I first listened to Amy Winehouse on the suggestion of a friend who had picked up on Winehouse well before she had become a mainstream name, and like many aficionados, was struck by the soul and virtuosity of her singing. She was destined for greatness, my friend told me, and so I listened to his copy of Back to Black, the album that would make Winehouse famous.
The first track is “Rehab,” Winehouse’s biggest hit. “They tried to make me go to rehab,” the song begins, “but I said no, no, no.” I remember pausing the song and looking up Winehouse, learning in short order just how deep her addictions ran. This was a star who was not just in league with drugs and alcohol, but was using them to fuel a kamikaze mission against herself. Knowing that, I couldn’t take any pleasure from her music, and I turned away from it. Hers was a sad story already, and it did not take a fortune-teller to see how it would end.
In the years that followed, it became impossible to miss the headlines about Winehouse. The extremity of her behavior and star appeal made her a recurring fixture on tabloid front pages, which chronicled her tumultuous relationships, run-ins with the law, trips to the ER and chronic visits to neighborhood taverns.
Her celebrity appearances became increasingly sad as she showed up to interviews drunk or on game shows where the other participants openly made fun of her. Especially heartbreaking was Winehouse’s father, who repeatedly pleaded with his daughter through the press to seek help. At one point, he asked her fans to stop buying her albums, in the hopes that if she had less money with which to fund her habits, she might hit rock bottom sooner and in turn, get the help she needed.
As it turned out, Winehouse did go into rehab a few times, but she never did clean herself up. Near the end, it had been five addled years since Back to Black, with her live performances becoming more infrequent and less coherent. On July 23, she was found dead in her London home, presumably from an overdose of some kind, but we won’t know for a few more months yet, when the toxicology reports come in.
That is the most tragic part of this story: by the time we know exactly how Amy Winehouse killed herself, most of us will no longer care, interested instead in following the downward spiral of some other doomed figure, whose ability to entertain and whose appetite for destruction are gradually becoming the same thing.
It would be interesting to hear what you have go say about Amy Winehouse, given your profession’s unique proximity to, and perspective on, life and death. We could have all force marched Winehouse into a hospital or a rehab clinic and we could have all stopped buying her albums, but in the end, she never wanted anyone’s help badly enough to save herself. And so people figured they would at least enjoy the show for as long as it lasted.
What does that say about us as a people, if we are so willing to let the sickest among ourselves descend into oblivion? What does it say that we are willing to extract some entertainment from such narcissistic annihilation? Nothing good, I fear. We could shout to the maddening crowds that they need to stop bearing such gleeful witness to the Amy Winehouses of the world, but we already know what the answer would be: No, no, no.