I’m not going to post a video tribute to Amy Winehouse, nor am I going to eulogise her in this post. In fact I wouldn’t usually even comment on a celebrity event such as this because it is documented so extensively in every other media outlet. The reason I feel compelled to write this is because of the way in which it has been covered, the romanticism and mythology that is already springing up around her death, which to my mind was simply the inevitable conclusion of severe addiction.
I personally have experience of addiction, not my own but close family members. My father celebrated 20 years of sobriety a couple of months ago (he is very open about his recovery therefore I am not breaking any confidences) and so I have seen first hand the pain that addiction can cause, not just to the sufferer but to their immediate friends and family.
Addiction is not glamorous. It is no respecter of age, social class, race, religion or gender. It is not something to be romanticised, nor should the sufferers be canonised as seems to be happening with Amy. Addiction destroys lives, it can be as fatal as cancer, and it is not a choice. Addiction is an illness with serious consequences for all who come into contact with it.
Amy Winehouse has been described in the media as a “tragic singer” who met an “untimely death” amongst other assorted hyperbole-filled accounts. Julie Burchill buys into the jazz myth saying, “Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday…[those] who have a great talent for singing also have a great capacity for reckless behaviour.” In The Guardian open thread, people describe her as “too fragile and too delicate”, “a tragic, talented fabulous mess”, and sickeningly, “…some people have skulls in their eyes; as if they are telling us the end is near.”
As far as I’m concerned this is all absolute bullshit. Amy was a great singer with a rare talent who suffered from addiction and never allowed herself to seek help for her problems. She said in interviews that she suffered from manic depression (bipolar disorder) and/or depression; I believe her addiction was a form of self-medication and perhaps if she had received proper psychiatric help and been medicated accordingly she would have survived and gone on to a great career.
As long as people subscribe to the rock legend of the “27 Club“, artists who suffer from addiction will never get the medical and psychiatric help they need. They will feel that they are taking part in a grand rock and roll tradition; the tortured soul too sensitive for this cruel world. With the greatest of respect, bollox to that. I’m far more interested in the kind of music that Jimi Hendrix would have produced in his later career than the sordid details of his death, far more interested in thinking about the amazing music Janis Joplin could have created if her life wasn’t limited by heroin. And I refuse to hold Keith Richards up as some kind of hero; the man can simply do more drugs than most people and is that really all that laudable? I think it’s a far braver thing to live a completely sober life.
A single mother on benefits who dies from alcoholism is just a loser or a sad case. A barrister who succumbs to cocaine addiction is just unable to withstand the rigours of his profession. These people are no different to the rock star or the actress or the artist. We need to level the playing field, we need to understand that this illness affects everyone, and we need to stop glamourising those in the creative arts who die from this illness. It does nobody any favours.