The true tragedy of amy winehouse
Published 30/07/2011 | 05:00
Several years ago, I interviewed Amy Winehouse in a bland Dublin hotel. She was in Ireland to promote her debut album, Frank, and in the course of our conversation she lived up to that record's title. At one point, apropos of nothing, she told me she liked my aftershave. Flattered, I told her which brand it was. "I didn't ask you what it f***ing was," she snarled. "Jesus f***ing Christ." For a brief moment, I thought she was going to storm out.
Even then, barely out of her teens, she struck me as someone with significant problems, besides an irrational ability to detect slights where none were intended. She knocked back the drink -- vodka, I think -- and smoked relentlessly. It was difficult to hold her attention. She seemed wired.
It wasn't long before her lifestyle became a tabloid staple. 'Rehab' -- the big single from her hugely popular follow-up album, Back to Black -- celebrated her fondness for excess and refusal to seek help for numerous addictions.
After the album was released in 2006 her troubles multiplied. It became difficult to separate the supremely talented singer -- a modern-day Billie Holiday -- from the worse-for-wear alcohol and drug addict who enthralled the glossy magazines and red-top newspapers so much.
It was hard to escape the notion that for certain sections of the media and for a large chunk of her fanbase, Winehouse's chaotic, dangerous life somehow made her music more 'real'. Even in death, idiot devotees were keen to celebrate her ruined life by leaving bottles of tequila and whiskey at a macabre shrine outside her home in Camden, north London. And on the same day that her funeral took place, the police were called to restore order among drunken fans on her old street.
Her friend Russell Brand, who knows a thing or two about addiction, captured the sad reality of Amy Winehouse's celebrity. "Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction," he wrote this week. "Our media is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall. The destructive personal relationships, the blood-soaked ballet slippers, the aborted shows, that YouTube madness with the baby mice. In the public perception this ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent."
And yet the public seemed only too happy to buy into the train wreck that was Amy Winehouse. It's the same situation with her contemporary Pete Doherty, a less gifted musician who has been deified as the poet of his generation. Would there have been such a rush to proclaim his alleged greatness if he wasn't an attention-seeking wino, heroin-addict and frequent jailbird? Somehow, I doubt it. Instead, when Pat Kenny conducted a testy interview with Doherty a few years ago, it was the then Late Late presenter who was pilloried and not the strung out 'Romantic' with his battered acoustic guitar.
Every since Buddy Holly first picked up a plectrum, rock music and excess have gone hand in hand. The debauched tales of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones have been told so frequently they have lost their currency, but what about all those startling talents who died as a result of their addictions?
The so-called 27 Club -- now joined by Amy Winehouse -- includes such wonderful names as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. Just think all the new music we would have heard, and no doubt cherished, had those luminaries beaten their demons and survived.
And what about those prodigies who remain with us, but who lost their mojo thanks to drink and drugs? Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's first visionary frontman, might have lit up the 1970s had he stayed on the straight and narrow.
The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, meanwhile, reached lofty heights in the studio partly as a result of a dependency for LSD, but it came at a horrendous cost to his mental health -- a price he's arguably still paying.
I admit that I went through most of my 20s seduced by stories of rock's excess, a prurient need sated by such magazines as NME. But, more recently, I find little to cheer in all those outwardly glamorous anecdotes and their heartrending underbellies.
Keith Richards's acclaimed autobiography, published last year, documents a life lived close to the edge, but he doesn't shirk from recounting the devastating impact drink and drugs had on the band (guitarist Brian, another 27 Club member) and its immediate circle.
'The Needle and the Damage Done' is one of Neil Young's finest songs, penned 40 years ago, but it might also be a cautionary title for the first six decades of rock. Amy Winehouse is simply its latest casualty.
Her family and close friends will mourn a young woman who may have been very different to the one the public thought they knew. For music lovers, meanwhile, there's real sadness in knowing that there will be no new material from this arresting performer.