Over the weekend, the news that Amy Winehouse had died ended up being a blip on most people’s radar, but not much more. Maybe it was because so many people saw it coming. Maybe it was because it was the inevitable end to a life already filled with tragedy. Maybe it was because she made it into the list of influential musicians who died at the age of 27. Maybe it was because we as a society take in news and information on a 24/7 basis and unless something effects us directly, we don’t spend more than a few days thinking about it. Or maybe it was none of these things. Nonetheless, her death got me thinking about a few things and I just want to mention that briefly here.
For me, I was not heart-broken to hear the news, but it did sadden me. I don’t think it takes much perspective or objectivity to see a person who constantly struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, not to mention an eating disorder and also was surrounded by the pressures of fame and the media, to have an early ending to an already sad story. In reading the stories about her death, the reports online on Yahoo! among other places also included some clips of her tour from 2011 when she was obviously wasted and stoned on-stage. I felt for her band members who continued to be professional while their star was so out of it and didn’t really know where she was or what she was supposed to be doing, including forgetting the lyrics to her own songs. I think that summed up not just her tour, but her real life pretty well. And that’s more tragic than her death, at least to me.
I read about her father’s concern, that apparently he had been sounding off the warning bell that his daughter’s substance abuse was out of hand and that she would die of cancer or worse before her time. I also read concern from some of her supposed friends who said the same. And yet no one intervened to stop the freight train from wrecking everything she had. But then again, what did she have?
Winehouse is celebrated as being an incredible musical talent, one the apparently Tony Bennett was considering doing some work with. Aside from the themes or story lines in her songs that I didn’t care much for, the only thing about her music I found appealing was some of the melodies and her ability to make really trashy, dramatic things seem somewhat appealing. I admit, I don’t go for skanky, trashy pop star stuff. Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilara, and especially Lady Gaga do nothing for me. But the brokenness in Winehouse’s songs tell a more sincere story than the aforementioned pop stars do. I think it’s that brokenness that made her music appealing, to both people who are trying to navigate through their own dysfunction, as well as the mainstream who find that to be a method of blues and R&B. I also feel like her record label wanted her to never really heal from the damage she seemed to live and breath in. Rehab was good for her image to a point, but full recovery from the abuse she put herself through would mean a different kind of music from her, if any. And that would be bad for business.
I read in my time looking at the famous list of musicians who died at or around the age of 27 that Janis Joplin said something to a reporter similar to this, that her handlers didn’t really want her to get on a right track, because if she cleaned up and had things in life put together, she would lose her appeal as a rebel and a person known for not having it together. She said that her record people only feinted interest in her cleaning up or not being strung out most of the time. As long as it was good for record sales, but if she lost her image or appeal or sound as a wild child, then she’d lose her marketing power. At the end of the day, that’s what mattered most to the people who could have helped her when she really needed it.
Perhaps the same could be said for Winehouse. And that goes for her father too. All these people who had a voice or avenue in her life could have done something to remove her from the substance, the people providing the substance, and placed her somewhere that she could discover who she really was. A person continuing to slide back and forth through all these detrimental vices is someone who doesn’t know their identity, unless they believe who they are can only be found in the grip of the substance.
I just read the autobiography of Sugar Ray Leonard, titled The Big Fight. He was one of my childhood heroes. I only knew him as a clean cut guy who was the welter-weight/middleweight boxing champ in the 80s. When I learned a few years ago that he was an alcoholic, I thought someone was stirring up bad press. Turns out it was true. Not just that, but during his time as a contender, champion, retired champion, and beyond, he struggled with heroin. And he cheated on his wife about 200 times or more. Those are his numbers. All the while he wrote that it was his way of trying to cope with his past, two experiences of sexual abuse and a home with fighting parents. The substance was an escape. It led to him creating an identity that found peace in the abuse of alcohol, drugs and women. I think the same is true for Winehouse.
Only unlike Leonard, who through the intervention of his second wife finally forced him to look the mirror and see the man really there. He admits that without her help, as well as some good friends and even his first wife, he might have continued down a tragic path that could have cost him his health or his life.
What it would have required for those closest to Winehouse to get between her and her method of coping would probably have been extremely costly. It probably would make the individual look like a prude, or someone trying to keep her away from what she wanted. There would have been a fight, no less. But in the name of love, it would have been a sacrifice worth taking. This is why to me, the real tragedy in Amy Winehouse’s life was a lack of real relationship with people who truly loved her. It can be said that you can’t force people to change, that they have to make that decision and that is absolutely true. But putting someone in rehab is only half the love. Surrounding someone with a support system, a group of people dedicated to helping them stay away from influences, places, and/or people who might take them right back down the path that led them to destruction is something that can be done, if those people exist. Rehab cuts people off from the substance and gives them time to go through withdrawl. But relationship with people who truly love you and will walk with you day after day to help you discover who you truly are is complete love. These people are rare, and when you find them, are worth more than gold. Were that kind of people present in the life of Amy Winehouse? I’m not sure.
For all the talk though, it’s also very sad that it’s not just her death that is tragic, but the path that got her there. The whole thing is a sad story. I hope it’s one we can learn from as a music community, a society, and a group of people with a younger generation following us by the life we lead and the journeys we’re on.