Amy Winehouse, and the 27 Club
by Howard Sounes
07 Jul 2015
Four years ago this summer Amy Winehouse was found dead at her London home. She died alone, of alcohol poisoning, surrounded by vodka bottles, aged 27.
The release of Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, has revived interest in her life, and death. It is a well-made film, a montage of old footage overlaid with new interviews with people who were close to the singer. Kapadia follows a story I tell in my book, Amy, 27, charting Amy’s life from her childhood in north London, to that tragic death in 2011. In between there was some music, the best of which was sublime. Kapadia’s principal achievement is to remind us of the poetry of Amy’s songwriting, and the soulful power of her voice. Although she only made two albums, the second, Back to Black, was perhaps the greatest British album for a decade. It was the true artistic expression of a unique personality.
As a colleague comments in the film, Amy was ‘edgy and sincere’. We first meet her on screen as an irrepressible teen: playful, funny, and naughty. It is some time before her parents enter the picture. Her girlfriend Juliette Ashby - one of Kapadia’s best interviewees - notes that Amy always had ‘family issues’. This shouldn’t be over-looked, or over-played.
Dad, Mitch, was a double glazing salesman who went bankrupt when Amy was a kid, after which he drove a cab. He left home when she was nine to live with his mistress. Mitch thought Amy coped well with the upset, but she was evidently deeply and enduringly disturbed by it. ‘My dad was never there,’ she says sadly in the film. Mum, Janis, struggled to cope with Amy on her own. ‘I found it difficult to stand up to her,’ she admits, ‘I wasn’t strong enough.’
Amy signed a record deal almost straight from school, earning enough money to buy a flat in Camden, a party pad where she ran wild while she made her first album, Frank. She smoked dope daily. Still, she seemed more or less OK until she met Blake Fielder-Civil, a young man who had also been damaged by childhood experiences. They had an intense affair, broke up, reunited and married. They also started to use hard drugs together.
Blake comes across as a sinister figure in the film. When I met him during research for my book, he was in prison and much more subdued. He struck me as an immature young man who wanted to live like Keith Richards, without having the talent on which to anchor such a life. I believe that he loved Amy, in his way, though he was no good for her. Blake was a hopeless husband, as Mitch proved a disappointing father. Sadly, Amy was let down by the two men she cared about most in life.
Yet others would have survived such problems. Amy had a brother, Alex, who didn’t follow her example. He didn’t speak to Kapadia, and he didn’t speak to me. Unlike his gabby father, Alex has always kept his own counsel. But he appears to be sober and conventional. Unlike his sister.
Amy was always a drama queen. That is plain in the film. She made a tragic opera out of her histrionic love for Blake, the opera that is Back to Black. Chock full of hits, and brilliantly produced, the album was a worldwide smash in 2007-08. Yet she couldn’t cope with the fame that came towards her like a train. She started off playing up to the press, then spent the rest of her life running from the cameras. And she soon tired of singing those songs about Blake, who spent most of their short marriage in prison.
On top of it all, she was now a heavy user of heroin and crack cocaine. Amy had always been ‘an old soul in a young body’ as one record executive says in Amy. Now she seemed tired of life. The fun went out of her. Drug addiction segued into alcoholism. She also had eating disorders, a whole history of mental health issues. A lot of time was spent trying to treat the symptoms, while she stubbornly refused to discuss the underlying psychological causes. There were a lot of frustrating trips to rehab.
Booze, not smack, became her fatal habit. It has become fashionable in recent times to talk about alcoholism as an illness, or disease. Yet it is not a disease in any normal sense of the word. It’s not something one can catch, like malaria, through no fault of one’s own, nor is it a malfunction of the body, like cancer. Alcoholism is the direct result of drinking too much for too long, and people like Amy tend to drink to forget themselves. Samuel Johnson, who had a weakness for the bottle, observed that people drink to escape the pain of being alive. We see this repeatedly with heavy drinkers.
What was Amy’s essential problem? It is clear that she had issues before she met Blake. Mitch is angry about the way he is portrayed in Kapadia’s film. Footage of him bringing a TV crew to St Lucia to film her when she was trying to escape the press, looks particularly bad in context, though there is no revelation here. Mitch’s documentary, My Daughter Amy, was broadcast on Channel 4 in 2010. I refer to it in my book, and give other examples of Mitch’s questionable behaviour as he busied himself in his daughter’s career. Yet he tried to help Amy, and it wasn’t his fault that she drank herself to death. That was her decision.
Kapadia doesn’t attempt to analyse why Amy died, and glosses over her last months, which are in fact revealing. I go into this more deeply in Amy, 27, partly with the help of Amy’s last boyfriend, Reg Traviss, who is glimpsed once in Kapadia’s film, but not heard from.
I also compare Amy to five other music stars who died at the same age: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. They are sometimes grouped together as the 27 Club, a term often used to shelter crackpot theories. I go through the urban legends and conspiracy theories in the book in order to debunk the nonsense that had been written, based on lies and make-belief. Yet there is a real story here. All six stars were remarkably similar, above and beyond the fact that they happened to die at the same age. There was a degree of instability in each of their childhoods. They were intelligent, creative, unruly young people who got famous too quickly, and were unable to cope. All abused drink or drugs, or both. People closest to them often exploited them. Death when it came was not in truth much of a surprise, and in each case one can detect an element of death wish. Only Kurt Cobain is registered as a suicide - he shot himself - but if a person abuses substances relentlessly as Amy did, in spite of warnings, it is almost inevitable that something bad will happen, and death may even have been desired.
Asif Kapadia shows the trajectory of Amy’s short life in images with judicious use of her music, and some good interviews, though he misses the nuances. Generally speaking books contain more information than films. In Amy, 27, I delve further into Amy’s story and explore the commonalities with the other 27s. It is a grim but fascinating tale. We care about these people because of their talent. Amy was a major artist. That art came from a damaged life. Without the damage, there might not have been the music.
She has her place in history now, for which she paid the ultimate price.
Howard Sounes is the author of Amy, 27: Amy Winehouse and the 27 Club. For more information, visit www.howardsounes.com