It was late 2007, several months after my wife and I had started dating. We were in her car, driving some country road in the middle of Nowheresville, Maryland. I was bored and flipping through her CDs and, on a lark, I put on Amy Winehouse’s album, Back to Black. I only had to hear a few seconds of the first track, “Rehab,” before I turned the volume up as much as my sweet new girl would tolerate (not much). Yeah! This was great stuff! As a kid, I listened to a lot of Motown, and, as I got older, I really enjoyed the “girl groups” produced by Phil Spector. Groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes singing songs like “Going to the Chapel,” “Be my Baby,” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” While Winehouse’s tunes brought these groups to mind, I was also struck by how fresh, how contemporary the music sounded. You could easily recognize the girl group sound, but it was thoroughly modernized. And what a voice! Clear and tough and sad. This music was powerful stuff. For the longest time, whenever I was in my wife’s car, I would put Back to Black on.
I went a long time without knowing much about Amy Winehouse. I wasn’t too curious. As is usually the case, the music was enough for me. But, after a while, it was almost impossible to avoid learning about her life, at least the more scandalous parts. Her pictures were all over the supermarket tabloids, along with some lurid headline. But fuck that shit. It’s the music that matters, right? Well, I suppose for a lot of people it’s the least interesting part about a musician. Anyway, it didn’t take a stupid tabloid paparazzi shot to figure out that this girl was suffering. Listen to “Love is a Losing Game,” and you can hear genuine mourning in her voice. It’s the jazziest tune on the album, and like Billie Holiday, Winehouse was singing through her pain. Goddamn, couldn’t that song be the final word on the matter?
Let’s go ahead and concede that she didn’t exactly hide from the press and she could be quite nasty at times. But she was also an addict, a drunk, and in some serious pain. This doesn’t excuse anything. Of course not. But it is something to consider.
Throughout my teens and early twenties, nearly everyone I hung out with, hell, nearly everyone I knew, was some sort of addict or alcoholic, myself included. I know a little about addicts. I might have (mostly) quit drinking, but I’ll always be an alcoholic. The only reason I’m telling you this is so that you might better understand where I’m coming from on this Amy Winehouse death thing. My cravings for booze are strongest when I’m depressed or angry. So I understand the impulse toward slow chemical suicide. But, I suspect that, however strong my urges are, they pale in comparison to someone who had to struggle very publicly with her demons. Imagine having your misery reflected back to yourself wherever you went. Hard to crawl out of a hole like that.
Please, if you know someone who’s an addict, listen to them. Give them a sympathetic ear and don’t offer any advice unless it’s asked for. And, for fuck’s sake, make certain that they know you’ll be there to help them if they decide they need it. Because that’s really all you can do. Unsolicited advice and moralizing won’t help.
I hope I didn’t sound preachy. That’s the last thing I want to do. But I really do wonder if there was anyone that Winehouse could talk to who wouldn’t stick their finger in her face and tell her what she needed to do. I don’t know. I do know that tabloid coverage certainly couldn’t have helped the matter, even if she was getting proper attention and support from friends and family. Did the papers and TV shows “cause” her death? Of course not. But it’s a lot harder to get up from a bed of nails when there’s an elephant sitting on your chest. What serious addict is strong enough to push that goddamn beast away? Something tells me I wouldn’t be able to.
Maybe we should just forget that Amy Winehouse made music at all. Because she was just a junkie, right? She got what she deserved. She was weak. She brought it all on herself.
We live in strange times if the best we can show for ourselves is an almost limitless capacity to feed off human suffering. Are we all to become psychic vampires? And is it wrong to think that we’re all just a little more doomed than we were before she died?