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The Globe and Mail

Amy Winehouse's erratic past shouldn't overshadow an unforgettable voice

Amy Winehouse performs in London, England, on June 27, 2008.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

"Today my bird flew away, gone to find her big blue jay."

Amy Winehouse wrote the slinky, jazzed October Song in memory of her pet canary. The bird, Ava, named after the tempestuous dark-haired actress Ava Gardner, would wake the English singer in the morning, "twittering away," Winehouse said, "and rocking on her little swing." The bird's death left her heartbroken, but with some solace. "It was a sad time," she recalled, "but I got a good song out of it."

Winehouse, the beehived, tattooed diva whose tabloid-ready troubles and erratic behaviour gave her infamy, was found dead Saturday in her London home, police said. She was 27 - the same death certificate detail found on the paperwork of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.

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Other than the obvious, what is sad about Winehouse's death is her negative legacy. When did we hear about her last? It would be her erratic performance in Belgrade, dubbed the "worst in the city's history" after she arrived late, stumbled and mumbled and messed up lyrics on stage, and occasionally disappeared altogether.

After the sham in Serbia, Winehouse cancelled a string of European dates. Things, clearly, didn't get better after that.

Ray Charles and Etta James didn't live in the tabloid era. Those stunning singers, influences on Winehouse absolutely, had their share of addictions and turmoil but managed to live past them, more or less privately until Hollywood told their stories.

James, very ill now at age 73, named her autobiography Rage to Survive. What will we call the book on Winehouse? Perhaps a play on black, in reference to her breakthrough 2006 album Back to Black, which earned five Grammy awards and paved the way for superstar British soul-pop singers Adele and Duffy, who shared in varying degrees Winehouse's striking, affecting mix of vulnerability and swagger.

Many of her fans never saw Winehouse perform in person. Because legal scuffles and drug issues were frowned upon by immigration officers, she didn't tour regularly in North America. A cover feature in Mojo magazine in 2007 carried an account of a concert earlier that year in Birmingham, England, where a scrawny, smoky-voiced singer was lost, deeply, in the emotion of her song.

"Singing a song for her husband - Wake Up Alone, written in 2005 after he left her for another woman - she breaks off in the middle of a word, pulls away from the microphone, and sheds a tear for the man she's so desperately in love with: a man currently being held in a prison cell. Winehouse shields her face with one hand and takes several faltering steps backward, overwhelmed with emotion, and evidently drunk. As the music plays on, she grabs at the mike-stand for support. Illuminated by a single spotlight, the tortured artist is laid bare in a moment of transcendental intensity."

Was Winehouse embellishing for dramatic effect? Probably, but then the best (and too often the tragic ones) did the same - Otis Redding, James Brown, Billie Holiday and, yes, Adele, whose tear-jerking performance of Someone Like You at the Brit Awards months ago is still talked about.

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Unfortunately Winehouse's book might well be dubbed something like Destructive Obsession - The Girl Who Said No (No, No) to Rehab, a title as bold and grabby as the singer herself.

But if we do remember her for saying no to rehab, we should look past the hit single's defiant hook and consider the lyrics in full, including her late-song explanation.

"I don't ever wanna drink again

I just, oooh, I just need a friend

I'm not gonna spend ten weeks

Have everyone think I'm on the mend

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It's not just my pride

It's just 'til these tears have dried"

It doesn't look as if the tears of Winehouse ever dried, and now the most intriguing singer of her generation is gone. Her recorded output is thin - two albums ( Back to Black and 2003's Frank) and one live DVD/documentary (2007's I Told You I Was in Trouble) - but she won't easily be forgotten. Just as she sang about her pet bird on October Song, Winehouse was the morning, now she's gone - reborn like Sarah Vaughan.

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