Thoughts About Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse – Image from Island Records, UK
This weekend I learned of the passing of British soul singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). Though I have never had the opportunity to photograph her, I always wished I’d had the chance.
While the media coverage of her death has been ubiquitous to say the least, what I have yet to see (other than Russell Brand’s poignant blog post in memory of his dear friend – well done, Mr. Brand), is anything that takes a sympathetic look at the singer’s life rather than capitalizing on or chiding her about her various performance and personal life disasters. What I feel needs to be stressed is the bottom line that Amy is someone’s daughter, sister, niece, friend, lover, and ex-wife, and no matter the circumstances, a person that is deeply loved is no longer here with us. I’m positively appalled at the lack of sympathy and understanding shown her in the media, even after her unfortunate and untimely demise.
I’ve heard and read the gamut of negative comments, from the sickening abuse and inappropriate repurposing of her hit single Rehab lyrics, all the way to awful comments about her addiction, appearance, and tumultuous personal life.
Despite my best efforts to turn away from the media coverage, I’ve been sucked in completely and am admittedly guilty of pouring over the articles that are appearing with increasing frequency today with unconfirmed leads and “insider” stories about how her last hours were spent and speculations about what caused her untimely death. Something in her story has grabbed a hold of me and I cannot ignore it, and thought I’d better put pen to paper to work through it for my own sake.
My chosen career path keeps me busy working with musicians. Unfortunately, modern music’s history is littered with those who were taken from us far too soon, simply because their addictions to chemical substances seemingly outweighed or completely obscured and derailed their desires and attempts to fulfill their career aspirations and live long, healthy and fruitful lives. Unfortunately many of us that are the most creative also have our vices. My time with musicians is quite often spent in bars – which, to someone struggling with an addiction problem, is a dangerous road to tread. For musicians with moderate success, they still struggle with their vices and are asked to be creative on-demand (when, for anyone who understands how inspired art works, that’s simply just not possible), and suddenly contractual obligations and the almighty dollar become more important than said creative individual’s well-being. It’s a sad pattern that I hope will find some change in the future.
Amy Winehouse’s story is indeed a sad one, and her life was cut short because of her struggle with addiction. Russell Brand’s blog posting regarding addiction comes from the viewpoint of a person who was precisely where Amy was and managed to recover. His experience alone outweighs the importance of my simple opinion, and for a particularly thoughtful and moving bit of reading, I would recommend reading the post from his blog.
When you think about her, for a moment, I’d like you to completely disregard the fact that Amy Winehouse was a famous singer, and regard her just as a regular, everyday woman. The hateful comments that I’ve seen that echo the feeling of “why are we paying attention to the death of a junkie… good riddance,” completely frustrate me. While I’m conflicted about how much publicity is too much publicity, the double-edged sword of publicity in this case might just HELP someone out there who is battling their own demons. And in that case, I hope that just ONE person out there is reached by the story and makes a decision TODAY to change their life for the better.
From what I have read, Amy’s personal life was full of struggle. I cannot quantify what is true and what is tabloid fodder, but from what I understand her relationship with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil was anything but humdrum. Rumors (that I cannot confirm nor deny) abound about infidelity regarding both parties, drug use, and fights that came to physical blows. Any normal person would have difficulty trying to find themselves living a life with so much constant drama. As if being in your twenties isn’t enough of a roller-coaster in and of itself, sadly Amy never lived to see the perspective that age 30 brings.
Let’s now remember that Amy had fame and factor back in the demands of her career, as well as endless paparazzi coverage. How would you deal with the fight you had with your spouse in the middle of the night plastered all over the news pages the next morning, surrounded by hearsay and sensational headlines? How would you manage when your private life was considered public property? How would you cope? Would you be able to handle it? Over time, I would imagine it would become increasingly more difficult to maintain your sanity.
What really attracted me to Amy’s music was her honesty. She never tried to purport herself as anything or anyone else. She had an unconventional singing style, wore what she wanted to wear, and wrote songs in a style that pleased her. She had the guts to chase her dreams and pursue her passion, and for that, in an increasingly homogenous music business, I applaud her. She said what was on her mind. However – this is what I feel we constantly forget with figures in the media – she was still a regular person, just a person with success in the music business. She was vulnerable, and that’s why so many fans (including myself) got into her music. She was a regular person who had a heart, and it was broken. You can FEEL her pain when you listen to the tracks on Back to Black. You’re suddenly there with her, witnessing her deal with her sadness, sobbing on her kitchen floor. We’ve all been there in our own way and I’m blown away by her ability to open herself up like that and let the world in. That was her gift, but it came at a price.
So many are now pointing the finger at her ex Blake Fielder-Civil and blaming him for her addiction. It’s true, he may have introduced her to the wrong circle of friends and a variety of substances, however it was ultimately Amy’s choice to continue using drugs. With any addict, it is truly only up to the addict themselves to continue or get sober. We cannot “blame” Fielder-Civil for Amy’s death.
Amy’s mother’s accounts of Amy as a child were that she “wasn’t an easy child…” and was hard to control, and so Amy would do what she wanted to do – no matter what anyone else said. As a grown adult dealing with career demands, relationship and legal troubles, grief, loneliness, addiction, various medical issues and problems only Amy knew about – she was going to handle them her way and there was no two ways about it. Up until now, her way had been the successful path, and she probably didn’t think much of everyone telling her otherwise. Would you?
I have to admit that when I’d heard the news about her death, I was deeply saddened by it. Despite her recent troubles I had hoped that somehow it would get through to her that living in a constant drug-addled fog was no way to live and she would finally be ready to get well for good. Moreso than any other pop “tart” in the music business today (LiLo, Britney and all the rest), above all I felt that Amy had a supreme vocal and songwriting gift that separated her from the pack. Her throwback sound and influence from the roots of music history were an encouraging sign that modern music’s future is still bright despite a lot of disposable garbage on the airwaves.
It’s no secret that Amy liked to party and drink and experiment with drugs, and unfortunately it became part of her public persona. Everyone likes a glass of wine or a beer or two to unwind now and again, but it cannot become a way of life without serious consequences. I had hoped that in the quiet year that passed without any new music from her, she had turned her focus to finally getting well. Perhaps the new record and tour were announced and planned too soon. Clearly, someone was after the $$$ that a successful new Winehouse record would bring, and Amy just wasn’t ready yet. Just like J. Bruce Ismay, the man who ordered the last four boilers lit on the Titanic when Captain Smith advised against it, disaster inevitably follows unchecked greed.
It takes strength beyond description to recover from a relationship that involves infidelity, (rumored) physical violence, and abuse by someone you believe to be your soulmate. When a promising, strong relationship sours, many of us are too afraid, weak, or deny ourselves the realization that this perfect relationship is not at all what we initially hoped and believed it to be. Because I did not know Amy personally I cannot speak for her, but I do know what it’s like to be on the wrong end of a relationship and to feel ultimately betrayed, violated and completely alone. I can completely sympathize with her hurt feelings. And sometimes, a few beers with good friends helped me along. But there was a limit to it all.
Though there has been a history of addiction in my family, I consider myself very blessed to not to have turned to excessive drink and drugs to self-medicate when at my lowest points. I am lucky enough to have some kind of inner mechanism or spiritual guide that prevents me from going too far. Not all of us are so lucky. Just like so many others, I’ve lost friends to drugs and addiction, and these are losses that are filled with regrets, “what if’s” and are wounds that never quite heal.
Amy’s Grammy-winning album Back to Black (Island Records) is not a fictitious work. The beautiful thing about Amy was that she wore her heart on her sleeve. That album was all about her painful breakup with her ex-husband, and in interviews she has said that record was her way of turning a big negative into a positive. If you listen to her words and her delivery, you get a momentary glimpse inside her heart and bear witness to her pain. I don’t know about you but when I hear Love is a Losing Game, it makes me tear up every time. It appears that her music was a way for her to try and sort things out.
Sadly, without her painful personal experiences, it’s possible that we may never have had this incredible record. She had to experience these things in order to be inspired to write these songs. Now, fast forward to her most recent concert in Belgrade – where she was booed off stage for appearing intoxicated and incoherent, forgetting her lyrics and barely singing at all. In the vastly-reblogged/reposted concert footage, you see her face wince in pain at multiple instances. See this article for a photo from the show that made me stop in my tracks. It is clear that Amy is at her very worst here.
I believe that it’s possible that in her sad state of mind, performing these songs may have brought back some painful things that she hadn’t quite dealt with completely. Rumors now circulate that her current boyfriend had recently ended their relationship because of her partying ways. Sometimes a little distance from sadness can bring a world of healing, and I don’t believe that Amy had the chance to properly grieve or heal.
At that last concert in Belgrade, it looks like there are tears in her eyes. To me, it appears as if she were forced on stage – which may or may not be the case. I don’t know if we’ll ever know the answer to that question. In any event it is a sad legacy to leave behind with such an amazing God-given talent. The point is – whatever the internal demons, Amy was deeply troubled, and she felt so alone that she turned to substances rather than the people in her life to bring her relief. Whatever was making her sad was fueling her over-indulgences in drink and drugs as well as her desire to be completely anesthetized to feeling anything at all.
No matter your feelings on Ms. Winehouse, what it comes down to is that she was a lost soul – searching for a happiness that constantly eluded her, yet she brought so much joy to the world with her music. It is an extremely cruel irony.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, try to get them to seek help. Remember, though, that they may not immediately listen to you, and you have to understand that as hard as it is to let go, the choice of recovery is ultimately up to the addicted person. Show them they are loved, and do what you can to help them see that there is more to life than the feelingless fog brought on by chemical substances. I believe that if Amy could see how much her family and the world mourns her loss, she might reconsider her position. Unfortunately, for her it’s too late, but it’s not too late for millions of others.
Rest in Peace, Amy. Your beautiful voice will forever testify to your immense talent. We only wish you could have stuck around a bit longer.
Here are some helpful links about addiction and treatment. Check them out if you are struggling, or forward them on to someone you think might benefit from the help they can offer.
It’s never too late to ask for help.