This last weekend the world was hit with the sad news of the death of Amy Winehouse, the remarkably talented chanteuse whose relatively short history as a shining musical artist was regretfully overshadowed by her frequent and well-publicized binges with alcoholic and drugs. The outcry was largely unanimous for those of us who knew her music, one of deep sorrow, but more so for many of the onlookers and fans, they/we were also not surprised. That is the real tragedy: that we were waiting, and that we assumed that it was simply a just matter of time. Sadly, last week we saw what we presumed we were waiting for.
Familiar story, great talent, sad loss, a broken record, another one for the books
…and another one for the stupid “27 Club.”
Amy Winehouse was an unexpected talent. I can still remember the first time I heard Back to Black, I was taken by the freshness of Winehouse’s smokey soulful voice backed by the Dap Kings, the perfect R&B/soul anchor. The whole thing sounding like a lost classic disc from the 50s, the 60s. It was hard to pinpoint it exactly, but it hearkened some ephemeral nostalgia while remaining fresh and distinct. That was four years ago. Amy would have been just turned 23 years old when that record was released. It was hard to imagine somebody so young releasing such an undeniable masterpiece (she won 5 Grammy for Back to Black), but here it was; her gift was undeniable and the record conveyed a level of experience seemingly beyond her years. The press however made damned sure that we were always aware of her addictions and her struggles, and that unfortunately seemed to overshadow her music in the long term. Russell Brand put it perfectly in mentioned that the press was “more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall.”
I was surprised by the handful of derisive or insensitive (or perhaps just ignorant and unaware?) comments I saw on the web suggesting that she brought it on herself and that she did not have to drink or do drugs…but then again I suppose I really shouldn’t have been. If addiction was simply as easy as just flipping a switch, there would be little need for 12 step programs, support groups or rehab centers. But the simple fact is that it is not. Addiction completely overrides the logic and reason of the normal brain. It’s a bitch; a demon; a disease, something that we are either biochemically predisposed to or not. It has a selfish life of its own, greedily driving everything of meaning out.
But I am still always surprised. A person suffering from addiction needs understanding, compassion and support. Addicts are dealing with an illness. Duff McKagen described addiction as “a lonely and terrifying place to be” in his posthumous piece on Amy Winehouse. I’ve witness it firsthand as a kid when my own mother became addicted to heroin.I further watched the debilitating effects of alcoholism with my father during the seven years that I lived with him. He thankfully managed to get sober. Amy Winehouse did not. I feel like I’ve witnessed this story too many times, and every time I feel the same sense of frustration, because I always think that maybe “now they’ve finally learned,” but that’s not how it works.
Now that Amy Winehouse is gone, the public has once again re-discovered her remarkable talent. Her sales have once again skyrocketed with Back to Black hitting the Billboard Top 10 and reaching the #1 spot on iTunes. Now she will perhaps be remembered for talent and not for the alcoholism that brought her down. Now perhaps we can remember that addiction is an illness. It’s never a choice.