There’s something really powerful and attractive to me about a female vocalist owning their very personal heartbreak and displaying it for the universe. There’s a level of steadfast honesty there, a level of stark, unadorned beauty that is unconventionally gorgeous. In mourning the death of Amy Winehouse, I realize that in loving women whose grief is their gift to the world, that that the kind of women I love, I’ll never get to love for very long.
I was 16 when I fell in love with Amy Winehouse. I’m a big believer in the inherent connectivity in all of life’s moments, so, it’s safe to say that I couldn’t have fallen in love with Amy Winehouse if I had never listened to Janis Joplin. I always tell people that I feel like I was married to Janis in a previous existence. I can say this because hearing her voice still reminds me of the first time that I could literally feel the tenuous emotional connection between body and soul. I can remember a rainy Friday night at home at 16, listening to a cassette mix that was accidentally given to me by a friend of mine. In between tons of typical 90s alt radio fare, there was a woman in severe emotional pain screaming at me that love “grabs a hold of you like a ball and chain.” I listened to what I later realized was Janis Joplin’s performance of “Ball and Chain” from 1967’s Monterrey Pop Festival about ten times that night, and every time I heard it, my adoration for the beauty in the strength of this woman deepened. Saturday morning, I excitedly went to the local oldies shop to crate dig for her albums, thinking that she was still alive, with an incredible collection. However, the salesman glumly told me to stop digging, quickly gave me four studio albums, told me her story, and told me how she died. At that moment, I felt like someone had indeed, taken a piece of my heart.
When Amy Winehouse released Back to Black in 2006, I heard it again and it felt like my heart leaped out of my chest. It was like someone had transplanted Janis’ soul into this artist I really needed to love, a woman I desperately wanted to care about. Someone I felt like, as I always have with Janis, that if you cared enough about her sadness, that it would inevitably create the joy to keep them alive. On tracks like “Rehab,” “Tears Dry On Their Own” and “You Know I’m No Good,” there’s a self-defeating prophecy built of heartbreak and depression, emotions that create an emotional hole that appears to never be able to filled again. The best part of listening to Amy Winehouse was the worst part of listening to Amy Winehouse. Winehouse’s lyrics about love gone wrong made me as a male listener want to give her love gone right. But you can’t. What separated Joplin from Winehouse was that I had to watch Amy slip away. Learning that Janis Joplin died 24 hours after meeting her made her heartbreak hit me like a sledgehammer, but not pound me into the dirt. Every time Amy lapsed, relapsed, made an ass of herself in public, or performed poorly, it only made the pain of her songs more intense. By yesterday, hearing “You Know I’m No Good” is a sledgehammer to my chest, crushing all the bones. Upon her demise sinking in, it didn’t break a piece of my heart, it shattered my heart into pieces.
Both Janis and Amy fatally filled the plummeting holes in their souls that made them superstars with drugs and alcohol. Singing soulful dirges of personal heartbreak for money seems like a really hollow existence. Constantly dredging up soul destroying horror and living to tell the tale requires the kind of strength that if you mortgaged your ability to live peacefully for the ability to sing beautifully certainly could lead to death. As someone who loved both Joplin and Winehouse intensely, knowing that they’re both dead, both at 27, really hurts. Loving someone who was mortally wounded by wanting to be loved can’t lead to anywhere positive. I once watched Janis Joplin’s posthumously released Janis documentary and felt so moved that I wanted to reach through the screen and give her a hug. Last night, I listened to Back to Black and felt hands aimlessly grasping for help through a speaker, but unable to touch mine. Pain is love.