Amy Winehouse drank herself to death with vodka while watching videos of herself on Youtube. That fact, a seemingy simple and sad demise labeled as a “misadventure” by the British coroner, came out two years after her death. Before the official report was released there was a lot of speculation about what transpired on Amy’s last night on Earth, and which drug, or drugs, was the one that took her away from us. Most of us, her parents included, didn’t want to believe that it was alcohol — the legal, highly marketed toxin most adults imbibe fairly regularly. We wanted it to be a “harder” drug, something more complicated and difficult to procure. Her parents seemed to want to deflect, to deny that it was anything at all, to say Amy had been doing well. Despite their will to believe otherwise, her public appearances shortly before her death seem to point to the fact that Amy was doing worse than ever. Her only drug at the time may have been alcohol via episodic binges, but that’s more than enough. If her parents couldn’t truly see her, how could she expect anyone to?
At some point Amy had been been addicted to, or at least overly abused, nearly every drug available. She developed emphysema from smoking too much, and she was even hospitalized for a weed overdose, something I haven’t heard of before or since. It’s unclear what could have been done to save her. The night she died she had been checked out by a doctor, and she passed away while a bodyguard kept watch downstairs. All the guards were at their posts except for Amy herself, who just didn’t seem to love herself enough to do her part in taking care of herself.
After she died, Amy Winehouse’s fans left bottles of booze at her door, a chilling but fitting tribute. I almost want to blame them, to chastise them, but I can’t. Amy battered her fragile life, her tender self, up against the rocks of poisonous substances, and this is an important part of her legacy. This was all amplified by her eating disorder, which made her expel anything nutritious that passed through her lips. All of her demons fed on each other, eating her whole. This was a girl who ran on noxious fumes, denying herself any shred of health and peace. When she sang “you know that I’m no good,” she meant it. Almost everyone relates to that line, but only by degrees. Very few people probably mean it the way Amy did. She desperately needed love, but only sought out the kind with spikes, probably the only kind she thought she deserved.
Anyone with any other kind of love probably takes it for granted. Anyone with a sustainable salve on their loneliness forgets, or just doesn’t know, what it’s like to be truly lonely, lonely to the bones. Amy’s destructive love interest Blake once said that she was the loneliest person he ever knew. He also noted that she had extreme difficulty communicating in real life the way she did in her lyrics.
Amy was a pure extremist. She had a deep pain that she seemed to never deal with properly. During a dark-but-productive period, she applied pressure to this pain, and distilled it into one of the best records ever made. She must have experienced a great deal of strain in making it, but her true dark times were still ahead of her.
The instantaneous success the storm of her magic wrought left her with no time to heal from the making of it. By the time she was famous, she was already bulimic, drinking too much, and emotionally strung out on a battered ideal of love. According to her, she’d been separately diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, but she refused treatment. She craved for romantic love in a desperate way, mistaking the delicious dance of chemical yearning and attraction for the hope of fulfillment. On top of all those addictions and issues, and with an apparently very shaky and limited support system in place, Amy suddenly had access to the most dangerous drug of all, and at the most punishing of doses: an elixir of fame, money, praise, criticism, and expectation.
Rather suspiciously, the troubled man who broke her heart, the man she wrote those brilliant songs about, also came back to her side, supplying her with the fix of his presence, and at the same time introducing her to harder drugs. All drugs are liars, but opiates are probably the most powerful liars of all: they give you hell in a cloak of heaven. And Amy, in her desperate search for everything, for anything, reached for that mad promise.
As her fame wore on, and her problems and missteps were broadcast throughout the world in real time, we increasingly thought of Amy as more of a shameless addict than a brilliant artist. The brilliance got overshadowed. She shocked us. She made us uncomfortable. She was open about her drugs, and she was also open about her eating problems and her mental health, but all we could notice were her troubling actions. She said strange and upsetting things about herself, her health, and her idea of love. To the world she became an image of a toppled tangled beehive, smeared signature eyeliner, skinny limbs, haunted eyes, and bloody ballet slippers. She was photographed crying in the streets in the middle of the night while wearing a bra, and perhaps more shockingly, completely devoid of eyeliner. It was a startling image of true, disintegrating vulnerability. This girl needs love, she needs comfort, but how to get it to her? Another simple, achingly true lyric weaves through our glimpses into Amy’s stark, black nights. “I just need a friend,” she sings in “Rehab;” a small, childlike plea. The best friend we can ever find is the one we can be to ourselves, but when Amy dared to look inside, it seems all she saw was a ruthless enemy.
In a 2007 interview followed her first highly publicized overdoses, she speaks candidly about her depression. “Since I was 16, I’ve felt a black cloud hangs over me,” she said. “Since then, I have taken pills for depression. I believe there are lots of people who have these mood changes.”
We watched her for years stumbling around Camden and St. Lucia, drunk and high and out of her mind. For a while there was a constant camp of paparazzi outside her door, a door that opened to a rather humble and accessible dwelling for one of the biggest recording artists of our time. She’d even be friendly with this constant swarm of photographers. She’d often dress up and pose just for them, and she’d send them out for beer and fast food. They knew they were making a living off her demise, helping the whole world bear witness to it, but they hoped for her to get better. We were all rooting for her, but our well wishes and hopes were just dispersed vapor: poignant at the heart, but might as well be nothing.
Once she let a Rolling Stone reporter inside, and they described her home as just as disjointed and wild as her broken heart. The place was strewn with food wrappers, receipts, lingerie boxes, and, of course, alcohol and drug remnants. Amy hospitably made tea and offered her guest scraps of paper to write on, and the reporter stayed up all night with Amy while she meticulously prepped to appear before the paparazzi and offhandedly dismissed her latest newspaper scandal. “You know a lot of things are more casual to me than they are to you,” she said to her worried friend Remi Nicole, who had questioned her about the disturbing headlines, information, photos and videos that descended on the world at midnight.
Who was Amy? Where was she in all of this? When you’re drunk and strung out and out of your mind, there’s always an important sense of yourself missing. It’s buried somewhere. This is all a way to hide yourself when you’re afraid of what may be there. Amy showed up with her art, but was hidden deep inside herself most of the time. All of it: the hair, the thin frame, the eyeliner, the jokes, the salty talk, her candid confessions, all of it along with the drugs was an attempt to run away in plain sight. “I am here, but you can’t see me,” she seemed to be saying to us. It was all in the songs. The fact that she had to sing her own brutal lyrics night after night made her want to run from the truth of them even more.
Amy Winehouse gave her songs everything. She had no off switch, no moderation in her art. Her music, her lyrics, and her singing style were so raw, intense, and perfect because she held nothing back. Everything she ran from in her everyday interactions was poured into this. She developed a personal fashion style that was just as pastiche and perfect as her sound. But to keep up all that? To be so raw and personal all the time? To dress up pain so profound on cue, to relive the old heartbreak every night? How was she supposed to endure it? She barely even clothed her lyrics in metaphors. As poetic as they were, they were almost exact play-by-plays of real-life situations. Other artists hide behind flourishes, dodges, and embellishments, putting a bit of distance to make the truth more palatable. Amy’s life was her mask, but her art was open, an untreated wound.
She tells her audience to wait until her tears have dried before she can get better, but the catch was that Amy cried an ocean that was always raining down on itself. Despite her efforts, her last days were drenched in a flood of alcohol that undoubtedly failed to satiate and medicate Amy the way it used to, and at the same time probably just made her symptoms of mental illness just that more devastatingly worse. At its wicked and enchanting peak, alcohol at least provides glinting moments of fun, which are momentary distractions, deceptive as they may be. For a while Amy had chased that fun, those glimpses at something like enjoyment. Towards the end, though, the veneer of shine was completely worn off and raw. “Recently she’d always be with two bouncers rather than two friends,” journalist Piers Hernu said of witnessing her last days in the Camden bars. “People wouldn’t go up to her any more, she wouldn’t talk to people. She just became increasingly alienated from her own world.”
Amy, a documentary by Asif Kapadia is due out in theaters July 3 in both the U.K. and the U.S. Early reviews indicate that Kapadia did an excellent job of telling the story of Amy in a way befitting her talents and tragedy.
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