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“AMY” AND THE PROXIMITY EFFECT

last weekend i saw “amy”,  the new documentary by british director asif kapadia chronicling the life of singer amy winehouse. it has received justly deserved excellent reviews and inspired many worthy think pieces. as i watched, i was glad to have already read sady doyle’s article on amy’s pain and the tightrope the film has to walk in asking the viewer to watch someone die in front of us. the article helped me make sense of why i had been interested in seeing the film in the first place. i had never been an amy winehouse fan when she was alive. i suppose i somehow missed the boat because i was tied up in my own career at the time, and honestly, before social media i rarely heard about new music. but a few songs snuck into my ears in the last few years, i certainly paid attention when she died, and thus was curious to know more about her. watching the documentary both made me a fan and broke my heart in the same 120 minutes.

when someone dies, famous or not, whether we knew them personally in any way, we all experience the same phenomenon and ask the same question. how close were we? in grieving, this proximity helps inform the ways we process, who we tell, how we demonstrate our sadness. and it doesn’t always map neatly onto “the closer we were, the harder we grieve”. i cried deep heaving sobs watching the recent funeral of Emanuel AME pastor clementa pinckney. i wasnt “close” to him at all, but i felt close. i was recently asked to play a song at a friend’s funeral. she was someone i knew well in certain ways and not at all in others. i’d never met her family before, yet here i was, part of their deep and public ritual. maybe i wasnt “close” to her, but i was close to her, and it meant a great deal to me to be able to contribute to her funeral.

the thing i remember most about when amy winehouse died is not where i actually was when i heard the news, but reading comedian russell brand’s personal reflection on their relationship, posted a few days after her passing. his words struck me hard. while loving his friend and mourning her passing, he also grounded her death in a rather mundane reality. away from her genius, her fame, and the tabloids, we simply lost another addict like we lose thousands of addicts every day.

———

on november 7, 2003, i appeared on the UK TV show “later with jools holland”. it was a publicity coup d’etat. the lineup was set, the show was full, but i heard through the grapevine that my publicist had literally jumped on a table to get me added. i was in the UK on the album release tour for my record “grand”, and this was as “close” as i was going to get to a TV appearance to promote the album. 

i wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the show and its host were legendary, definitely worth jumping on a table for. the lineup on my episode was also as legendary as it was strangely eclectic: the british rock bands The Coral and Elbow, the reggae star Sean Paul, the hip-hop MC Ludacris, me, and Amy Winehouse.

outside BBC nov 2003, after taping Jools

outside BBC nov 2003, after taping Jools

jools holland is filmed at the giant BBC television centre in london, and when you’re on the show, you’re there for a whole day of sound checking, camera rehearsals, and then, in the evening, a live taping with a studio audience. the studio for the show is unique. each act gets a tiny set arrayed around the edges of a giant space, in between which the audience is squeezed onto bleachers and cafe tables. the cameras live in the middle of the space, swooping and rotating and shifting attention as the different bands play. as an artist, you were required to be on set for the entire show, either watching from your little set area or sitting at one of the cafe tables. since i was a late addition, i didn’t have a home base and spent nearly 45 minutes waiting, occasionally on camera, at a cafe table until my 3 minute turn came up. 

here’s my performance. you can see amy in the background sitting down on her little set as jools introduces me.

i wish i could say that i remembered amy winehouse at all from this experience. only later when she died, did i realize that for one day we’d been quite “close”. i vaguely remember being in the makeup chair next to her for a brief moment. i imagine we said a quick, cordial hello. if i thought anything about her, i probably thought she looked awkward playing the guitar. i was mostly consumed in my own terror.

long before i understood the why and what of panic attacks, i’d had one that morning when we arrived at the studio. i spent the afternoon huddled in my dressing room trying desperately to figure out why i felt shaky and like i could faint at any moment. my most vivid memory of that day is not of my performance, but of sitting at my little cafe table with my band and tour manager and trying not to drink. heineken was a sponsor of the show, and each table was stocked with lots of unopened bottles. when it was time to play, i got up, played the song (flubbing a chord in the first verse!!) and sat back down to my bottles.

proximity to fame and death are strangely similar, each casting their glittery or somber ripples outward from a central figure. there’s no other word for me to describe it, but it’s just a plain wierd feeling to have had a career so proximal to famous folks while experiencing only a modicum of that for myself. i am close to some people who are quite famous, and the most common question i get asked is,  “what are they like”. i totally understand this. it’s natural we want to orient ourselves to these twin ideas, fame and death, so we can brag appropriately, so we can grieve as we need, so we can reflect on our own place.

i’m glad i saw “amy” last weekend, new fandom and terrible heartbreak notwithstanding. i was “close” to her for one reason and am now close to her for another. RIP.