Just a nice Jewish girl

Winehouse died on July 23, 2011 of alcohol poisoning at the age of just 27, thereby joining other members of what has become known as the 27 Club.

Amy winehouse seen in her home in Camden Town, London, 2004. (photo credit: COURTESY MARK OKOH, CAMERA PRESS)
Amy winehouse seen in her home in Camden Town, London, 2004.
Mention the name Amy Winehouse to most followers of commercial music between the ages of ,say, 10 and 45, and they will probably respond with some observation about her great voice, stage presence and/or the darker side of her life, her unconventional behavior and substance abuse.
While all of that certainly features in the “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” exhibition, which will open at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People on October 19, running until May 7, 2015, it is mostly about Winehouse the person and, predominantly, the Jewish and family side of the fabled pop and rock singer’s tragically short life.
Winehouse died on July 23, 2011 of alcohol poisoning at the age of just 27, thereby joining other members of what has become known as the 27 Club – leading artists whose life ended at that age, who include blues icon Robert Johnson and rock idols Jim Morrison of The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
The exhibition makes its Israel debut after a two-and-a-half month run at the Jewish Museum in London, where it attracted an impressive public response. “The exhibition [in London] was an emotive experience, but in a very lovely way, not in a mawkish way,” says CEO of the British institution Abigail Morris. “It’s very much a family exhibition. [Winehouse’s brother] Alex curated it together with us [and Alex’s wife, Riva], and it very much includes his comments.
“So instead of dry museum labels, for example, there are things like the caption to a birthday card on which Alex writes, ‘I only gave it her because it was so rubbish.’ So you can get that real touch of family, and of the humor.”
The exhibition comes complete with a detailed, informative and fun catalogue which not only provides data about the items on display, but also illuminates the history of the Winehouse family – which, to all intents and purposes, is pretty typical of the history of most of British Jewry, and in fact, of Jews wherever they roamed westward. As Alex writes: “This isn’t merely the tale of one person or even one family – it is the tale of all of us, from London to Cape Town, New York to Tel Aviv.”
The waves of Jewish immigration that made it to Britain largely settled in London’s East End; Alex notes in his foreword that back in the late 19th century, one of his antecedents indeed stepped off a boat from Russia – and the British chapter of the Winehouse family duly began.
“In the exhibition, you get a real perspective of the family,” Morris continues.
“You start with the family tree [with portrait shots] and you really see the resemblance to Amy’s grandma [Cynthia, who died in 2006], and you see what a strong influence that was [on Amy].”
There was corporeal evidence of the singer’s close relationship with her paternal grandmother, too. Famously, Winehouse had a tattoo of her beloved antecedent etched into her upper right arm, and at the time, family sources were quoted as saying that Cynthia’s death had a powerful detrimental effect on the singer, apparently sparking a bout of substance abuse.
Right from the start, the exhibition has a certain sense of intimacy. There is, for example, a colorful collection of Winehouse’s clothes, but nothing particularly flashy. While there are some shoes there with heels that would give most people vertigo, these are not red-carpet sartorial accoutrements; these are just the bits and pieces Winehouse threw on for everyday use.
The one exception is the extraordinary dress Winehouse wore for her gig at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival, made by award-winning designer Luella Bartley.
“We wanted to show the ordinary side of Amy Winehouse, not so much the flashy things,” explains Beit Hatfutsot director Dr. Orit Shaham Gover.
She adds that visitors to the museum will get a good idea of the historical-cultural milieu in which the Winehouse family lived and evolved, in the “From the East End to Golders Green” photography display near the entrance to the building. There will also be documentary footage of London of the early 20th century, with “London Calling” by British punk band The Clash providing an energized sonic backdrop.
“I think it places the Winehouse exhibition in its proper wider historical context,” notes Shaham Gover.
The temptation for the exhibition curators to include some of the glitzier items from Winehouse’s short but often tempestuous life must have been there.
After all, she was one of the most famous and lauded singer-songwriters in the world. Her 2006 album, Back to Black, for instance, is one the biggest-selling albums in history and brought her five Grammy Awards. It also posthumously reentered the Billboard 200 and UK charts, attesting to Winehouse’s enduring popularity.
“There was this media figure and you tend to forget that Amy was also someone’s little girl, someone’s little sister, and she was a lot of fun and a lot of trouble, too,” Morris notes, putting some of Winehouse’s antics into a more street-level perspective. “As a mother, I know children can go through all sorts of things as adolescents and, you know, if my kids became very famous and started hanging around with all sorts of extraordinary people, you can see how things could go off the rails. And you think that it’s all so sad, and was such a tragic waste.”
If we had any doubts that Winehouse was, indeed, just a normal young girl picking her way through the minefield of regular childhood and adolescent experiences, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait helps put us into the normality picture. In the “Growing Up” section of the catalogue, there is a charming picture of a young, chubby-faced Amy – she looks around 10 years old – reclining on the floor. Her facial expression exudes a sense of childish insouciance, at the same time conveying strength and determination.
We also see a cheeky-faced early-teens Winehouse in school uniform and, in another photograph, a similarly clad figure posing with a friend on the steps of the Sylvia Young Theater School. She looks like a youngster who knows where she’s headed, but you could probably say that about many other adolescents.
You can’t help but smile when you read Winehouse’s written assessment of herself, an essay produced as part of her audition for the Sylvia Young Theater School, which she opens with: “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.”
The abodes of various members of the Winehouse clan feature in the exhibition as well, including grandma Cynthia’s apartment and the barber shop owned by the singer’s great-granddad Ben, on Commercial Street in the East End. The Winehouses lived above the shop for 50 years.
Morris points out a picture of Winehouse’s primary school class as being particularly poignant. “Everyone else is sitting back in the proper way, but Amy is sitting really forward and really looking at the camera. She just had this attitude and energy. Even though she was only eight or nine in the photo, you can just tell she is this incredible young spirit.
It is sad, yet I think there is sometimes a sort of sadness bandwagon when people die young; but I think, with Alex, we have avoided that with this exhibition.”
Elsewhere in the show you can find a stack of LPs by some of Winehouse’s strongest musical influences. Unsurprisingly, considering Winehouse’s jazz, soul, gospel, R&B and blues-inflected vocal delivery, the vinyls on show are primarily by leading black artists, such as Dinah Washington – with whom the British vocalist’s singing was often compared – Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, alongside crooners Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
The latter, now a hale and hearty 88 who performed in Tel Aviv only last month, released his hit Duets II album in 2011 which includes a dazzling confluence with Winehouse on the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” The performance, which was released two months after Winehouse died, won the pair the 2011 Grammy for Best Pop Duo.
There is also a handwritten list of 25 numbers which Winehouse titled Songs on my Chill-out tape, which primarily features material from yesteryear, including songs by jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 1950s-1960s vocal group The Platters, Sinatra, Charles and late-’50s singing star Julie London, and the odd more contemporary item, such as Pearl Jam’s “Alive” and “Self-Esteem” by American punk rock group Offspring.
The opening ceremony of Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait will be attended by British Ambassador Matthew Gould and his wife, as well as by Robin Banerjee, a British guitarist who played with Winehouse for 18 months around the time of the Back to Black release. Banerjee says he was very aware of the singer’s Jewish roots, and said it was very much a part of who she was. “She knew a few words of Hebrew, and she tried to teach them to me,” he recalls with a laugh. “I can’t remember what they were; I only remember that one was a polite word and one was a rude one.”
Winehouse’s theater school written assessment closes with the prescient: “I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell-out concerts and sell-out West End and Broadway shows, for being just… me.”
Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait should help her achieve that teenaged wish. ■
For more information about “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait”: (03) 745-7808 and www.bh.org.il