AMY WINEHOUSE: A FAMILY PORTRAIT at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

I took a day trip to San Francisco early in the week, and decided to see the newly-opened Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait exhibition. It runs through November 1 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (but originally opened at the Jewish Museum London). It’s a fairly compact but devastatingly curated selection of ephemera and memorabilia, accompanied by touching commentary from Winehouse’s older brother, Alex. On the day I went, most visitors seemed to crowd around Winehouse’s application to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and some footage of one of her performances there. I found myself drawn to Winehouse’s record and CD collection, which featured some artists I expected (Nina Simone, the Drifters) and some I didn’t (Adam Sandler and Noel Coward). The most heartrending moment, for me, was seeing Amy’s homemade mix CD on top of the storage case, complete with hearts hand-drawn with a Sharpie.

I had to smile when I looked on the wall and saw that Amy Winehouse and I had a beloved childhood album in common: The All New Mickey Mouse Club. This wasn’t the 1990s cast that was replete with future stars including Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. No, this surprisingly funky album featured the decidedly more obscure 1977 cast. (It did, however, boast Lisa Whelchel and Julie Piekarski, who went on to star in the first season of The Facts of Life together.) I recently read that Winehouse loved the Mickey Mouse Club rendition of Rufus Thomas’s “Walking The Dog,” and would put the song on mix tapes. Since selections from Winehouse’s tapes play in the exhibition room, I kept waiting to hear the Disneyfied “Walking The Dog” for the first time in decades. I was rather nonplussed to hear the same Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra selections over and over instead. I guess a kiddie-pop soul cover would have been a little jarring thematically. Because I have no such reservations, here it is:

Between the Mickey Mouse Club discovery and learning of Amy Winehouse’s love of Snoopy, I came away feeling that she and I would have been friends. (It was much the same feeling I had when, long after he died, I found out that Kurt Cobain loved Cheap Trick and Beat Happening like I do.)

In its fairly brief existence, the CJM has shown great aptitude for musical subjects, as well as excellent taste in visiting exhibitions. (Indeed, I was so impressed by 2009’s Maurice Sendak retrospective There’s A Mystery There, on loan from Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum, that I featured it in Going Coastal years later.) Even if you’re not a rabid Winehouse aficionado (I wasn’t), A Family Portrait is worth a visit. (I also enjoyed the tribute to the late Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman, and the often striking Night Begins The Day exhibition. I do think Night would have been perfect with Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” playing in the background, instead of its accompanying New Age sounds. Then again, after the Winehouse exhibition, hearing that song would have turned me into a sentimental mess.) The museum is located at 736 Mission Street in San Francisco. Visit http://www.thecjm.org for information, or call (415) 655-7800.

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