Transformative Experience – Touching Amy


When B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore first advanced the concept of the transformative experience in their ground-breaking paper Experience Economy (1998), it was a revelation. Alas, the concept has been so endlessly recycled as to now mean everything. Tacked onto just about anything, it’s been exhausted of all meaning. In the spirit of returning it to Pine and Gilmore’s original and incendiary concept, the following posts – Amy , Palio, and Alinea – pay homage to the truly transformative experience. If you’re after a transformative experience of your own, do give me call.


Amy began with an email, an email out of nowhere, an invitation. Couched in 1950s font, called Round Midnight, it instructed us to dress for jazz. Ladies wear flowers in your hair; gents, trilbies. Meet, it said, tomorrow, at 9pm, at the back of a pub in Camden. It’s a secret. Tell no one.
next day, I met Charlotte after work. She was ready; I was not, and had to dive into a charity shop in search of a dramatic tie. On the way, Charlotte picked a flower, and as we got closer, so we began to spot more of ourselves: hour-glass dresses, sunglasses, two-tone shoes, sharp suits, flourishes of silk, flowers, hats, the odd walking cane.

We gathered outside the pub, in the carpark, in front of a closed back door. It was that moment before night, when the light is supernatural, and we stood in the quiet of it. Apart from ourselves, there was nothing here to indicate a meeting point, no sign or face, no guide to show us how to wait. Dressed to the nines and nowhere to go, we stood in near silence, wonderfully embarrassed in all our finery, time ticking away into the night.
Suddenly, the door opened. A man motioned us in. We went down a flight of stairs, across the gloom of the pub’s cellar, and up some more stairs. At the top stood a woman. Dressed in shimmering silver, she was big, American, and greeted us familiarly, like friends, almost conspiratorially. As far as she concerned, we knew why we were here. She thanked us for coming. She noted our dress. She promised she’d see us later. She was a diva, in the old sense of the word.
We were shown through another door, which led out onto a brightly lit stage, and which in turn looked out onto the semi-dark of a beautiful auditorium, a chocolate box of a theatre, all low lights, glowering red, flashes of gold, and rows of lit balconies. Dressed exactly like a 1950s metropolitan jazz club, tables and chairs filled the floor. Waiters ghosted across the floor. Candles flickered. To the back, a bar, backlit and manned by shadows.

Cocktails in hand, we stood at the bar. We watched as those who had followed behind us emerged from the dark of the pub’s cellar, blinking, shocked, laughing. The diva briefly appeared, introducing our band for the night, which lost itself in the red-lit recesses of the back of the stage. Jazz standards washed through the room. We found our seats, and as time passed, a transformation: sat here, in this place of glittering glamour, we forgot to speak about why we were here. We stopped thinking. We relaxed. We were in a jazz club, having fun. We missed nothing.
Which,of course, is exactly when everything changed. Our guard down, Amy makes her appearance. A giant screen dropped, hiding the band. The lights went down, and for the next two hours we meet an Amy Winehouse I never knew, courtesy of Asif Kapadia’s AMY. It opens on a set of nondescript stairs, in 1998, Southgate, London. Two grainy teenagers sit on the bottom step. An elbow appears, and then – unmistakeably, irrepressibly – Amy. It’s someone’s birthday. Everyone’s sucking lollypops.

From here, buoyed by drink, we are carried away by Amy, her success, her pain, her final demise. She is indeed – and after all – a genius. She is blessed and she is cursed. She is a machine for the turning of the stuff of everyday life into a special kind of beauty. Her voice is her passport to heights that Tony Bennet will call great, her need for an impossible love the route to the moment her heart stops and she is stretchered – covered, as sleight as a child, dead – from her home. Save the sound of weeping, the theatre is silent. Amy is dead.
And if I felt complicit in a god’s death, then it wasn’t just because I’d read the stories, laughed at the jokes, or believed the men in her life. It was because we were here, in Camden, in a theatre she had played – more than once. Camden was her town, and we were her people. We were the jazz audience, her jazz audience, the only audience she ever wanted. She didn’t care about money. She didn’t care about fame. She cared about love, and she cared about music, and she cared about us. She was great, and we never realised it, not fully. And now she was gone.
The film is barely over before the screen disappears, and in its place, lit by a single spotlight, stands an old 1950s microphone. Behind, as per before, sits the band. Only now – now that we had seen the film, and now that we looked on everything with new eyes – we recognise it for what it was: Amy Winehouse’s band. The effect of this understanding is difficult to put into words. We had seen the film. We knew these people. We had felt what Amy meant to them. This was her band, and she was not here. The microphone stood in the light. The space it held was empty. I stared into it.

And then, just as she had promised, the diva
came to see us. She crossed the stage. She stopped before the microphone. She said that Amy Winehouse’s death had left a void. She said it was up to us to fill that void. She said for us to turn over our menus, where we would find the words for Valerie, and that we should stand up and sing. And we did, like we were in church, unrestrained, together, full of joy – for Amy, for the band, for ourselves.

Well, sometimes I go out by myself
And I look across the water
And I think of all the things, what you’re doing
And in my head I paint a picture
Since I’ve come on home,
Well my body’s been a mess
And I’ve missed your ginger hair
And the way you like to dress
Won’t you come on over
Stop making a fool out of me
Why don’t you come on over, Valerie?