Thursday 21 September 2017

Review: Biography: Amy – My Daughter by Mitch Winehouse

Harper Collins, €16.99, pbk, 320 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Mitch Winehouse doesn't pull punches in his account of the years leading up to the death of his daughter, Amy. It has been less than a year since Amy Winehouse, arguably the greatest soul singer of the 21st Century and certainly the most controversial, died aged 27 after a protracted battle with drugs and drink.

Some will say that it's too soon for a book primarily concerned with the years leading up to that (probably alcohol-induced) death.

Its author, her father Mitch, has already received flak for profiting from Amy's success by becoming a minor celebrity in his own right and releasing music of his own.

Amy, My Daughter won't stem all that criticism, even though its proceeds will go to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which her family established after her death to provide help, support and care to young people in the UK and abroad.

But Mitch surely deserves credit for what is an unsparing portrait of addiction. Few fathers can claim to be as involved in their children's lives as he undoubtedly was in Amy's.

It was this hot-headed former taxi driver who, more than anyone else, had to contend with the swarm of doctors, record execs, journalists, paparazzi, lawyers and policemen who buzzed around her between 2006 and 2011.

It was he who tried, often unsuccessfully, to fend off the waves of drug dealers who would smuggle rocks of crack into clinics inside bunches of flowers or attempt to catapult packages over fences.

We are left in little doubt as to whom Mitch considers to be the real villain of the piece: Amy's ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, "the biggest low-life scumbag that God ever put breath into".

It was Amy's great misfortune that her poisonous, passionate relationship with Fielder-Civil -- and the heroin and cocaine addiction that he arguably instigated and at the very least exacerbated -- also inspired her most compelling music.

The public appetite for songs such as 'Back to Black' and 'Rehab' meant each show reopened old wounds.

The narrative gallops through Amy's childhood to her turbulent young adulthood, but there are still some early revelations. Who knew she could do calculus and quadratic equations at primary-school age and would do maths problems for fun at home?

Then there were the feigned choking fits that foreshadowed the games Amy would play with her dad's affections later.

Mitch also writes about the family's Jewishness, another underreported area, in terms both warm -- family feasts at kosher restaurants -- and wretched: the anonymous letter that read: "You must be a right c*** to have brought her up to turn out like this. Do us all a favour and get Auschwitz reopened."

Mitch's initial reaction to Amy's addiction is a predictable mixture of naivety and denial: how can the woman who once had her audiences chanting "Class A drugs are for mugs" possibly have a problem?

But he quickly wises up, and it's to his credit that his account of Amy's downward spiral is so unflinching. It's an appropriately gruelling and repetitive read: into rehab, out of rehab; split with Blake, back with Blake; on the wagon, off the wagon.

You lose count of the sections that start with Amy looking a bit better, and close with her high again, her recovery back to square one.

Dealing with your child's addiction would surely be horrendous in any circumstances; doing it in the glare of tabloid publicity must have been unbearable.

"There is no way to describe how it feels to wake up to photos of your daughter covered with blood on the front page of the newspaper," Mitch writes.

This doomed drama is played out in a Dantean circle of clinics, drug dens, febrile Caribbean holidays and Pentonville Prison, where Fielder-Civil serves time for GBH and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

There is a bizarre supporting cast of celebrities: at one point Amy detoxes at a Mustique hideaway belonging to Bryan Adams and when she is in rehab she gets a random visit from Kelly Osbourne.

Mitch, meanwhile, receives advice on addiction from Roger Daltrey and Russell Brand.

The gloom is also pierced by moments of unintentional slapstick. Mitch's ejection of Fielder-Civil from Amy's flat gets a gleeful response from his daughter: "My dad done his nut, he kicked Blake up the arse, it was fantastic."

Then, with Fielder-Civil in prison, Amy begins to consort with Pete Doherty, one of the few people on the planet who would qualify as less suitable company than Fielder-Civil. That episode, too, has an incongruously funny denouement, as Mitch chases Doherty out of Amy's room, beating him with his own guitar.

Ultimately, this was never going to be an uplifting story. The tragedy is sharpened by Mitch's insistence that Amy, having beaten heroin and cocaine, had been winning her subsequent battle with alcohol at the time of her death.

That view might be coloured by the sentiment of a brokenhearted father. If so, let's grant him that, because this book is otherwise refreshingly free of rose-tinting.

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