Amy Winehouse & I

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South by Southwest 2007–I was twenty years old, but looked closer to twelve.

I had a pipe dream growing up of owning a handful of bars. Figuring the best way to even understand how that business worked was to become a bartender. Learning that bartending school would be a complete waste of money, the best way to go about fulfilling this goal would be starting from the ground up.

So I picked up a gig as ‘barback‘–a bartender-in-training–for a grimy two-story nightclub at the epicenter Austin’s infamous 6th Street. The job was to do all the dirty work that made the bartenders’ lives easy during the grueling 16-hour shifts that the festival entails. This hell-spawn marathon in the Austin service industry was essentially my audition: if I survived from start to finish, I would find myself within the ranks of the employed.

If you’re not familiar with SXSW, it’s a springtime annual gathering of music, film, and technology enthusiasts participating in a fortnight-long bacchanalia that numbers by the hundreds of thousands. Showcases of the freshest music from around the world can heard in bars, parking lots, alleyways and rooftops. My bar was an official venue for the festival, and this meant we would host at least 6 shows a day. The routine shepherding of spectators through the door hourly was an everyday affair. What came that week of the music portion was but a flurry of sounds, faces, and one notable interaction.

Every day I kept hearing the same name mentioned by the managers, bartenders and security. I heard this name over and over again. I wondered what made this person so special. She was a jazz singer, whose newly minted album was building world-wide acclaim, selling millions of copies.

Though heavily in demand, her prolific substance abuse was worth mentioning in the same gravitas. Following up to the week in question, word came round that she canceled shows on consecutive days. Too inebriated to leave her hotel room, her management team forced her to sober up and ready a performance, determined not to abandon another day. This was how I met Amy Winehouse.

It was the Thursday of the festival. Amy was the second-to-last show of the night, ahead of the Flaming Lips. Performing before her that day were a couple of folk musicians, a pop singer, and a thrash metal band. The other barback working with me that week was fired the day before, leaving me the glory of total responsibilities. As the lone barback, I was responsible for communicating with the 3 separate bars on both floors via text messages. Security would make space for me as I drudged through the crowds and made my way about.

I received a text from upstairs asking to bring a case of bottled water to the green room for the musicians. I worked my way upstairs and dropped off the case of water by the mini-bar set up in the VIP suite.

Sitting across the room, alone on a beat up green couch was a small, tattooed woman swirling a plastic up of brown liquid, staring intensely right at me. I thought nothing much of this at the time, but the woman had striking features. Tattoed and painted like a rockabilly, she stood no more than 5-feet tall, but her beehive hairdo and platform shoes brought her closer to my 6-foot frame. The smell of cannabis + cigarettes was strong. She said nothing, holding a deep gaze that did not break when I left the room.

Two hours passed. The metal troop just wrapped up their set. Pulling out earplugs I gladly took from someone during performance, my phone buzzed. It was another text from upstairs, this time asking for two cases of beer. I made my way to the storage closet, lifting up two, twenty-four bottle cases of Texas brew. I maneuver through security and reach the foot of the staircase. At that moment, the little beehive-headed woman–cup’o’brown drink still in hand–begins her decent from above.

Immediately, her eyes train onto me. Instinctively, I look up, then down, awkwardly focusing my gaze to the heavy cases of booze in my arms. Since security has cleared everyone else in our paths, the only people moving on the stairs right now are me, going up, and Amy and her band, going down. She sneaks behind the men carrying brass horns on her flanks and centers herself on the side of the staircase closest to me.

We meet in the middle, her stare unbroken, penetrating. Briefly I heard silence. Amy’s mouth began to move, muttering something I will never know. She raises her right hand…

WHHAAAAAPPP!!!

I saw stars coming from the left. Amy Winehouse just slapped me in the face…HARD.

Out fear of losing my job, I took the hit.  The only thought running through my mind was “Don’t drop the beer!” Standing there, a mix of bewilderment and pain coursed through my head down to my toes. Never breaking stride, she reaches the foot of the stairs, glances back up at me with a smirk and takes her queue on stage. I took a deep breath and continued upward to the bar.

I remember cursing as the bartender saw me holding my face.

–“What’s wrong, dude?”

“I just got slapped in face!

 “Huh? By who?”

–“The one getting on stage right now. Big hair with the Jack & Coke.”

The bartender takes one look over the balcony.

–“Dude…That’s Amy Winehouse.”

My face goes blank…

“Who the f*ck is Amy Winehouse?!?”

The set was incredible. I remember scanning the venue and witnessing all people–staff included–jaw dropped in awe as this petite Brit sang with a lion’s roar. My face was on fire for the first 15 minutes of the set, and the anger lit from her strike by then had melted away. Like everyone else, all I wanted to do was stand there and listen.

One week later—still employed

I get home after closing the bar and turn on the TV to find You Know I’m No Good on VH1 late night. Pounding on bedroom doors, I shout emphatically to my roommates, “Wake up! This is who I was talking about! Listen! to her”

***********

When she died, I mourned her by writing this story down in it’s entirety. After talking to people who worked with me that night, I completely forgot the Flaming Lips had even followed her up. Clearly they were upstaged in my mind.

I also uncovered some clips from that night.

You Know I’m No Good:


He Can Only Hold Her:

If you’re interested in helping me turn this into a screenplay, send me a message. I’m determined to one day turn this into a short film that will be screened at SXSW.

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