It wasn’t like we couldn’t see it coming, wasn’t like anyone was shocked. Yet, the news Amy Winehouse had indeed been found dead in her London apartment tore through my Saturday morning with the harsh ripping reserved for muslin I’m going to use for mustard plasters. Forceful, sick, weakening.
Just as quickly, the romancing of the necrophoolishness began All the talk of the 27 Club, those tortured seemingly-beyond-comprehension-talents who also died in their 27th year Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain. There’s nothing romantic about addiction – or the kind of pain so profound no amount of drugs or sex or booze can tamp it down.
It’s an odd bargain we watchers of the bold-faced make. Reveling in the lip gloss and hair color, high heels and hobbies; but also voraciously consuming these creatures who capture our attention, For what reason do we watch? What gift? Does Snookie have any real value? The Kardashians? Paris Hilton?
Beyond Amy Winehouse’s ages old voice, a delicious mix of sweat and ennui boiled in a flammable combination of kerosene, cocktails and bodily fluids, her biggest hit was the sardonic “Rehab,” a song mocking the thing that might’ve saved her – had she ever committed to it.
Instead Winehouse’s notoriety was driven by a bobsled ride of trainwrecks, misadventure after trainwreck misadventure piling up like used syringes. Wandering around, clearly out of her mind, bee hive busted, eye liner smeared down her face, often in a state of near complete undress. Sometimes it was rows with tavern keepers; occasionally, her acting out coming via on-again, off-again husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a man quite possibly along for the ride on the reflected glory fame flume.
A highlight of that combustive union pictures from the morning after a particularly brutal night, her bruised eyes, feet bleeding through ballerina flats and him, face clearly scratched madly, walking hand-in-hand down the street like post-soul Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Placidity post-pound down.
Insanity makes for good copy. The media can’t get enough of a disaster, and 5 Grammy Awards be damned, the high jinks meant more than the music she created. For having been raised on a strong vein of classic jazz and saloon songs – her first album was named Frank in obvious homage, and contained the gold-digger hating vitrol “Fuck Me Pumps” – and easing into a ‘60s soul redux that had a modern flair, equal parts wide-eyed innocence and street-wise irony, Winehouse told it like it was for a generation watching all social norms being melted down for greed and a brand-name-checking nihilism designed to validate from the outside rather than the inside.
But it’s that raw ache, like a rope burn to the soul, that made her something more than the Brit-pop-soul thrushes – from Duffy to Adele – who came in her wake. This wasn’t about the pain of a relationship gone really bad, this was some other kind of soul-battering that had a profound darkness, no doubt heightened by addiction, at least one toxic relationship and the enabling that all pop stars attract.
Because it’s hard to tell pop stars “no.” The second you do, five willing compliants pop up, validating whatever bad thing they crave as something deserves and often deriding the person voicing objection as “a buzzkill.”
Being the one standing by, watching, helpless and knowing every outreach only alienates the addict, sex hound, boozer further. The debate begins: stay close and hope you can catch a falling star… or allow them the consequences of their actions, knowing the ultimate end could be the ultimate consequence.
There’s a saying a recovering alcoholic I know – 20+ years sober – embraces, “Don’t deny me the dignity of my struggle.” Or in the case of record company people who need the next record, the agent and manager who commission, everyone else who gets their fees, the momentum of her fame and the money.
Who tells someone who can still create a furor with next to nothing – her Tony Bennett track will no doubt be a stand out –they don’t have a choice? The tour’s cancelled. You’re off the road until you’re sorted out. REALLY sorted out, not a Band-Aid on the problem and a blind-eye to the fact that your treatment is a white knuckle kinda sobriety.
Not to mention how annoying the incessant calls, problems, shady characters and questionable reasons become. Some of the handlers resent or mock the person behind their back; others join in – as part of the party or from the fringes rocking their own deal because the artist doesn’t know… and no one cares. They’re beyond that in the momentum of the meltdown.
Those meltdowns, by the way, are awesome. Not only does it give the media a quick jolt of adrenal buzz, a way to hold people’s attention, it allows readers, viewers, regular people to feel superior – because they’d never be that messed up.
Look at Britney shave her head… Attack the mean paparazzi with an umbrella…
Watch Courtney throw make-up at Madonna live on tv… see her wander into a Wendy’s almost naked… Fight with her daughter Frances Bean on Twitter…
See Kate Moss honk up a white powder with her then boyfriend Pete Doherty, of Baby Shambles, a man known more for his drug abuse not music…
Watch the indulged famous brats implode. Easy prey. Lost souls. Dumb luck. Hard work. Take this and be cool… Be an outlaw… Rock harder than a mere mortal… And hey, Icarus, if those wax wings melt cause you’re too close to the sun, don’t blame us when you crash to the ground and die.
Shoulda known. All those chances.
We consumed your pain, your freak-out and turned it into water cooler conversation.
We drove our mini-vans or Priuses, wore our neat and clean clothes – or our pseudo-bohemian hipster looks, took out the trash and hit happy hour. We loved the music, but we loved the freak show more. And so the roulette wheel spins. Most make it, some don’t – but we, the Romans are entertained watching the stars face lions that look just like indulgences.
What we lose is what that music might’ve been. There are plenty of great straight up soul singers, but Amy Winehouse hit veins – sometimes with razors, sometimes diamonds, but always with deadly clarity.
Maybe not like Billie Holiday, another famous junkie the press is now rushing to invoke, but perhaps more like Judy Garland, a tragic figure propped up for commerce and lost in a pain we’ll never know.
What kind of songs would Kurt Cobain have written? What would he have said about the state of his generation? The nation? The world?
What kind of breakthrough playing would Hendrix have achieved? Where might he have taken the electric guitar? What might rock songs have become in his cosmos of groovy love and psychedelia?
Would Morrison have recovered enough to find a societal matrix that would’ve broken through to the other side? Merged poetry in its purest form with the release and conquest that rock & roll is at its root?
And Joplin? What soul-melting revelations could’ve come – a la Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time – had she found a little help? Could she have melted pain and defenses with her raging vulnerability? Maybe.
It’s really the “We’ll Never Know Club.” We can’t say they could’ve been saved. But you can wonder what price does putting your foot down exact? Lose the friend, the client… save the life, possibly.
Over the years, I’ve delivered a bunch of bad news. Starting with my own parents. People don’t like it. They get mad. They hate you. There’s never any proof what you stood down “woulda got’em.”
You don’t know. You don’t. And the other person has to want to be more than a piss’n’puke stain on the floor. Tricky business, saving lives that are more valuable in any shape half-functioning. Yet, the ultimate loss is even more.
We couldn’t have done anything to save Amy Winehouse. But participating in the tabloid speculation, the “ooooh”ing and “tsk”ing about “how awful it all is” creates a market for these people to be hounded. The worse it gets, the harder to cope; the harder to cope, the more likely they are to numb.
It’s easy to say, “it comes with the privileges.” And it does. But it’s also about helping these people walk the line of fame in a way their sanity isn’t one of the first things to go, replaced by the copious consumption based on rock star expectations.
It takes special skills to navigate fame, the rush of everyone wanting a piece of you. It takes handlers who believe in humanity as much as money. It takes a long-eyed view of a flame burning awfully fast.
When you hear someone’s sliding, express outrage and concern. Don’t sniger and laugh. It is funny: those humiliating, crazy things that happen when people can’t get right, but it’s something more, too.
Like I said: we didn’t cause, couldn’t stop it. But we’re all accessories when feeding the beast that eats their lunch. What we lose, we’ll never know. Creativity is its own commodity, but a little bit of our humanity goes when we’re callous, mocking, eye-rolling, indifferent.
Think about that, and think about being the change we need to see in a celebrity-obsessed world where too many are famous for nothing but the empty husk of not much more than gaudy consumptive lives