In My Own Write: No, no, no, Amy

Why do some who appear to have it all seem so ready to squander it all?

Amy Winehouse 88 224 (photo credit: )
Amy Winehouse 88 224
(photo credit: )
'Amy who?" I asked, as a voice like molasses, rich, huge and with an extraordinary musicality pervaded our living room. I was stretched out on the floor doing the Alexander Technique - which is, I suppose, as good a way as any to discover one of the great talents of our time. "Winehouse," replied the representative of the younger generation who lives in my house and who has generously opened for me the door to the music 20-somethings listen to. Some of it is surprisingly enjoyable and relevant even to those on the far side of the generation gap. Some of it goes beyond New Age to Eeuh Age. Some of it, I've decided, isn't music at all, more of a total sensory assault that might well find its true purpose in non-lethal crowd control. But this Winehouse was something else. This was the sound of the jazz and soul greats - of legends like Bessie Smith ("Gimme a pig foot and a bottle of beer"), Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Or rather, according to Bill Ashton MBE, conductor of England's National Youth Jazz Orchestra, "she sang like Billie Holiday, if Billie's intonation and tuning had been good." She was, Ashton said, "the best young female singer I've ever seen." THE JEWISH Winehouse, 24, grew up in North London in a home that resonated with jazz recordings, where her taxi-driver father, Mitchell, would sing along with Frank Sinatra. She got a contract with Island Records at 17 and in 2003 released her first album, Frank, dedicated to an ex-boyfriend, which was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Her 2006 follow-up album Back to Black - with its lead single, the defiant, sobriety-shunning "Rehab" - made her the first British singer to win five Grammys. By the time Back to Black hit the US last year, Winehouse, who writes most of her own songs, was being hailed as the future of soul music. The album sold two million copies in America. The Sunday Times's annual Rich List has estimated her wealth at $20 million. But the singer was building a wild reputation, drinking unrestrainedly - journalist Sophie Heawood recalled seeing her downing "spirit after spirit after spirit" - and smoking drugs. The tabloid Sun ran a cover photo of her puffing what they said was crack through a glass pipe. She missed concerts or showed up unsteady and unkempt, barely staying in key, yet somehow pulling herself together. It is a tribute to her talent and personality that fans, initially angered by her unprofessionalism, would be won over as the concert proceeded. On June 16, Winehouse fainted at her London home after signing autographs and was hospitalized for tests. Reports that she would be coming to Ashkelon's Barzilai Hospital for drug rehabilitation treatment were effectively denied by the Israeli medical institution. Around this time, the Daily Mail quoted Winehouse's father as saying she had early-stage emphysema brought on by smoking crack cocaine and cigarettes. He later downplayed this statement, insisting she had only "traces" of the disease that would get worse "if she doesn't quit smoking." FOR SOME, marriage is a lifesaver. For Winehouse, it has proven the opposite. Her union in 2007 with Blake Fielder-Civil - a rakish hanger-on whose name she had tattooed over her chest and with whom she remains besotted - has pushed the singer further into a shadowy world. He lost little time, it is believed, in turning his significant other on to heroin, and is currently serving a prison sentence for assault and perverting the course of justice. His father, Giles Fielder-Civil, told the Associated Press he thought the couple were in "abject denial" of their hard drug problem. "Perhaps it's time to stop buying [her] records," he said, "to send a message." "This past year," wrote Claire Hoffman on July 10 in Rolling Stone magazine, Winehouse "has gone from being one of pop music's most ascendant and celebrated talents to a tragicomic train wreck of epic proportions." In this she joins other legendary music figures such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, The Doors' Jim Morrison and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. "She's pushed the self-destruct button," said a British entertainment lawyer who has spent decades in the music business, adding soberly, "Many people are questioning whether she'll still be here in five years." The Internet reportedly - shamefully - boasts a Web site where people try to guess the date of Winehouse's demise. WHY DO some people who appear to have it all seem so ready to squander it all? Conventional wisdom suggests that those who crave fame are, from the start, different from the rest of us. Perhaps. And certainly the singlemindedness - obsession, maybe - needed to achieve stardom might simultaneously manifest itself as a passionate dedication to less admirable pursuits such as drink and drugs. But ponder this image: a hand doling out, at birth, a supreme gift like Winehouse's, then drawing back before it can add a healthy sense of self, and of perspective, and an ability to accept - yet not be intimidated by - that amazing gift. University of British Columbia social psychologist Mark Schaller theorizes: "The relentless scrutiny of fans and the media leads some celebrities to... develop 'impostor syndrome'... They think to themselves, 'I know that I'm not as great as they think I am.' The need to escape this agonizing self-awareness may lead [to] alcoholism, drug abuse or compulsive sexuality." It's something to reflect on for those who dream of winning American Idol or its Israeli equivalent, Nolad Lashir. ANOTHER part of the answer could be a too-literal understanding of the artist's notion of "giving one's all." As Jon Pareles noted in the International Herald Tribune, "The deaths of Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain were sudden and shocking... [but] they were pre-Internet stars. Now, there's a sleazy, iconoclastic symbiosis that connects instantaneous worldwide visibility, publicity, marketing and narcissism... "Why was Winehouse letting someone shoot video, in a private setting, of her puffing that pipe in the first place?... She's just supplying material for the sphere of celebrity interaction that only wants to see idols torn down." And when those idols are shown to have feet of clay, "it's like a modern morality play which we can all understand - and all enjoy," adds David Giles, author of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity. BBC health reporter Clare Murphy summed it up wryly when she commented that though we're no longer in the 18th century when "for a penny, you could peer into the cells at Bedlam and enjoy the inmates' antics," the urge to gawp at mental deterioration is still with us. 'I TOLD you I was trouble," sings Winehouse in "You Know I'm No Good." Yet that hasn't stopped her from becoming her generation's pinup. In an April 2008 poll conducted by Sky News, Winehouse - despite proceeding unmerrily to a hell one still hopes she can avoid - was named the second-greatest "ultimate heroine" by the UK population at large. In the under-25 age group she topped the voting, emerging as the person most girls would like to be. One would like to think that was because of her phenomenal musical talent - and not because she's the ultimate "heroin heroine."