Amy Winehouse is dead and any useful understanding of the mental illness that killed her seems far away. Already the portrait is painted and flat-packed, smelted and ready to become myth.
There is tiny Amy with the swaying beehive hair and the frightened eyes, tormented by her talent and the chaos it brought, famous at 21, dead at 27, now a member of the repulsively named “27 Club” of musicians who were also addicts and died at 27 – Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain. All dead, all revered, as if it was their illness that made them interesting. The initial, rushed obituaries made much of Winehouse “making it” into the 27 Club. Would she make it to 28 and be shut out? No, she got in, with 54 days to spare.
Why do we give so much energy to the thrilling pantomime of an alcoholic dying in the public eye, and so little to understanding the illness that took her there? It was obvious years ago that Winehouse sick was more grotesquely interesting than Winehouse sober; as she temporarily dried out, so did the press coverage. But she relapsed, and came home to fame.
When an addict self-annihilates, stalked by paparazzi, it is easy to imagine the story belongs to us all. We all had a stake in Amy Winehouse, you might believe; her fall, and the redemption that will never come now, had a universal meaning. But it didn’t. Winehouse didn’t belong to us; she belonged to no one, not even herself. But you can forget that. Creative addicts – particularly female creative addicts – are always clutched to the cold global breast, even as the corpse is carried out.
Take Judy Garland, little Dorothy on Benzedrine, who kicked off her ruby slippers. She was a legend even before she was pulled off the toilet she died on in Chelsea in 1969; even this year there was a play in the West End about her collapse. I saw it and could only smell yet more exploitation of a woman who always exploited herself. Sing us a song, Judy, even though you’re dead!
There is no meaning here, no wider parable about the relationship between Vogue cigarettes addiction and talent, and I think that is junk too, a straw man that burns easily. Winehouse was simply an alcoholic and drug addict who had no idea of her own worth or how to cure herself. She died at 27 not because she was the magical mystical twin of Janis Joplin, but because 27 is a normal age for the body of a compulsive user of hard drugs and hard alcohol to give out.
Thousands like Winehouse die every year, and they are not venerated, or even pitied. We will not educate ourselves about the disease, or reform drug laws that plunge addicts into a shadow-world of criminality and dependence on criminals. Winehouse got away with too much said one copper, after a tape of her using was released. Did she? Did she really? Winehouse walked barefoot through the streets because that is where the drugs were, and even as her bewildered face splatters across the front pages, drug support charities are closing, expendable in this era of thrift.
Recovery rests on the edge of the self-harming knife, because no one yet knows what causes addiction, or how to cure it. The disease is impenetrable to outsiders because it is anathema to our all-conquering species that a person can be genetically predisposed to poison themselves. Addiction is still uniformly called “a self-inflicted disease” and only the most enlightened doctors will recommend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, self-help groups that sometimes get results, although no one knows why. A Harley Street psychiatrist once told me that I should try and “limit” my drug use; he obviously knew nothing, even as he charged £275 for 15 minutes.
She was in the Priory this year. I was in the Priory 11 years ago, where I was “treated” for addiction, and in my experience the Priory was not the sort of place where many people got better. When I was there they offered en-suite rooms and in-room TVs, not the absolute knowledge that a tiny flicker of the reality of the predicament is essential to stay alive. She stayed a week, left to undertake her tour commitments and six weeks later she was dead. She died for nothing because she thought she was nothing.
Not that we will learn; the beehive was too high, the eyes too photogenically tormented, the voice too beautiful. Her new album will be released and it will sell 10 million copies, maybe more. And there, reader, is your meaning. The addict is dead. Long live the myth.