Leslie Jamison | Tin House | Spring 2017 | 18 minutes (4,943 words)
Amy Winehouse’s last big concert was in Belgrade, a month before she died. This was June of 2011. Billed as the beginning of her comeback tour, the gig turned into one of her most infamous train wrecks: when she came on stage, she was drunk beyond the point of making sense, beyond the point of standing — tripping and crouching, sitting down to take off her shoes, leaning into her bass guitarist and holding his hand. The crowd started heckling her early and didn’t let up. “Sing!” they shouted. “Sing! Sing!”
Her eyes were as large as a child’s, as if she’d been dropped into a life she had no idea how to live. Her life had been unmanageable for years. But the thing was, she had all this management: a promoter, a producer, a father. She was asleep when they put her on the plane to Serbia. She slept for the whole flight, woke up to her own life, and heard: Sing! Her fans loved her as long as she gave them what they needed — as long as she broke down so they could watch, as long as she picked herself back up again so she could give them her voice. Her backup guys in their orange suits didn’t know what to do with her.
The footage of Belgrade is nearly impossible to believe, but there it is, happening over and over again, as many times as you want to click the YouTube refresh button. Amy stumbles along in her tiny yellow dress with ragged stripes of black, a bruised banana. When she falls off an amp, her drummer’s smile stretches into something more like a grimace. Is this an oh-those-self-destructive-music-legends-how-they-fuck-up moment or an actually-this-woman-is-basically-committing-suicide-right-in-front-of-you moment? He isn’t sure what face to make. The public didn’t know what face to make for years. “She’s shit-faced,” says a voice on the YouTube video. “She doesn’t know where she is.” And then: “Look at her. Look at her.” At a certain point, her face changes. She’s not confused anymore, or scared. She’s smirking. Her smirk seems to say, I’m done with this. She throws the mic. Someone hands her another. One voice cries out: “Sing or give me my money back!”
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She finally does sing, her voice barely audible above her music — above the song she’d written to turn her heartbreak into something beautiful, something profitable, your love goes and my love grows, the music that had turned her into a tabloid sensation it never seemed like she wanted to be. At a certain point, her voice is no longer audible above the noise of the crowd, the sounds of their frustration and desire, their voices reminding her of the words to her own song.
* * *
The public loved to see Amy fucking up. They loved to hate her, loved to judge her, loved to feel bad for her. They loved to relate to her, whatever the terms of that relation, because it brought them closer to her, and what they wanted most was access. The public loved to watch her falling apart. The darkness inside her was always spilling out. They got more of it than they wanted: She couldn’t sing for them in Belgrade. She couldn’t stay alive for them in London.
The public loved to see Amy fucking up. They loved to hate her, loved to judge her, loved to feel bad for her.
At a concert on the Isle of Wight, where she slurred her mumbled words behind a wheel bearing the title HMS Winehouse, she sang “Rehab,” her unrepentant rallying cry, and drank from a plastic cup of wine held close to her mouth. She had to choose between drinking and singing — moment by moment, on a physical, literal level: she couldn’t do both at once. She was already drunk. At the end of the song, she threw the cup and an arc of booze sprayed across the stage, streaking it like paint. No, no, no, she sang. She wouldn’t go to rehab. Instead, she was doing this.
There are thousands of comments on her YouTube clips, full of taffy strands of pity: It’s really sad to see a human being like this. Or else harsh strokes of judgment: She is the definition of trash, nice voice or not! She is a disgrace to music and all the hard-working musicians around the globe. Fifty years after the emergence of Morton Jellinek’s disease model of alcoholism, people are still trying to figure out if it’s a sickness or a sin: Addiction = retardation . . . the crowd was right to boo her . . . So many people dream of being a Singer and being on stage and Amy just threw it all away.
Someone else: I see someone with a broken heart.
After Belgrade, one newscaster wondered: “Why do they keep putting her on stage? Surely they know she has a problem.” Another said: “This was supposed to be a comeback. And she TOTALLY. BLEW. IT.”
Something about her addiction made people angry. But that anger wasn’t simple. The woman who wrote, Amy just threw it all away, had a story of her own: As for accidentally OD’ing that’s bullshit. My dad didn’t have a fucking accident when he overdosed on heroin . . . Me and my brothers just stood and watched as the paramedics revived him. Someone else just had a question: Does she want to go back to rehab now ;P
* * *
The soap opera version of the story went something like this: Amy’s drinking got out of control after a breakup with Blake, her no-good junkie boyfriend, and then her friends tried to make her go to rehab. She said, no, no, no, and then she wrote an album that blew up, fueled by the anthem of her refusal to get better. Her career went through the stratosphere and Blake fought to get her back. They were madly in love. They got married in Miami, and hugely addicted to crack back home in London. At the peak of her use, she was spending £16,000 a week on hard drugs.
After Amy almost overdosed, her friends and family staged an intervention at a Four Seasons in Hampshire. The doctor said if she had another seizure, she’d die. But she went on her US tour anyway. She and Blake kept doing drugs together till he went to prison. She won five Grammys but she wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony because of all the drugs. In her acceptance speech — delivered at a club in London, where she was watching from afar — she said: “For my Blake, my Blake incarcerated.”
A YouTube video from six months after Blake’s incarceration shows Amy high on crack, playing with a bunch of newborn mice. Watching it is like falling into some one else’s terrible dream. “This one has a message for Blake,” Amy says, holding one of the wriggling furless mice on her finger. She gives us a squeaky mouse-voice, pleading: “Blake, please don’t divorce me.” The mouse-voice says: “I’m only a day old but I know what love is.”
Even after Amy finally stopped the hard drugs, she kept drinking. She and Blake got divorced, mouse pleas notwithstanding. She kept drinking, and kept singing, but never made another record. She stopped drinking, kept drinking, stopped drinking, kept drinking — until her body finally just gave up. When she died, her blood alcohol content was over .4 percent, five times the legal limit for drunk driving. The coroner ruled it “death by misadventure.”
* * *
The paparazzi loved Amy. They couldn’t get enough of her. They loved her beauty. They loved its blemishing even more. They didn’t just want her beehive hair; they wanted it ratty. They didn’t just want her eyeliner cat’s-eyes; they wanted them smeared. Their photos tried to zoom in on her cuts and bruises; the damage from her crack binges and booze benders. Little wounds were like openings in the tent flaps of her privacy. The camera got close on her wet flesh as if it were trying to get inside the wounds themselves, the closest thing to fucking that a camera could manage. The paparazzi wanted to get right into her bloodstream.
Amy once said to her husband: I want to feel what you feel. And that’s what the public wanted from her — to know what she felt, to get under her skin. But also they wanted to jump away again, hide under the safe cover of irony: What crawled into her hair and died there? one comedian wanted to know. She looks like a campaign poster for neglected horses. Her broke-down addict self was irritating. It was so fucking sad. OMG, it was funny.
Her addiction kept delivering physical evidence of her vulnerability, her bruises and her gashes and her emaciated body, and comedians kept delivering jokes so everyone could metabolize the horror of what was happening, like a five-year-long video of someone slowly dying in public. One paparazzi photographer took a photo of her getting into a car and started snapping shots closer and closer on her crotch, then posted these photos as proof that she was wearing diapers — that she’d started wearing them because she couldn’t control her bodily functions. It was unending, our collective fascination with the self-inflicted weakness of a beautiful woman.
Why were we obsessed with her anti-rehab anthem? It’s a great song, straight-up and flat-out, jaunty and sublime, Amy’s singular voice all acrobatic and vaulting and rich, like vinyl and leather; the chorus blunt and surprising, full of defiance where you might expect to find the keeling croon of self-pity. The song finds hope and energy in its own rhythms. It’s not interested in self-care. The no, no, no of refusing rehab echoes another kind of assertion: Yes I been black, but when I come back, you’ll know, know, know. No turns into know: resistance becomes knowledge. This isn’t just refusal; it’s a declaration of presence.
It was unending, our collective fascination with the self-inflicted weakness of a beautiful woman.
The unrepentant junkie had been a beloved figure for a long time, an unleashed alternative to the good little sober boy. William Burroughs’s 1953 cult classic, Junkie, was subtitled Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. It offered an appealing antidote to the bow-tied conversion narrative.
During the same decade, just as federal legislation against “narcotic addicts” was growing more draconian — mandating minimum sentences and constructing the addict as villain — people created another vision of the addict in stark opposition to these moralizing measures: someone who wasn’t apologizing for anything, who was spinning something defiant or even beautiful from the darkness of their compulsion. Elizabeth Hardwick loved to imagine that Billie Holiday faced the wreckage of her life with unrepentant grandeur. She admired Holiday’s “luminous self-destruction,” and her refusal to play nice: “there did not seem to be any pleading need to quit, to modify.” But that was its own myth; Holiday tried to kick her habit many times.
Perhaps with Amy, decades later, it was liberating to see someone who didn’t want to get better; who seemed to say, Fuck it, let’s DRINK. Let’s roll the foil and smoke. If Amy was an unredeemed addict, then “Rehab” was her battle cry: She sang it over and over and over again. She sang it and stumbled; she sang it and drank; she sang it and spilled her wine. She tripped over her sky-scraper heels. “I’m not gonna spend ten weeks,” she sang. “Have everyone think I’m on the mend.”
It was exciting to hear her resist the solace of mending and its easy answers, to hear her reject gift-wrapped redemption, refuse to give it to us — the public act of recuperating pain by performing its transcendence. She refused to get better.
But maybe “unrepentant” wasn’t an alternative to the fantasy of conversion so much as another flavor of fantasy. Maybe fuck it was a fantasy. Maybe our collective vision of her alchemy — ache altered into chorus — depended on a myth that wasn’t quite true. As the poet John Berryman put it, even he had to fight the “delusion that my art depended on my drinking.” That delusion was what he had to break, he felt, if he ever wanted to get sober.
Amy launched her career on refusing rehab, but she actually went to rehab four times. On a home video from her first stint at an island rehab mansion called the Causeway Retreat, Blake taunts her to sing a revised version of “Rehab.” Can she still sing, no, no, no, now that she’s actually in treatment? Will she have to sing, yes?
Amy launched her career on refusing rehab, but she actually went to rehab four times.
But she doesn’t seem particularly drawn to the joke. She tells him: “I don’t mind it here, actually.”
* * *
Amy Winehouse was born in London in September of 1983, three months after I was born across an ocean. When she was twenty-seven, she died from too much booze in her blood. When I was twenty-seven, I gave up booze entirely. Maybe these correspondences are part of the reason I grew so obsessed with her life, and with the possibility of what her life might have looked like sober. Or maybe these correspondences are just the little pieces of her I’d like to claim for myself. People love claiming little pieces of Amy for themselves: “Everyone wanted a piece of her,” said her friend Nick, her first manager.
By the time I found myself wanting a piece of Amy, in memoriam, I’d been sober for years. But I could still remember what it had felt like to be unsober — gloriously, unapologetically unsober: drinking whiskey by a bonfire, feeling the sluice of heat down my throat, its rhyme with the flames at my fingertips. I remembered how drinking felt like constant apology; how a blackout could drop inside your life like hostile terrain, behind enemy lines, and how getting drunk also felt absolutely necessary, the only horizon of relief — like the perspective point in a painting, the crucial pivot everything else referred to. I remembered how the prospect of sobriety seemed like unrelenting gray, after luminous, disjunctive nights — a bleak horizon, a shirt washed so many times it had lost all its color. What could the straight line of on the mend hold that might rival the dark, sparkling sweep of falling apart?
* * *
When I imagined sobriety, before I got sober, I imagined The Shining: Jack Nicholson playing a writer white-knuckling his way through bitter sobriety in an empty mountain resort — the opposite of rehab, solitary confinement instead of company — or else a rehab full of ghosts. He spent his days punching a single sentence into his typewriter, over and over: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
On the night she won five Grammys, Amy told one of her best friends: “Jules, this is so boring without drugs.”
Part of me wants to tell her: You were wrong. It wasn’t boring without drugs. You just needed to learn how to live sober. Part of me wants to tell her about church basements and evening coffee dates in diners, about the primal thrill of sitting across from someone who has felt some version of what you’ve felt — the fear of boredom, the urge to flee pain, or dissolve self, or permit self — and hear them say it out loud, how liberating that feels, in recovery, resonance not as easy moral or redemption but as a sense of outward possibility, drawing a door on something that looked like a wall.
That is part of me. Another part of me knows I’m drawn to watching her destroy herself. In one short story about an alcoholic going to rehab, Raymond Carver writes: “Part of me wanted help. But there was another part.”
This was the other part: drugs and booze were part of why Amy’s life was so interesting, to me and to everyone. They were part of why we wanted to keep getting closer, wanted to bring our magnifying glasses and our microscopes, our telephoto lenses, to give ourselves a better view of her heartbreak.
Even the title of Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary about her life confesses our collective desire for proximity: just Amy. As if we all knew her; or could still get to know her, even after she was dead, maybe because she had died. As if she were still available to us; as if she had ever been. Amy. It’s ridiculous I call her that. But I find it hard to call her anything else. The film summons the fantasy of intimacy but also ironizes it. It’s full of paparazzi shouting: “Amy! Amy! Amy!” like the chorus to another song.
Off their tongues, in their mouths, her first name doesn’t summon intimacy but its distortion; not private relation but its violation. “Cheer up, Amy!” one tabloid guy calls out, after she shoves a few of his colleagues out of the way. Then a year later, when her body is being carried out of her Camden mansion, a voice says, “Rest in peace, Amy,” a perfect stranger, still on a first-name basis.
* * *
Every story about a dead girl needs a villain, and Amy dangles a few suspects: Maybe her promoter killed her by keeping the machinery of her fame running even when her body was getting crushed by it. Maybe her father killed her by not giving her the love she needed when she was young. Maybe her husband killed her by giving her the thing that numbed the pain her father had already caused, and by causing even more pain that needed numbing.
The film offers Amy as victim-addict and Blake as villain-addict: the woman who got sucked into crack; the man who dragged her into its thrall. We don’t have to reconcile these types: addict as victim; addict as villain. We’re allowed to project them across two conveniently discrete human bodies.
When the documentary shows Blake coming back into Amy’s life, after her album about their breakup made her a star, it visually frames his return as a literal emergence from darkness: he materializes from a dark doorway across a series of paparazzi shots. He’s like a demon, ready to take her back: Back to Black. A doctor who consulted with both of them said: “It was a common case of one person having a situation that was very beneficial to his using . . . not wanting the other person to get better for fear of losing the gravy train.”
Of Amy, the doctor said simply: “She was a very vulnerable woman.”
Amy’s addiction meant she was vulnerable, while Blake’s addiction meant he preyed on someone vulnerable. Amy needed to be protected; Blake needed to be protected from. But Blake needed crack for reasons of his own: “It literally eradicates any kind of negative feeling,” he said once. This was a man who had tried to slit his wrists as a boy, at the age of nine. Was that not vulnerability as well?
* * *
Really the film’s greatest villain is celebrity itself: we killed her. Celebrity was an ally to Amy’s addiction, and an enemy to her art. It kept her in gigs rather than in the studio. Kapadia’s documentary has an uneasy relationship to the paparazzi it documents. They are its villains — all menace and flash, shutters like staccato gunfire — but also its collaborators. The film is built largely from their footage. At one point we see Amy closing a curtain; gazing out her window warily, protecting herself from view. But we can only witness that violation because the violation gave us a record of her resistance.
Celebrity was an ally to Amy’s addiction, and an enemy to her art.
The film critiques the paparazzi’s hunger for access, but also raises the stakes on this hunger — effectively, implicitly — by promising to take us deeper inside Amy’s wounds than the paparazzi ever did. By showing the harsh glare and invasive constancy of paparazzi as one kind of access, heartless and shallow, the film invites us to think of its exploration as another kind of access entirely, full of depth and compassion. We want to feel better about our hunger, but it’s still hunger: We’re still after her, still sniffing the trail of her blood. We still just want in.
Or I should say: I wanted in. I’m not pleased or proud — but there it was, that desire. Winehouse’s life was gone, Amy’s life was gone, and that only made me want to get deeper inside what her life had been. My own drunk life was gone and sometimes I wanted to get back inside it, too. Sometimes I didn’t feel done with it. When I saw ten empty champagne flutes in front of her on a tabletop in St. Lucia, I felt sad for her, and I felt shame — shame at my own desire for proximity — and I also felt thirsty. Even the empty vodka bottles cluttering her home; all of it made me remember that old fuck it feeling. She’d followed it somewhere else.
When I watched the public obsession on film, an endless fuel driving the celebrity that killed her, their eager hands buying the magazines the paparazzi peppered with their eager angles, I hated that public. I also knew I was part of it. The fact of the film itself was almost sickening: we had outlived her, and we were still obsessed with her.
At one point, the film gives us the photo collage of a bender, after Amy’s first stint in rehab: her face darkened by smeared mascara, Blake’s whole face covered in streaks of blood; his arms in bandages, holding his cigarettes; her ballet flats covered in splotches of red. He’d cut himself with a bottle and she had to do it, too, because she wanted to feel whatever he felt, and we want to see the blood on her, so we can feel what she felt, too, or convince ourselves we’ve gotten close.
The film describes the bathroom at her recording studio after she’d covered it with her own vomit; the white towels darkened by mascara where she’d wiped her face. The film narrates these details while showing a video of Amy playing guitar in the studio: she is binging on booze and purging beauty, still metabolizing the pain, still turning it into song.
It was uncomfortable to watch the film because it was exposing a fixation and exploiting it at once. I cried when I watched it, and I wanted it to end. Then I wanted to watch it from the beginning, so I could cry again. I watched the end of the film at least twenty times, the haunting piano composition that plays as her corpse is carried from her house to a private ambulance in the street, as a doctor’s voice speculates that years of starving and purging and drinking “just made her heart stop.” I watched mourners gathering awkwardly in the street, after her funeral service: a man in a kippah standing with his head bowed in grief, one hand to his face; her mother using a cane to get into her car. I thought: Who filmed this private grief? I thought: Who am I, watching it?
“I died a hundred times,” Amy sings in one of her torch songs, and I kept hitting rewind — to watch her die again.
* * *
“This isn’t Amy,” her mother said in 2007. “It’s as if her whole life’s turned into a stage performance.” Amy always had a sense of humor about the dark silhouette she cast, the ways in which she had become an archetype. When the Guardian asked, “What keeps you awake at night?” She said: “Being sober.” She was self-aware about her “issues” and their public performance. “What is your most unappealing habit?” she was asked once. She said: “Being an abusive drunk.”
She seemed to get a kick out of performing a kind of ironized self-destruction, spelling Blake’s name on her stomach with a shard of glass while Terry Richardson snapped photographs. She called it “chickenscratch on her tummy,” but it wasn’t just performance. She’d really cut herself for years. Her arms were covered with scars.
She seemed to get a kick out of performing a kind of ironized self-destruction
Mos Def remembers watching Amy smoke crack one night and thinking: This is someone who is trying to disappear. Near the end, her doctor asked her: “Do you want to die?” She said: “No, I don’t want to die.” Her bodyguard said she didn’t want to do that final gig in Belgrade: “Can’t go anywhere. Can’t hide anywhere. She needed an escape.” He said, “Then the drinking . . . Escape route, innit?”
* * *
When I watched Amy change across the course of the documentary, watched her body shrink across the years, I felt as if I were watching the disappearance Mos Def described her craving. She went from a voluptuous girl to an emaciated creature; from plump to skeletal. Her beehive got so huge. Her body got so tiny.
Her tiny body was part of the outsized myth, too, our collective awe at how the force of her voice — and the chaos of her her feverish dysfunction — was somehow held by the slip and twigs of her body. Her Rolling Stone cover profile started with her size: “Alongside the world’s tallest free-standing tower, one of the world’s tiniest pop stars is crouched next to a garbage pail, collecting a pile of eyeliner pencils and mascara tubes between her hands.” It’s all there: She was tiny. She was obsessed with her own beauty. She was close to the garbage.
In that profile, she says she wanted a different kind of life: “I know I’m talented, but I wasn’t put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mom and to look after my family. She told one newspaper she wanted to be remembered as genuine.
Billie Holiday may have been beloved for what Hardwick called “the sheer enormity of her vices. . . the outrageousness of them,” but she had other dreams: She wanted to buy a farm in the country and take in orphans. She once tried to adopt a child in Boston, but the judge wouldn’t let her because of her drug record. Hardwick loved the absence of “any pleading need to quit, to modify” in Holiday, and admired that she spoke with “cold anger” of “various cures that had been forced upon her. But Holiday wasn’t entirely resistant to quitting or to cures. Her anger was directed at the particular kind of “cure” that involved arrest and incarceration, persecution at the hands of federal agents. As a black woman, her addiction made her more vulnerable to being treated as a criminal: she spent nearly a year in a West Virginia prison, and died handcuffed to her hospital bed. She hated that cure, but as for the junk itself? She tried to quit over and over again. To her pianist she said: “Carl, don’t you ever use this shit! It’s no good for you! Stay away from it! You don’t want to end up like me!”
* * *
If Amy had gone to rehab that first time, we might have never gotten Back to Black, but I wonder what we would have gotten instead. I would have loved to hear her sing sober. Not just two weeks sober, but three years sober, twenty years sober. “She had the complete gift,” Tony Bennett once said of her. “If she had lived, I would have said, ‘Life teaches you, really, how to live it; if you live long enough.’”
I never lived Amy’s life and she never lived mine, but I know that when I see her on that stage in Belgrade, as if she’s been air-dropped into a moment she can’t possibly fathom, I think of coming out of a blackout into the strange new world of a Mexican bathroom stall, or a dirt basement, wearing handcuffs, tasting gin and citrus, or some breezeless bedroom where it was easier to let a man finish fucking me than it was to stop him.
I know that when I watch Amy stumbling across that stage in Belgrade, and finally squatting there — still and quiet, smiling — just waiting for something to happen or something to stop happening, I feel less that I know what is happening in her and more that her eyes know something that happened in me. I feel sad she didn’t get years of ordinary coffee dates and people saying, I get that, that she was doomed to her singularity and her vodka-thinned blood and all her drunken stumbling under the broken tower of her beehive, hair like a pagoda on her head and her body barely holding the weight — until it wasn’t, until it couldn’t any longer.
* * *
“Confessions of an Unredeemed Fan” by Leslie Jamison. Copyright © 2017 Leslie Jamison, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
Leslie Jamison teaches at the Columbia University MFA program, where she directs the nonfiction concentration and leads the Marian House Project. Her latest book, The Recovering, was published in April 2018. She’s also written a novel, The Gin Closet, and a collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer.