mobs scare me, but people, that's something you can trust," says Marilyn in a taped interview before she died, "Pieces, you know, grabbing pieces of you and gee, you do want to stay intact! And there is a need for aloneness, which I don't think that most people realize, for a creative person."
Almost all of us have performance memories of Amy and of Marilyn -- two big moments in particular -- the venues themselves so exclusive that few attend in person, although the entire world watches.
Marilyn on grainy black and white film singing to President John F. Kennedy:
Madison Square Garden, 1962: "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." Who can't conjure in their mind the distinctive vocals of Marilyn Monroe? Who can't see her standing at the microphone in that flesh-coloured evening gown, her own flesh spilling outward from mesh fabric that's been threaded with 2,500 rhinestones. She was sewn by hand into the dress. Basically, she appears stark naked. A Niagara Falls cascade of diamonds as earrings...who ever before - did see - anything like Marilyn? Her hair, white hot and whooshing out to the side in the Marilyn way. Unbelievable. Marilyn, opening her mouth to smile; a subsequent sea of corresponding camera flashes, like glitter everywhere. She stands in the center of a stage, her mouth a glamorous smile, doing that little downward top lip movement that's so uniquely Marilyn.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Amy Winehouse!" When 2 weeks before she'd been led frail and incapacitated into rehab. Denied a visa into the US. Shown on film emaciated, crack pipe in hand. Here she is. Giving the performance of a lifetime. A trio of male dancers in black suits looking like they dropped out of Motown paradise. "My Blake!" she sings, a big gold rose in her beehive, and a saxophone to die for: "My Daddy thinks I'm fine," her hands on her thighs between her legs in a short crinoline dress. Oh, Amy, the whole world thinks you're fine! Amy wins 5 Grammy Awards.
"No, no, no!" Amy sings these words, her powerful jaw kicking out the monosyllables like a braying Redbone. Who among us having seen, can't see Amy standing there now? Heavy black kohl at the sides of her eyes: she's a Nefertiti with a giant headdress. Bouffant beehive. Wasted, tiny thighs. Kneecaps, with a life of their own. Amy's gyrations would make Elvis blush. She lifts her already short hem. There is nothing voluptuous about Amy, except her art. When Amy speaks, her eyes hold the fright of a little girl. "Thank you very much," says Amy with her lips. Her enormous, open eyes say so much more.
French actor Yves Montand called Marilyn "a simple girl without any guile." He meant that Marilyn wore her heart on her sleeve.
Amy was just as sincere. And she wore her heart in her beehive: Amy wore puffy, strange hearts in her hair. Where did they come from?
"In 2008, I made Amy Winehouse's 'Blake' brooch," says Zoe Larkins of Love From Hetty & Dave. "The heart is filled with polyester stuffing and I buy the leather in London from a lovely man called Frankie."
Zoe explains, "A lot of my early work was quite 1950s and tattoo inspired; Amy Winehouse was the perfect model for my accessories, so thanks to a press photographer I met, who gave me her address, I sent her a little parcel of Love From Hetty & Dave goodies."
"It was so exciting to see Amy wear her heart brooch, and she wore it for pretty much the entire summer of 2008. When she called, she told me that she loved the heart brooch, because it said 'Blake' on it, and she loved him! She actually ended up with two Blake hearts. A journalist ordered one from me, wore it to an intimate gig, and asked Amy why she wasn't wearing hers. Amy said she'd forgotten to put it on, and asked to borrow the journalist's brooch. She never gave it back, though."
We can call Amy and Marilyn icons of fashion, yet fashion is something more than a look. It's really a big, bold, unsecret thing. Fashion and persona. It's powerful art, and some like it hot.