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A late, not great, member of the 27 Club

Amy Winehouse was 27 years old when she died.

This, in and of itself, won't define her legacy, but it certainly will influence how we will perceive this late "beautiful mess" and the relatively small selection of music she left behind.

Let's get this out of the way right now. I'm not and never was a Winehouse fan. Not causally, not tangentially, not erstwhile.

Having said that, I don't dislike her music. In fact, a couple of tunes off "Back to Black" and her rougher-hewn and more interesting first album, "Frank," achieve near greatness in a way that little else in the Top 40 even seeks to aspire to these days.

And having said that, the next person I hear comparing Winehouse to geniuses — nay, legends — such as Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday and Diana Ross will be beaten. By me. With a tennis racket strung with concertina wire.

Don't test me on this.

I listened to both "Black" and "Frank" in their entirety three times to prepare for this column and came away with a solid respect of Winehouse's humor and genuineness.

Of course, both albums are bloated and over-produced to the point where you can't tell the difference between the bass clarinet and the tenor trombone. It all fades into simple head-bobbing backbeat.

Which is fine, because Winehouse's voice is the only real instrument worth listening to on both albums.

In "An Unholy Way" her nasally rasp claws its way from her cigarette-and-vodka-drenched throat as if it were some wounded bat caught in a drain pipe. It's perfect for a insightful song about the psychological violence women often inflict on themselves in a relationship.

She was adept at narrative, witnessed in "Wake Up Alone," which could so easily have been another song about suffering a break-up if Winehouse didn't infuse it with a sense of foreboding and desolation.

The song begins with a woman going about her day following the dissolution of her relationship. Her goal is to stay impossibly busy so she doesn't "have to think about thinking."

But then the sun goes down, and she's back at home. Alone. Here's where Winehouse's soul influences give room for a bit of Wendy O. Williams and other New York '70s punk singers.

"This face in my dreams seizes my guts," she growls. "He floods me with dread/ Soaked in soul, he swims in my eyes by the bed."

It's fascinating and more than a little creepy. It's a place where Britney, Christina and Lady Gaga don't go and never will. Because they're always boring. In fact, since Madonna's heyday, the market for interesting female pop singers has been bleak.

Gaga, to her credit, seems to have fashioned her career into some sort of postmodern statement about the inherent banality of the pop star. Still doesn't mean I'm going to listen to her music.

Amy Winehouse, for better or worse, was only rarely boring. And that's about as big a compliment as I can pay to someone whose last album appeared on the Billboard Top 10.

Of course, all this might have killed her.

We won't know what happened in her home during those last hours. Her friends are giving the expected statements about how Amy was doing so well and was seeming to turn it all around.

This is blown clear out of the water upon viewing YouTube vérité footage from Winehouse's last show in Belgrade.

There's no other way to describe it but as an utter debacle on every conceivable level.

You'd laugh at the entire botched affair if you didn't know the narcotic-dazed woman fumbling her way through songs, forgetting the names of her bandmates and barking cockney obscenities at the jeering audience would be dead two weeks after the video was shot.

I think about other members of the "27 Club," whose members include influential rockers who died at this pivotal age. You know the names: Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, Morrison, Jones, etc. My personal favorite member of this morbid group is D. Boon of Minutemen fame.

Winehouse doesn't belong in the pantheon with these greats, obviously. She did nothing to change the way we fundamentally think about rock 'n' roll, as Hendrix did. She also didn't help birth an insurgent movement like Cobain.

But I can't help thinking Winehouse had it pretty tough compared with Cobain and Hendrix. Those two, in their deepest suffering, could take the stage and somewhat hide behind their screaming guitars and thrashing bandmates. They reveled in the chaos that was integral to their art and could find some comfort on stage in those last years.

Winehouse had nowhere to hide. In the Belgrade video, her "band," a group of anonymous musicians she didn't and couldn't know, seemed to recede from her, giving wide birth to the bright glare that illuminated her every slur, stumble and flaw.

At one point, Winehouse attempts to leave the stage but seemingly gets lost amid the confusion. Mercifully, the house lights go down and a shadowy figure emerges from off-stage and leads her away.

You can read into that image all you want. I would just as soon listen to the handful of quality songs she recorded during her brief life and call it good.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.