When word broke on Saturday afternoon that Amy Winehouse had passed away, I was far away from a computer and remained so much of the weekend. It wasn’t until late yesterday afternoon/last night that I was able to go back and read much of the stuff that had been written online about her and her untimely death in the previous 36 hours or so. It felt quite old-timey.
Anyway, of all the things I read, I think the most poignant and moving thing written about Winehouse came from shaggy comedian Russell Brand — himself a recovering addict in the public eye who hails from England, and a friend of Winehouse’s to boot. I’ve often tried to put myself in the shoes of people with addiction problems, and I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to comprehend their daily struggles in the way that others who’ve actually been there can. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that Brand nailed it with a post on his website.
When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone.
Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.
I’ve known Amy Winehouse for years. When I first met her around Camden she was 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.
Carl Barât told me that Winehouse (which I usually called her and got a kick out of cos it’s kind of funny to call a girl by her surname) was a jazz singer, which struck me as a bizarrely anomalous in that crowd. To me with my limited musical knowledge this information placed Amy beyond an invisible boundary of relevance: “Jazz singer? She must be some kind of eccentric,” I thought. I chatted to her anyway though, she was after all, a girl, and she was sweet and peculiar but most of all vulnerable.
Shallow fool that I am, I now regarded her in a different light, the light that blazed down from heaven when she sang. That lit her up now and a new phase in our friendship began. She came on a few of my TV and radio shows, I still saw her about but now attended to her with a little more interest. Publicly though, Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction. Our media though 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. This and her manner in our occasional meetings brought home to me the severity of her condition.
Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death. I was 27 years old when through the friendship and help of Chip Somers of the treatment centre Focus 12 I found recovery. Through Focus I was introduced to support fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts that are very easy to find and open to anybody with a desire to stop drinking and without which I would not be alive.
Now Amy Winehouse is dead, like many others whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised, at 27 years old. Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s. Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill.
We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.
While there are surely endless jokes to be made about Winehouse’s demise — and trust me, most of them were made on Twitter over the weekend — this young celebrity death feels particularly crushingly sad to the point that I feel completely incapable of making light of it at all, sad because she’ll without question be largely remembered through punchlines rather than for the enormity of her talent, which has been, of course, largely wasted. If there is one ray of sunshine in all of this it’s that perhaps she’ll find the peace in the afterlife that proved so elusive for her when she was here with us.
Via Animal New York, here’s video of her last known appearance on stage, which, ironically, was a performance of “Mama Said.”