As too often in life, I discovered an appreciation for someone years after she died, and suddenly she is alive again, not only in my mind, but on the silver screen.
Amy Winehouse, the British jazz singer-songwriter, came to my attention recently when my 12-year-old daughter learned one of Winehouse’s songs called “Rehab.” Although I’d heard and appreciated it on the radio, I never gave her an honest listen.
Then on July 23, the fourth anniversary of her death, I read there was a documentary about her called “Amy.” When I found out it was newly released, I had a sense of urgency about seeing it. So I grabbed my daughter and within one hour of finding out where it was playing, we were sitting in the dark anticipating the end of her tragic story, yet enjoying her voice all the while, and secretly hoping my daughter would be “scared straight” against drugs like I was at an early age. What struck me four years ago when I’d heard Winehouse had died, was that she had joined the infamous 27 Club, a long list of talented musicians who died at the young age of 27, like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. The list is a rather long and tragic litany. What many of them have in common is their extreme discomfort with fame and self-destructive responses to the lack of privacy.
During the movie, I was less curious about the gory details and more interested in her creative process as it pertained to my own meager experience as a singer-songwriter, such as the recording studio footage and segments of interviews about how writing music was her way of wrapping her head around certain realities that had thrown her off center. She once said, “Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.”
Her tumultuous on-off relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil fueled her second album, “Back to Black,” which won her critical acclaim and awards, creating a world of people who wanted a piece of her.
In light of the whole story, she would have been better off if Blake, whom she eventually married and divorced, had left her and stayed away. Of course, he can’t be entirely blamed for her drug addiction, though he made them readily available. Because of his own insecurities and lack of income, he said, “Sometimes I felt like that’s all I brought to the table.” What wasn’t his fault was her insecurity, depression, anxiety, and what she called “a great new diet” otherwise known as bulimia. She never learned to rectify her demons, and instead memorialized them in songs like “Rehab” and “Love is a Losing Game.” You may remember the lyric, They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no.
It’s a catchy tune delivered with the passion and finesse of a much older jazz singer and more grit than Ella Fitzgerald. What’s more disturbing is the line, I ain’t got the time/And if my Daddy thinks I’m fine/They tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go.
Her father, Mitch Winehouse, didn’t think it was necessary in the beginning, but eventually it became undeniable. She desperately needed the guidance of a rehabilitation center like Brookhaven Retreat in Tennessee, where she would have learned about mindfulness and her power to create a life worth living. However, she might have needed more than Brookhaven Retreat’s 90-day Lily Program®, though in the song she sings, I ain’t got 70 days. Since she had gotten clean a couple of times only to slip back into her old habits. Her alcohol addiction, which led to an incident of alcohol poisoning, is what finally knocked her out for the last time when she was found in her London flat.
I can imagine the heartbreak of her parents during the anniversary of her death, which happens to fall during Bereaved Parents Awareness Month. Her father was quoted as saying, “It was precisely because her songs were dragged up out of her soul that they were so powerful and passionate. The ones that went into ‘Back to Black’ were about the deepest emotions. And she went through hell to make it.”
A highlight of her two-album career, and incidentally her final recording, was her collaboration with one of her idols, Tony Bennett, on the classic song, “Body and Soul.”
In the movie, Bennett expressed his remorse. “If I could talk to her now, I’d tell her that life teaches you how to live it if you can stick around long enough.”
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