The softer side of soul superstar Amy Winehouse
As Amy Winehouse's mother Janis reveals in an intimate and revealing new book a previously unseen side to her daughter, Julia Molony reflects on the short, chequered life of a legend who lived for love and trouble, and whose fame will endure in music history
When Amy Winehouse was alive, it was the paparazzi who used to flock to Camden to see her. They'd hunch outside her doorway like buzzards in the rain, waiting to swoop in on the drama that reliably and regularly lurched out of her front door. She didn't seem to mind them being there. In fact, she befriended them - in her quieter, calmer moments she'd pop out to hand them cups of tea.
Now, three years on from her death in July 2011, it's the tourists who come. Last month, Camden county council erected a statue of Amy outside Stables Market, unveiled on the day that would have been the singer's 31st birthday, had she lived. According to Mitch Winehouse, Amy's dad, the council doesn't normally allow statues of people who have been dead for less than 20 years, presumably, to sort the true legends from the passing fads. But it made an exception for Amy. It didn't need 20 years to work out that she was exceptional.
As a star, Amy Winehouse was both a construct and a composite image. The hair, winged-eyeliner and tattoos, the big voice and the messy, careening, fast-burning spirit were all part of it. But the Amy the public knew didn't exist in isolation, she was at the centre of a collective. She was a one-woman soap-opera defined not just by her style as the people who trailed after her - an almost Dickensian cast of London characters that included Janis the loving mother, Mitch, the wide-boy, black-cab driving father, and Blake, the degenerate, bad-news husband who broke her heart and inspired many of her best songs.
Only her brother Alex is relatively unknown to us - though he last year organised an exhibition about her at the London Jewish Museum. They were so terribly accessible, the Winehouses. Amy's story was never mediated through publicists and lawyers, but came directly from her own mouth and the mouths of her parents.
Amy's father, always an open book with the press, was the first to publish. His book Amy, My Daughter came out in 2012. Until now, Janis was always more diffident (Amy got her mouthiness from her dad) but she too has found her voice. Loving Amy, her memoir of raising an icon came out last month. Janis admits that she was first approached to write a book about her daughter back in 2007, but Amy was against it. "Don't do it mum," she said. "I don't want people to know who I am." So Janis agreed to hold back. "Amy was happy to let the beehive and the eyeliner and the car-crash lifestyle become the only side of her the public saw, even though we knew she was a much more complex person than that," she writes in Loving Amy, explaining why she has now gone into print. Given all that's happened, she sees it not as an expose but a tribute. Not only that, Janis has Multiple Sclerosis, and wants to make a permanent record of her memories of her daughter while she still can. "Over time, memories get eroded, and MS makes that process worse, so I wanted to put mine on record before they are lost for ever."
Her daughter's childhood nickname was Hurricane Amy. From the moment she was born into a lower-middle class Jewish family from Southend, Amy was wayward, seeming to arrive into the world with a fully formed determination to do things her own way. He dad Mitch was a sharp-dressing London boy in his 20s, her mother Janis was more reserved, a quiet but determined woman who disliked confrontation and who had none of the attention-seeking penchant for drama of her youngest child. In appearance, however, they were alike. Janice was 27 when her daughter was born, the same age Amy was when she died, and pictures taken at the time show a face that is hauntingly similar to the icon known the world over. But that was a family trait. The joke in Janis's family was that "we were so poor we could only afford one face."
By the time Amy arrived, things were no longer such a grind. Mitch worked hard and they were upwardly mobile and ambitious, Janis was training to be a pharmacist while also taking over all of the practical aspects of raising their two kids. With Amy in particular, that was a handful. She was always pushing boundaries, easily bored, driven by a relentless, exuberant energy. In one revealing anecdote, Janis relates how when her daughter was tiny, she would have to wait until she'd gone to sleep in order to have her fitted for new shoes - it was the only way she could get her to sit still for long enough.
Winehouse was a show-off. At school, she was bright but had a short attention span and was forever getting into trouble. "'Be quiet, Amy!' was probably the most-heard sentence in our house during her early years. She just didn't know when to stop," writes Janis.
She had been raised on jazz. Both her mum and dad were music fans, and her mother's brothers are professional jazz musicians. At home, the soundtrack to their domestic life was Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington. Amy took to her heart not just the music but the very ethos of jazz; romance, sorrow, fatalism and abandonment to feeling, these were the emotional co-ordinates by which Amy learned to navigate the world and her place in it. "Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen," she once said. Jazz represented glamour too - and a kind of glamour close enough to her own life that she could almost touch it. Her grandmother on her dad's side, the formidable Cynthia Winehouse, had dated Ronnie Scott as a young woman in the 1940s, and according to family legend, he had asked her to marry him. Early on, Cynthia took up an important role in Amy's life, championing her as a singer, going with her to auditions. She taught Amy how to read tarot cards and didn't hold back from applying some steely discipline when Janis baulked at the task. Amy adored her, and had her name tattooed on her arm.
When Amy was eight, her parents divorced. But they remained close and the split seemed to reshape the family unit rather than blow it apart.
Despite her high spirits, however, Amy was prone to crushing lows too. "I do suffer from depression, I suppose," she once said in an interview. "Which isn't that unusual. You know, a lot of people do. But I think because I had an older brother, I did a lot of that 'Oh, life's so depressing' stuff before I was even 12. That's when I would be reading JD Salinger - or whatever my brother read - and feeling frustrated."
She was just six when her parents got the first inkling that that husky, adult-before-its time voice might mark her out as something special. They were in the audience when she took to the stage as part of a local performing arts show and were blind-sided by the revelation of their daughter on stage.
Nonetheless, they weren't about to shove her into the limelight. Though they didn't discourage her, they were adamant that she focus her energies on adhering to the structure and discipline of a formal education. Amy however, had other ideas. Once she was a teenager, she went off and applied for a place at the Sylvia Young school of performing arts by herself and won a place. Though her first avowed ambition was to be a roller-skating waitress, she was spotted while singing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra - and eventually found her way to the management offices of Simon Fuller, pop svengali and creator of the Spice Girls. By the time she was 20, she'd got her recording contract.
Amy Winehouse on the cusp of stardom was all curves, lips and teeth. She'd moved out of home and was hanging around late bars in Camden, beginning to assemble her look. It was here that she encountered Russell Brand, whose first impression was of her as "just some twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends, most of whom were in cool Indie bands or peripheral Camden figures Withnail-ing their way through life on impotent charisma."
But Brand, by his own admission misjudged her. Her first album, Frank, was a hit with critics and won her two Brit award nominations but it didn't make her famous. It was around this time that her nocturnal drinking circuits around Camden collided with the path of Blake Fielder-Civil. He worked part time as a production assistant on music videos. He wore a pork-pie hat and a Fagin grin that revealed tobacco-stained teeth. Their relationship was pure opera from the first.
She poured all the pain of their off-and-on romance into her new album, and its main single Back to Black, a brassy, bass-y ode to female suffering delivered in a voice so powerful it seemed to rise up from the deep, like an underwater volcano.
The response was dramatic and instant. Seemingly overnight, Winehouse was a star. But her personal life was already heading off the rails. She was drinking too much, turning up for gigs at clubs worse for wear - on stage, her coltish legs tottered unsteadily under a heavy mountain of hair. She seemed to see her unravelling as a devotional act - the more unbalanced she was, the stronger the demonstration of her love. But her management team were worried. Famously, they tried to steer her towards rehab. She not only refused, but turned her resistance into a hit song. Later, she explained exactly what happened to the Sun. "I went in and said, 'Hello' and explained that I drink because I'm in love and have f****** up the relationship. Then I walked out," she said.
Mitch Winehouse has always claimed that until Fielder-Civil came into his daughter's life, her issue was with alcohol only. "It occurred to me recently that one of the biggest-selling UK albums of the 21st Century so far is all about the biggest low-life that God ever put breath into," he wrote in Amy, my Daughter. Later, he explained further to Piers Morgan. "Amy was besotted with Blake for a period of time, and his way of showing how much he loved her, was to - in his own words - he introduced her to Class A drugs and she took to it like a duck to water."
By 2007 Amy was widely considered the most important female recording artist of her generation. But she was becoming equally well-known for her shambolic behaviour, showing up on telly full of booze and flashy wit.
At first, the act seemed almost charming, though it quickly took on a darker tone. She was looking skinny and pale and spoke in interviews about her eating disorders and habit of self-harming. She got in trouble for punching a female fan at a gig and confessed to being violent when she'd been drinking. In one interview, she pulled up her top and started carving the name of her boyfriend into her stomach with a broken mirror in front of a horrified journalist.
In May 2007 Amy and Blake married in secret during a trip to Florida. She made noises which suggested a craving for a quieter life. 'I know I'm talented but I wasn't put here to sing," she told Rolling Stone. "I was put here to be a wife and a mum and look after my family."
But as the year progressed her personal life started to look more and more like a particularly gritty episode of EastEnders. She ended up in hospital after and overdose of cocaine and heroin. In August she and Blake had a furious row in a suite of the Sanderson hotel, and were photographed covered in scratches, Amy's pink satin ballet slippers soaked in blood. As speculation grew that she was being abused, Winehouse sprang to her husband's defence, blaming herself and saying he would never hurt her.
"I was cutting myself after he found me in our room about to do drugs with a call girl and rightly said I wasn't good enough for him. I lost it," she said. Fielder-Civil's mother went on the radio and said, "I think they both need to get medical help before one of them, if not both of them, eventually will die."
But there was more drama to come. In November, Blake Fielder-Civil was arrested following a fracas in a bar. He was charged with GBH and, more seriously, attempting to pervert the course of justice after allegations that he and his associate had tried to buy his victim's silence with a bribe. Amy turned up at his bail hearing, blowing him kisses across the crowded courtroom and shouting "I love you."
Meanwhile, her health and work were suffering. On tour in the UK, she was repeatedly booed off stage after showing up out of it and barely able to sing, and eventually cancelled a string of shows. "The doctors said she needs to rest," Mitch told the papers, while Amy posted a message to fans on her website, apologising for letting them down and explaining, 'I can't give it my all onstage without my Blake. My husband is everything to me and without him it just isn't the same.'
Despite a second trip to rehab, the unholy storm of the Winehouse/Fielder-Civil marriage crashed on until 2009. By then, her repeated attempts to get clean seemed finally to be working. She was photographed on holidays in the Carribean cuddling up to a new man - 21-year-old actor Josh Bowman, and Blake issued divorce proceedings.
Once the singer was out from under the toxic influence of her first love, Winehouse's family had high hopes she might recover. "Right up until that last summer of 2011 I believed she had turned a corner - we all did, Janis writes in her book. "She had been clean of drugs for almost three years and we could see glimpses of a future again, even though her life was still punctuated with bouts of heavy drinking."
But when she visited her daughter the day before she died, it was starkly clear that all was not well. The singer was "out of it" surrounded by broken bottles. Her death, she said at the time, didn't come as a shock. After all, her end was written into the mythology she had built around herself.
Loving Amy, A Mother's Story by Janis Winehouse, Bantam Press, €27.50