Without the tattoos, Amy Winehouse was like the Jewish girl I kissed behind a plywood cutout of film actor Spencer Tracy as we walked back from a Saturday morning film show at the Gaumont Cinema along Albert Street, where I once lived in north London’s Camden Town district. This memory of my youth was one of many I confronted when I visited Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum where the spirit of Amy was once again centerstage.
“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” is a thoughtful exhibition created by her older brother Alex, with the help of the Jewish Museum London. Alex journeys through the touchstones of his sister’s life seeking to discover what led her to become one of the most recognized talents of her generation.
The visitor is led immediately into her personal life. You feel the buzz. You hear Amy singing the songs that brought her fame. You sit and watch films of her gigs. You are immediately at home with her and can read her clear handwritten essay which she used to seek admission to north London’s Sylvia Young Theatre School. Amy’s passion for music and off-the-peg clothes united with her love for Snoopy books, collections of refrigerator magnets, festival passes, her treasured guitar that all the family shared with a fretboard as smooth as gravel, and an old battered suitcase filled with hundreds of loose photographs of her family. For Amy her family was the vision and inspiration for a desire to be known, recognized, wanted and loved.
Winehouse was descended from Jewish immigrants from the region of Minsk, Belarus. Her great-great-grandfather Harris Wienhause landed at the Thames docklands in 1891 believing he was in New York. It was just a short walk to the poverty-stricken brick-built slum houses of Whitechapel and Stepney. Benjamin, the first born son, established in the 1930’s a barber shop and hairdressing salon at 144 Commercial Street, Whitechapel which became the ‘spiritual’ home of the family lasting for fifty years. It was situated close to the famous battle of Cable Street when on the 4th October 1936 some 3,000 black shirted anti-Semitic Mosley fascists, protected by 6,000 Metropolitan Police tried to march through the Jewish district of London’s East End only to be stopped by 100,000 protesters made up of the Jewish and Irish community as well as Labour Party members from across London. Such moments are absent from the story the exhibit tells.
With the arrival of the London Underground tube service and the expansion of the suburbs, the hard-working Jewish people were able to leave behind their roots and develop vibrant communities in the green fields many miles to the north. Amy was born in Osidge Lane in leafy Southgate in September 1983. I found it to be a pleasure to step into her life through the display of photographs and paraphernalia of her days of growing up into a vivacious teenager. I especially enjoyed the daring essay she wrote to enter theatre school at the age of 13:
“All my life I have been loud, to the point of being told to shut up. The only reason I have had to be this loud is because you have to scream to be heard in my family. My family? Yes, you read it right. My mum’s family side is perfectly pine, my dad’s family are the singing, dancing, all nutty musical extravaganza. I’ve been told I was gifted with a lovely voice and I guess my dad’s to blame for that. Although unlike my dad and his background and ancestors I want to do something with these talents I’ve been ‘blessed’ with.”
If a visitor takes their time to read Amy’s words that lead you through all the ups and downs of her eclectic short life and not just to give a passing glance at the exhibits then her story becomes radiantly and at later times savagely clear. After two years she left the theatre school and then concentrated at gaining five high level examinations. Her muse was Sylvia Young who saw the girl’s outstanding quality and gave her an introduction to the National Jazz Orchestra, which became her first step into the not always happy caverns of fame.
Winehouse’s first album, “Frank,” released in 2003 to great critical acclaim pays homage to the jazz musicians including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Sara Vaughan, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra, that fed her hungry mind. In this first album you immediately hear cries for help.
The money Winehouse got from her first record deal allowed her to find a flat in Jeffrey’s Place just behind Camden High Street, a home where for a few years she seemed to be free of any demons.
Camden Town now world famous for its global market is situated next to the Grand Union Canal. It is an Irish area. Dylan Thomas drank his last Guinness in one of the pubs. Inverness Street with its now trendy pub was a market street where I sold fruits and vegetables as a street kid. Amy would have liked the place before it was globalized.
Small, but with a sense of grace, this exhibition has attracted audiences in London, Tel Aviv, Vienna, San Francisco and now Amsterdam. It should be staged in New York. But in doing so the whole vibrant historical atmosphere of Camden Town should be more evident. Amy, who died at the age of 28, had so much talent and sense of wonder. She now walks amongst the ghosts of many famous people who trod those same streets of Camden who also sought to change the world and risked all in doing it.