Wake Up Alone – Amy Winehouse
He’s fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts
He floods me with dread
Soaked in soul
He swims in my eyes by the bed
Pour myself over him
Moon spilling in
And I wake up alone
This is an incredible song from a deeply talented songwriter and singer who sadly left us at way too young an age. She has many imitators, but none who can match her artistry. I was working on a film called Tower Block on the day she died – 23rd July 2011 – with an accomplished gang which included Russell Tovey, Jack O’Connell, Julie Graham, Nabil Elouahabi, Kano, Montserrat Lombard, Jill Baker and Sheridan Smith. Towards the end of the shoot I was suddenly aware that Sheridan was in floods of tears so I went over and asked her what was wrong. “Amy” she said, “she’s gone“. It was a terrible moment, and without further explanation I knew that she was dead. Sheridan was one of her friends. What an utter and tragic waste, that we all saw enacted in front of our eyes.
In 1984 I did a play at the Tricycle Theatre in north London called Return To The Forbidden Planet. I played the saxophone. The MD was Hereward Kaye.
In 2012 I was playing saxophone in The Amy Winehouse Experience at a music festival, with Hereward Kaye’s sons Joe and Rory Kaye, and my wife’s childhood friend Pippa. Wait. I’ll explain.
Rewind to north west London and two young girls : one with St Lucian parents, one jewish, doing dance routines for their own imaginary TV show. My wife Jenny was the black girl, her best friend was Philippa Randall. They danced together, sang into hairbrushes, choreographed steps and roped in siblings to ‘assist’. As the years went by they stayed in touch, Jenny became an actor, Pippa a nail technician. When Jenny got married, all of Pippa’s family came, when Pippa got married to Tony, Jenny and I went. When Jenny and Pippy’s Nanny Flo died, we all went to the funeral. Then Philippa’s wonderful parents Roy and Robbie decided to move to Spain for their retirement. Pippa and her Prince-lookalike husband Tony joined them. We missed Pippa when she was in Spain but she seemed to like it there and flourished. Her marriage wasn’t working though, despite two beautiful girls Tia Bliss and Lucy Bear. After the inevitable split with Tony, Phillippa came back to the UK with her parents and 2 girls and her new man Joe Kaye, whom she’d met in southern Spain, and whose own parents were also very special, Hereward and Pat. Yes, the same Hereward who’d been my musical director at the Trike. The extended family moved back from the Costa Brava to Linfield, (just outside Haywards Heath a few miles north of Brighton) and Herry & Pat opened a Rock School nearby with Joe, who is a very good guitarist and musician in his own right.
Now : Philippa just happens to be a spitting image of Amy Winehouse, a terrific singer, and being a North London jewess I guess all the pieces were in place. The whole family had come to see The Brighton Beach Boys one night playing our big concert – Sgt Pepper v Pet Sounds and absolutely loved it. Herry’s other son Rory is also a guitarist and now has his own band playing rock. Joe and Philippa asked me to step in on sax for some gigs. I was a huge fan of Amy, so I agreed.
Then I had to learn the songs! I had both LPs, “Frank” was a breath of fresh air in 2003 with it’s jazzy vibe, but certainly didn’t prepare us for Back To Black in 2006 which is quite simply a modern masterpiece. Produced by Mark Ronson, with the analogue old-school New York soul band The Dap-Kings providing almost all the session musicians, as well as being her touring band in 2006, it was a perfect confluence of elements. Every track is special. And having had to learn them all for the horn parts, I can tell you that they have very unusual and intriguing chord sequences. Take “Wake Up Alone” which is the best song on the album for me :
verse : A A G# G# C#m C#m C C
Emaj7 Emaj7 C#m C#m C C F#m F
bridge : Dsus4 D G E7b9 x3
chorus : C Bm E7b9
See what I mean ? I’m joking – that’s for the musos reading. But take my word for it – that’s a wonderful series of chords. The lyrics are even better…
…That silent sense of content that everyone gets
Just disappears as soon as the sun sets…
It is a song of deep longing, unfulfilled. Plenty of water references – he swims in my eyes by the bed is an incredible line, Pour myself over him…. This is soul music, as good as it gets. I never did see Amy live, and I wish I had. I know many who saw the slurring, shaky performances of those last few years. Terribly terribly sad. I prefer to remember her with the swaggering yet vulnerable poise of that incredible show from 2006 in Ireland, at the St James’ Church in Dingle on Dec 3rd, or the Shepherd’s Bush concert from the same year. But I got great pleasure in playing her songs with a lovely tight band based around my friends, old and new and my wife’s friend Pippa, giving her own trembling chutzpah and antsy tottering to the Winehouse legend, tattoos carefully drawn on, beehive in place, that dark trembling voice just about intact.
A remarkable circle of life – Herry and I had played Good Vibrations on stage every night at the Tricycle, the show there, written by Bob Carlton, being a rock’n’roll musical of the sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which itself is a re-imaging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The notable thing about the Tricycle’s production of this show, (which originated at Bubble Theatre and went on to grace the West End), was that it introduced the novel idea of having black actors in the cast – the inhabitants of the magical island – this being part of the theatre’s brief, and their local audience. Ram John Holder played Prospero, and found me a place to live since I was once again homeless as that show ended its run. In a further spiral to this circle, my wife Jenny was schooled at the Tricycle Youth Theatre during the 80s, and is now on the Board of that great venue. Jenny has also performed Amy – at a special celebration fundraiser for Nicholas Kent, who was artistic director of the Tricycle for many years – singing Love Is A Losing Game with Graham Kearns accompanying. I’d love to have seen that, but I saw Jenny rehearsing it many times !
I only played a handful of gigs with the Amy Winehouse Experience, but it was worth it for the opportunity to get inside these tremendous songs. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, in various incarnations – Amy Winehouse.
track 8 from Back To Black :
incredible live performance at Shepherd’s Bush :
The Amy Winehouse Experience live, 2012 :