Saturday, August 1, 2015

Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse film is a tragic masterpiece

Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse film is a tragic masterpiece

This documentary about the late British soul singer is an overwhelmingly sad, intimate – and dismaying – study of a woman whose talent and charisma helped turn her into a target

Saturday 16 May 2015 

A star is born — all over again. Asif Kapadia’s documentary study of the great British soul queen Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, is stunningly moving and powerful: intimate, passionate, often shocking, and almost mesmerically absorbing.

Like Kapadia’s previous study of doomed motor-racing star Ayrton Senna, this does not use talking heads, but is instead visually based on extant footage of chat-shows and awards-events and also an extraordinary trove of private video shot by friends and lovers who were clearly transfixed by Winehouse’s extraordinary personality, and perhaps, who knows, aware that what they were recording might be of grim future interest. At some stage as a teenager, Winehouse adopted her feline eyeliner style — a style that Caitlin Moran has written about brilliantly, the kind of makeup you develop through applying it while looking into a car or bus wing-mirror.
It’s a movie that responds instantly to Winehouse’s music and to the mystery of her voice: a rich Sarah Vaughan style that seemed to belong to a much older woman. This would switch, off-mike, to her speaking voice: eloquent and seductive, the unashamed, unpretentious, utterly relaxed sound of north London. (Jonathan Ross is shown congratulating her on sounding “common”: and actually, his identifying the elephant in the room was to the point — although the film does not press the point of how that rich singing voice just seemed to surge up from nowhere.)

The film also responds to Winehouse’s face: that sensual and jolie-laide presence, always so mobile and yet possessed of a strange kind of anti-Mona-Lisa enigma. There is a fantastic scene where Kapadia shows Winehouse’s face almost twitching and popping with bored disdain while an inane interviewer insists on asking her about Dido.
We start with Amy’s teen years, circling back to a troubled though hardly deprived childhood in which she was deeply affected, first by her father Mitch walking out on the family — and then later, just as deeply affected by his returning to becoming a strange sort of intrusive, ineffective and almost parasitic Svengali to her career. It was Mitch who crucially advised Amy against going into rehab, a decision which Amy herself noted in her great song, replete with agony, betrayal and self-doubt.

All of these advisers, promoters and managers jostle to assure us that they themselves were not responsible for Amy Winehouse’s descent into drugs and overwork, and Kapadia simply lets us make our own mind up, although it is the hapless Mitch who appears in the darkest light, despite having the most heartbreakingly good intentions. All through her life, Amy was desperate to devote herself to a strong male protective figure: either Mitch, or her equally troubled and charmless husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who appears to have introduced her to hard drugs and a co-dependent, dysfunctional relationship in which he perpetually resented his own insignificance. There is a harrowing voicemail message in which Amy offers “unconditional love”, her voice pulsing with loneliness — a kind of musicless torch song in itself. One of the film’s bleakest moments shows Amy saucer-eyed at a London event, watching the Grammys on television, and at the moment she wins, taking a friend aside to confess that this whole thing is “so boring without drugs”.

 Watch a teaser trailer

Inevitably, it is the song Rehab itself which is Winehouse’s personal and musical moment of destiny, the moment of almost diabolic inspiration and autobiography and automythology which triggered her supernova of fame. The idea of defiantly not going into rehab challenged a celeb-pap industry which always slavered spitefully over famous people getting punished for their gilded lives by being unhappy. But Winehouse’s attack on the hypocrisy of the whole business, and also the song’s personal ambiguity and complexity, were misunderstood. Her USP became not going into rehab, and being devoted to excess. She became part of the narrative, the Klieg light of celebrity could blind anyone and her mercurial, addictive personality responded badly.
It is an overwhelming story, and despite everyone knowing the ending, it is as gripping as a thriller: Kapadia has fashioned and shaped it with masterly flair.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Eva Wiseman / What if Amy Winehouse had been left alone?

Amy Winehouse

With her addictions and self-destructive marriage, Amy Winehouse’s life was a car crash we couldn’t stop watching. Now a new documentary puts us in the frame

What if Amy Winehouse had been left alone?

Sunday 17 May 2015 06.00 BST
Every now and then in Camden in the early 2000s you’d see a mob of photographers moving like a single ball of flashing fire, and you’d knowAmy Winehouse was in there somewhere. At the time she appeared to have been roughly drawn in hair and Rimmel, but strong in the way a cartoon is strong, like anvils could fall on her and she’d be fine, once the birds had stopped circling.
There’s a bit towards the beginning of the new Amy Winehouse documentary (it premiered yesterday in Cannes) when her father, Mitch, remembers the time her friends were urging him to send her to rehab. Though he elaborated on it later, he told them, famously, that he thought she was fine. Her old manager discusses that period with the regret of a man who has lain awake for many nights. He believes now that this was the moment they could have saved her. Because, of course, from there we know the story, with all its music and awe, all its moments of horror. It was the album she wrote next that sent her life bananas, and brought her too much fame, it turned out, for a tiny body to handle.
The Winehouse family has publicly distanced itself from the film (directed by Asif Kapadia, the man who made Senna), and it’s easy to see why. Although Amy’s husband Blake is cast convincingly as the villain, first introducing her to heroin and then keeping her using, her dad appears at best ignorant of his daughter’s best interests, at worst exploitative – when she escaped to St Lucia to get clean, he turned up with a Channel 4 documentary crew. When she was a teenager, and told her parents about this great new diet where you eat as much as you like and then vomit it up afterwards, both her mum and dad thought: “Ach, it’ll pass.” Except it didn’t, did it? It stayed, the bulimia, piggybacking on her talent and her success, and making her weak, because she had to carry that, too. Even when we see how her husband dragged her behind him into a nasty moat of addiction, I, as a fan, came away from the film feeling… guilty.
Many of us chose to forget, I think, when she died, that Amy Winehousehad been a go-to punchline for some time. She was a Halloween costume, the opening monologue on chat shows, the subject of ridicule by alternative stand-up comedians. I did it, too, I’m sure, taking the piss out of her pissery, before she started to stop singing on stage, swaying there confused like old wisteria. I cringe today at the carelessness of silly jokes, because now, looking back at that life and rare painful talent, it looks awfully as though, if she had only been left alone, with just a fag and her voice, playing to the small jazz crowds she says she craved, she would have lived.
It was on the bus home that I realised what this documentary most reminded me of. Have you seen Carol Morley’s haunting film, Dreams of a Life? It’s the story of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent, whose body was found in 2006 decomposing in her bedsit in Wood Green after she died unnoticed three years earlier, surrounded by Christmas presents. The TV was still switched on, still chatting away. It was about isolation and loneliness, and the tender bewilderment of friends who could have done more.
While Vincent was a solitary, elusive woman, Winehouse was never alone – she was worth too much money to be left to walk down Parkway by herself – and yet the feeling you get when you reflect on their lives and deaths is similar. As though they were trapped in themselves. In the Amy documentary, much of the footage looks like it was filmed by the paparazzi, which, as we see her through that blaze of flashes, adds an uneasy complicity. She walks mutely into Pentonville prison to visit Blake, her hair only slightly wonky, and we’re behind the camera, screaming her name. All of a sudden, being famous looks like the very worst thing in the world.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Never underestimate the appetite for seeing women like Amy Winehouse self-destruct

Amy Winehouse
Poster by T.A.
Never underestimate the appetite 
for seeing women like Amy Winehouse self-destruct


Wednesday 24 June 2015 19.50 BST
A new film about the singer’s desperately short life shows how her tragic story became a spectator sport – and death has done nothing to end the voyeurism 

ow many times do you want to watch Amy Winehouse die? Five? Twenty? Is there a point at which you will feel sated by the sensation of watching a talented woman waste away in front of the world?
During her brief time in the hottest of spotlights – and it was so brief, a mere five years between the release of Back to Black and her death – Winehouse became a spectator sport. There was never any mystery to Winehouse: part of her appeal to her fans was that she told her life through her music; a major part of her appeal to the media was that she wore her pain on her person, from her scrawny body to her bloodied ballet pumps. Such is the voyeuristic and visual nature of the press, this has made her the ideal subject to be exhumed. Since her death her well-known story has been told and retold, with a pleasure verging on the necrophiliac.
The imminent Asif Kapadia documentary about her, Amy, has given the press the excuse to rehash this tale. I don’t think there’s been a weekend in the past two months when there hasn’t been another story about Winehouse in the papers, usually featuring her father, Mitch, and the pathetic wreck of a human which is all that is left of Winehouse’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. One of the most heartbreaking elements of Kapadia’s film is the way it features footage from some of the many other documentaries about Winehouse which were made with the aforementioned usual suspects. Everyone wanted to look at her, but no one, Kapadia’s film confirms, was equipped to look out for her.
Mitch Winehouse has, in his usual vocal way, been complaining that the film is unfair on him, in particular that his quote “She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time” has been edited so that it omits the last three words. I can understand why Winehouse, who originally cooperated with Kapadia, hates the film – he does not come out brilliantly. Fielder-Civil gets far more screen time than any member of the Winehouse family, but this is probably a fair representation of Winehouse’s life in her early 20s.
When I interviewed her in 2004, her father drove her to meet me in his cab, introduced himself with a no-messing handshake, waited for her the whole time and then drove her home. No one doubts that he loved her. But he is kidding himself if he thinks that quote is what damns him in the film. In the screening I went to, the moment that elicited gasps in the audience is when we see Mitch flying out to St Lucia to see his daughter – accompanied by his own reality TV crew, much to her dismay.
If anything, the film is commendably restrained about criticising her loved ones (about the media, however, it is unstinting in its disgust). It doesn’t mention that Fielder-Civil posed for a tabloid visiting Winehouse’s grave in exchange for cash, or that her father launched his own singing career on the back of his daughter’s.
I loved Kapadia’s last film, about the life and death of Ayrton Senna, but was sceptical when I heard about this. Really, what else is there to say about Winehouse? And is there a way to say it without simply being another grubby voyeur? But Kapadia is a very gifted documentarian and he has made an intelligent, fond and harrowing movie, one that acknowledges the mistakes of others but rightly stresses that the self-destructive impulses that ultimately killed her – namely, the drinking and the bulimia – were a problem long before Winehouse was famous. As anyone who has ever loved an addict knows, blame is so far beside the point it’s in another universe.
But those interested in the Winehouse saga – which is presumably everyone who goes to see this very bleak film – won’t learn anything new from it, and Kapadia never promised otherwise. And yet the anticipation is extraordinary. I wrote earlier this week about the fashion world’s fetishisation of frailty, as exemplified by the recently banned Saint Laurent advert featuring a very skinny woman sprawled on the floor, as Winehouse often is in the film. This movie reinforces the point that one should never underestimate the public’s appetite for watching a woman destroy herself. For that reason, the spectacle of a dead tragic woman is always big business: Marilyn Monroe is pored over in death in a way that, say, the similar Montgomery Clift never has been.
The film adheres perfectly to the general rule of real lives on film, which is that women are tragic and men are heroic. This is especially true when it comes to artists: the recently released Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, emphasises just how much of an easier ride Cobain got in his pre-internet life and post-internet death than Winehouse ever did. As Molly Beauchemin writes, self-destructive male artists are revered as tortured geniuses (Cobain, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson), whereas female ones are dismissed as emotional wrecks (Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston).
Winehouse’s life was so short that it is impossible to separate her success from her demise. The movie works hard to keep the former in the foreground, even while including shots of her body being carried out from her house, from multiple angles. It’s a really good movie – by all means, go see it. But don’t ruin your evening out by thinking too deeply about why you wanted to in the first place.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How Amy Winehouse made 'To Know Him is to Love Him' her own

Amy Winehouse
Poster by T.A.

How Amy Winehouse made 

'To Know Him is to Love Him' her own'


It took the words from his father's grave and became a No 1 US song for the Teddy Bears, but Phil Spector's 'To Know Him is to Love Him' would belong to Amy Winehouse. So how did this high-school hit find its soul?

Greil Marcus
Friday 29 August 2014 15.00 BST

To Know Him is to Love Him
Amy Winehouse
In 1958, the Teddy Bears released "To Know Him is to Love Him", a No 1 hit, written by Teddy Bear Phil Spector, a song that took 48 years to find its voice. When Amy Winehouse sang it in 2006, her music curled around Spector's, his curled around her, until she found her way back to the beginning of his career, and redeemed it. Whether he has ever heard what she did with his music, or whether she ever heard what he thought of what she did, are unanswered questions. He isn't talking; she can't.
Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actor, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Spector has been serving 19 years to life at a division of Corcoran state prison. Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears' record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made "To Know Him Is to Love Him", his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.
Spector was born in the Bronx in 1939; his father, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant and a failing businessman, killed himself 10 years later. In 1953, Spector's mother moved herself and her son to Los Angeles. At Fairfax High School – where, only a few years before, the would-be song-writer Jerry Leiber was sketching out his first rhythm and blues lyrics – Spector fell in with other students in love with the doo-wop sound in the air of the town: with the Penguins' rough, inspiring "Earth Angel", Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns' complex and surging "Gloria", the Robins' comic operas "Framed" and "Riot in cell Block #9", written and produced by Leiber and his partner Mike Stoller, a hundred more. Among Spector's classmates were Marshall Leib, a singer; Steve Douglas, who would go on to play saxophone on dozens of Los Angeles hits, most unforgettably Spector's 1963 production of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", a record so spectacular that, for years, Love has appeared every Christmas season on the David Letterman show to recreate it; and Sandy Nelson, a drummer, who in 1959 would make the top 10 with "Teen Beat". Spector met Lou Adler, a would-be songwriter at Roosevelt High (with Sam Cooke and Herb Alpert, he would write "Wonderful World", which Cooke made into as perfect a record as rock'n'roll ever wished for), and Bruce Johnston, who turned up a few years later in the Beach Boys.
All of them were listening to the records coming out of other high schools, on Dootsie Williams's DooTone label or Art Rupe's Specialty. Out of Jefferson High and the half-black, half-white Fremont High, where every other person seemed to be in a group, came the Penguins, and Richard Berry, who passed through many groups before making "Louie Louie" with the Pharaohs. "There used to be hundreds and hundreds of black groups singin' harmony and with a great lead singer," Spector said years later. "You used to go down to Jefferson High on 49th and Broadway and could get 16 groups." All over town, Spector and the rest sang the songs together until they got them right. They wrote their own songs.

Spector wrote "To Know Him Is to Love Him." Along with Leib and Annette Kleinbard, another Fairfax classmate, he formed the Teddy Bears. They made a demo, got a contract with the local label Era. With Kleinbard singing lead, Spector playing guitar and along with Leib singing the backing "And I do and I do and I do"s behind the verses and the "Oom-da-da Oom da-da"s on the bridge, Sandy Nelson playing all but inaudible drums, and Spector, the 18-year-old producer, layering the voices over each other, they made a record. Within months the tune was at the top of the charts all over the country. The Teddy Bears lip-synched it on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, the national afternoon show from Philadelphia that served as a living juke-box for rock'n'roll, the ultimate showcase. No, it wasn't as prestigious as The Ed Sullivan Show, and Elvis Presley never appeared on American Bandstand, but even with singers and musicians just miming their records, the show carried a greater sense of risk. Will they – the kids dancing on the show, the kids glued to their TV sets, the kids talking about it the next day at school – like it? Will they laugh? Kleinbard was in the middle, in a white prom dress and short dark hair. Leib and Spector flanked her in pale prom tuxes, Leib tall, dark, handsome, broad-shouldered, Spector short, his chin weak, his shoulders tense and cramped: an undisguisable high-school nerd, under his pompadour obviously already losing his hair, his thin tenor pulling away from his own song as if he were afraid of his own voice. All his life, he never stopped telling people where the song came from: "I took it from the words on my father's grave." "'I took it from the words on my grave,'" he said in the early 70s to Nik Cohn, who was in Los Angeles to write a book with him about his life. "He was standing at the window, looking down at the Strip," Cohn wrote later. "For a few seconds he noticed nothing. Just stood there, this tiny, ancient child, with his hair all wisps and his shades refracting silver. Then he heard what he'd said and he turned to face me. He did not look distressed; just puzzled, lost. 'Not my grave. I meant my father's,' he said. 'The words on my father's grave.'"
Despite a nice, swaying rhythm, and a comforting melody not that far from Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", the closest a mere song has ever come to sainthood, the record was weak – it all but worshipped weakness, advertised it as a way of life. It made all too much sense that, in another story Spector could never stop telling, one night in Philadelphia, in 1958, in the backstage men's room after he'd performed with the Teddy Bears on a bill with a dozen other acts, four guys pulled knives, pushed him into a stall, told him to sit down, slowly unbuttoned their jeans, and pissed all over him. I heard him tell the story to a full hall at Berkeley in 1966, when his career as the most envied record producer in the world – for the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron", the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and "Walking in the Rain", the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling", and a full top 40's worth more from 1961 to 1966 – seemed over, at least to Spector himself. Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep –Mountain High", his most ambitious record, with the biggest, most implacable sound and an arrangement that made it feel as if the record lasted a lifetime, not three-and-a-half minutes ("That," the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia said, "sounds like God hit the world and the world hit back"), failed to come anywhere near the radio; Spector closed his studio and began lecturing at colleges. "I didn't really know what was going on," he said of that night backstage. "I thought it was some kind of initiation, you know, like after it was all over they were going to let me into their club" – he told the story without embarrassment, without shame, as if it were funny, just one of those things, he was explaining, along with rigged contracts, third-party lawsuits, phony promoters and electric fences, that rock'n'roll was really about, as if he would never get over it.

Phil Spector Winehouse
 Phil Spector with Darlene Love. Photograph: Ray Avery/Redferns

After the novelty wore off, after the radio wore the song out, "To Know Him Is to Love Him" stood simpering, dripping treacle, almost crossing the line from sentimental homily to prayer, a dirge at its most lifelike. It was music far behind rock'n'roll, music for weddings without dancing, too square for proms, like the material the Teddy Bears used to fill out their only album: "Unchained Melody" and "Tammy". Spector had to know the song was a dead fish; in the years to come, he never tried to pawn it off on any of the performers on his own Philles label, not even the hopeless Bob B Soxx of the Blue Jeans.
Winehouse was born in London in 1983. "I'm a Russian Jew," she once said bluntly: she learned to sing, she said, from listening to Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Thelonious Monk. It was only in her early 20s that she was captured by Spector's female singers, by "Tonight's the Night", "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and other shimmering singles by the Shirelles, and most of all by the Shangri-Las. They were two sets of sisters from Andrew Jackson High in Queens, New York.
The Shangri-Las' producer and songwriter was George "Shadow" Morton. One day in 1964, as he always told the story, he showed up at 1650 Broadway, having heard that his old friend Ellie Greenwich was writing songs there; he met her husband and songwriting partner, Jeff Barry. "He turned to me," Morton recalled in 2001 for a TV documentary, the barest hint of a grin curling at the corners of his mouth, letting you see his eyes twinkling behind his shades, "and said, 'Well, just what is it you do for a living?' 'Well,' I said, 'actually, some people would call it being a bum, but I'm a songwriter, just like you.' So he said, 'What kind of songs do you write?' And I said, 'Hit songs.' And he said, 'Why don't you bring one in and show it to us?' And I said, 'You've got to tell me: you want a fast hit or a slow hit?'
"He said, 'Make it slow.' And on the way to the studio, I realised, I didn't have a – I didn't have a song. I had ideas, but – so I pulled the car over, on a place called South Oyster Bay Road, and I wrote a song." It was "Remember (Walking in the Sand)", the first of three top-10 hits by the Shangri-Las on Red Bird Records, the independent New York label formed in 1964 by Leiber, Stoller and George Goldner. "It was very corny," Leiber said 37 years later of the song Morton brought in. "Very sweet, and, finally, somewhere, touching. It wasn't synthetic. It was for real – like he was."
The record was melodramatic, distant, dark, hard to catch, moving the way you walk in the sand, the ground slipping under your feet. It began with heavy bass notes on a piano, reached past itself with the faraway cawing of seagulls, a sardonic chorus of ghosts snapping fingers, and harsh, cold voices chanting "Remember", as if the singer telling the story could ever forget. On paper it was about a boy telling a girl they were through; on record, like all of the Shangri-Las' best records, it was about death. The cadence was blunt, broken, stark.

 Shangri-Las. Photograph: Getty Images Michael Ochs Archives/Michael Ochs Archives

What will happen to
The life I gave to you?
What will I do with it now?
With anyone but 16-year-old Mary Weiss as the lead singer, the unrelieved doom in the music might have turned into a joke, but it never happened, not in "Remember", "Give us Your Blessings", "Out in the Streets", "Past, Present, and Future", or "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", not even in the comic-strip play "Leader of the Pack". "I had enough pain in me, at the time," Weiss said in 2001, "to pull off anything. And to get into it, and sound – believable. It was very easy for me," she said with a big, thank-God-that's-behind-me smile. "The recording studio was the place that you could really release what you're feeling, without everybody looking at you." In 2001, Weiss was working for a New York furniture company; on September 11 she was downtown, a few blocks north of the World Trade centre. She saw the first plane hit, then the second. Two weeks later, ending an essay she wrote about the event, she fell back into the hard count of "Remember", as if the pacing of the song, like the others she sang, had long since for her become a language, a way to speak about what you couldn't speak about, a way of placing yourself in the world: "New York will never be the same. The United States will never be the same. For that matter I will never be the same person.
"We all want to go to sleep, and wake up and realise it's been a bad dream.
"It's not."
That was the language Winehouse heard. It was a language she learned. The Shangri-Las' records became talismans, charms, fetish objects, voodoo dolls signifying curses she laid on herself. "I didn't want to just wake up drinking, and crying, and listening to the Shangri-Las, and go to sleep, and wake up drinking, and listening to the Shangri-Las," Winehouse would say of how she wrote her unflinching songs, but she did. That was why, over and over again on stage, she would let "Remember" drift in and out of the almost sickeningly deliberate pace of "Back to Black", the title song of her second album, released in 2006, and her last studio album while she was alive, until you had to hear the two songs as one. That was why, in her irresistible, unreadable 2008 Grammy awards ceremony performance of "You Know I'm No Good" – filmed via a live hookup from London; Winehouse's drug addiction kept her out of the United States – Winehouse was her own leader of the pack. Winehouse might not have had anything on her side but the satisfaction of getting it right, saying what she had to say, adding something to the form that had brought her to life as an artist, adding her name and face and the story it told. Yes, she wrote "You Know I'm No Good", and like any work of art, it was a fiction that bounced back on real life, maybe the author's, maybe not; as she sang the song on the Grammys, you could hear and see her listening to the song as well as singing it, hear the song talking to her, hear her asking herself, as she sang, Is that true? Is that what I want? Is that who I am? Is that all I've got?
One day in 2006 Winehouse stepped to the microphone in a BBC disc jockey's studio to sing "To Know Him Is to Love Him", and with a guitarist softly fingering doo-wop triplets, a drummer tapping, and a bassist counting off notes as if he'd thought about each one, she unlocked the song. In the three seconds it took her to climb through the first five words, to sing "To know, know, know him", you were in a different country than any the song had ever reached before. All of Winehouse's commitment to the songwriter's craft, the way her professionalism was inseparable from her fandom, was brought to bear as she sang. It also disappeared, leaving both her and the song in limbo, out of time, no need to go forward, no need to go back. With the slightly acrid scratch that sometimes crept into her harder songs dissolved in a creamy vortex, the feeling was scary, and delicious; in those three seconds, then moving on through the first lines with hesitations between words and syllables so rich with the spectre of someone facing the Spector tombstone and reading the words off of it out loud, TO KNOW HIM WAS TO LOVE HIM, each word as she sang it demanding the right to be the last word, or merely wishing for it, the song expanded as if, all those years, it had been waiting for this particular singer to be born, and was only now letting out its breath. You could tell, listening, that Winehouse had worked on the song for a long time. "Congratulations!" said the disc jockey, Pete Mitchell, when the performance was over. "Recorded by the Teddy Bears!" "It's like when somebody dies – all the people do is yell 'He died, he died,'" Phil Spector said in 1969. "I yell 'He lived.' A hell of a lot more important than the fact that he's dead, is the fact that he lived."
"She could not stand fame any more than I could," Mary Weiss said in 2011, after Winehouse was found dead in her London house, after the torrent of her-whole-life-was-a-train-wreck, anyone-could-have-seen-it-coming schadenfreude that followed. "I related to her so much it is a bit scary. I will never understand why people get off kicking people when they are down and need help. How could that possibly make you feel better about yourself?"
"I was asking her to be an actress, not just a singer," Morton said of Weiss. Her songs, like Winehouse's, were all locked doors, doors that locked you out or that you locked yourself from the inside. But maybe because Weiss can still speak plainly – "I wish I could have helped her, even if she never sang publicly again," Weiss said – inside her words one can perhaps see other lives for Winehouse: a junkie on the street like Marianne Faithfull, who finally walked away, back into the career she never really had the first time around, first recording in the same year the Shangri-Las first recorded, in 2011 covering their "Past, Present, and Future" on a new album; a music teacher for kindergarteners; a grimy singer with a guitar case open at her feet, like anyone in your town; an old woman with stories nobody believes. "The girls in the Shangri-Las," Shadow Morton said, "they became the Shadowesses. I mean, they disappeared, they vacated. And a lot of the other girls who were with Red Bird, they just seemed to – like dust. As if it never was." But what did he know? That was only one version of the story, and there is an infinity of stories that tell this tale.
Greil Marcus's The History of Rock'n'Roll in Ten Songs, from which this edited extract has been taken, is published by Yale on 11 September.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What really killed Amy Winehouse was the eating disorder bulimia

Amy Winehouse
Poster by T.A.

What really killed Amy Winehouse 

was the eating disorder bulimia, 

her brother Alex claims



The underlying cause of Amy Winehouse’s premature death at the age of 27 was the eating disorder bulimia, her brother has claimed.
The singer’s older brother Alex Winehouse, 33, said in an interview that years of suffering from bulimia left Amy “weaker and more susceptible” to the physical impact of her alcohol and drug addictions.
A coroner's verdict recorded that the "Rehab" singer died of “alcohol toxicity” after drinking too much.
“She would have died eventually, the way she was going," Alex told the Observer. "But what really killed her was the bulimia… Had she not had an eating disorder, she would have been physically stronger.”
Bulimia is an eating disorder characterised by episodes of binging followed by self-induced vomiting. Alex claims Amy was a sufferer from her late teens until her death at the age of 27.
“She suffered from bulimia very badly. That’s not, like, a revelation- you knew just by looking at her,” he said.
She was influenced, he said, by her peers, who were “all doing it”, at the age of 17. “They’d put loads of rich sauces on their food, scarf it down and throw it up. They stopped doing it, but Amy never really did,” he said.
Amy, who won five Grammy awards for her breakthrough albumBack to Black, was found dead at her flat in Camden, north London, on 23 July 2011.
An inquest recorded a verdict of misadventure after finding that she had 416mg of alcohol per decilitre in her blood- more than five times the legal drink-drive limit.
Since her death, her father Mitch and her brother Alex have set up the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which works to prevent the effects of drug and alcohol misuse on young people.
An exhibition of family photographs and objects belonging to the singer has been put together by Mitch and Alex Winehouse at the Jewish Museum in London, opening next month.

Amy Winehouse was killed by bulimia

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse was killed by bulimia, 

not drugs, says her brother

Drink and drugs took their toll but eating disorder fatally weakened Amy, says Alex Winehouse
  • The Observer, 
Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse performing in 2007, four years before her death. “What really killed her was the bulimia,” said Alex Winehouse. Photograph: James McCauley / Rex Features
Amy Winehouse, whose life was dogged by drug and alcohol abuse, was killed by an eating disorder rather than by her addictions, according to her brother.
In his first full-length interview, Alex Winehouse, 33, the singer's older brother, told the Observer Magazine that his sister's long battle with bulimia "left her weaker, and more susceptible". He added: "She would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia."
Winehouse, who won five Grammy awards for her breakthrough album, Back to Black, died in July 2011 at the age of 27.
An inquest recorded a verdict of misadventure after finding that she had 416mg of alcohol per decilitre in her blood – more than five times the legal drink-drive limit and enough to make her comatose and depress her respiratory system.
According to her brother, who was speaking to mark the opening of an exhibition dedicated to his sister's life at the Jewish Museum in Camden, north London, her system had been fatally weakened by years of bulimia, a disease in which bouts of extreme overeating are followed by depression and self-induced vomiting. "Had she not have had an eating disorder, she would have been physically stronger," he said.
Alex Winehouse revealed that Amy had developed bulimia in her late teens and had never shaken off the illness. He explained that, as a 17-year-old, his sister had a group of friends who "were all doing it. They'd put loads of rich sauces on their food, scarf it down and throw it up. They stopped doing it, but Amy never really stopped. We all knew she was doing it but it's almost impossible [to tackle], especially if you're not talking about it."
According to Beat, the world's largest eating disorders charity, there is a lack of data detailing how many people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder. Although the Department of Health provides hospital episode statistics, these include only those affected by eating disorders who are being treated as NHS inpatients. As a result, the figures omit all those who have not come forward, have not been diagnosed, are receiving private treatment or are being treated as an outpatient or in the community.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) suggests 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of whom around 11% are male. More recent research from the NHS, however, suggested up to 6.4% of adults potentially 3.2 million people, display signs of an eating disorder..
It is estimated that, of those with eating disorders, 40% are bulimic. Bulimia is associated with severe medical complications. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Research has found that 20% of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely.
After Winehouse's death, her family set up a foundation in her name to curb misuse of drug and alcohol by young people. The Amy Winehouse Foundation is run by Alex and his father, Mitch, a singer and former black cab driver.
The charity recently donated money to Beat to enable it to continue running an internet forum with a dedicated moderator.
Alex Winehouse said: "We had to support eating disorder charities because no one talks about it. The situation in this country is that about five or six years ago there were around 10-15 eating disorder charities out there. Now there's only three, one of which is exclusively for young men.
"Beat was in real need of an online forum … so that there's always someone there to talk to. I just want to try to raise awareness of bulimia. It's a real dark, dark issue."

Monday, July 27, 2015

Growing up with my sister Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse

Growing up with my sister Amy Winehouse

As an exhibition opens about her family life, Amy Winehouse's brother Alex talks in his first major interview about the girl who became a superstar – and reveals what he thinks really killed her
    • The Observer, 
Amy outside her Gran's flat
'She was annoying, frustrating, a pain. But she was also incredibly generous, very caring': Amy Winehouse as a teenager outside her grandmother's flat. Photograph: Winehouse Foundation
A few months ago, almost two years after his sister Amy's death at the age of 27, Alex Winehouse was sorting through her possessions and came across a child-size navy blue jumper. The jumper turned out to be part of Amy's old school uniform from Osidge Primary School in Southgate, north London that, unbeknown to her family, she had stowed away carefully for years.
"I couldn't believe she had that," Alex says now, sitting in a sun-streamed room, one leg resting across the other and leaning back in his chair. This is his first ever full-length interview, given to mark the opening of a major new exhibition at the Jewish Museum entitled Amy Winehouse: a Family Portrait. The school jumper, Alex says, is his favourite exhibit.
"I think it shows that it doesn't matter what happens in life, how famous you become, regardless of who you are, you're always from somewhere," he explains. "No matter what you do, you can't forget that because it makes you who you are. And she never forgot. It was very reassuring to see that for me."
There is a photograph of the two Winehouse siblings from that time. It shows Alex, the elder by four years, with a protective arm around his little sister's shoulders. Amy, not yet 10, has her chin cocked towards the camera, displaying even then a defiant kind of confidence.
To the outside world, the name Amy Winehouse went on to become synonymous with both talent and tragedy. She lived her life out in the full glare of the public spotlight and then she died in July 2011 after an alcohol binge, three years shy of her 30th birthday. She was renowned for her husky contralto vocals and her ability to fuse the classic melodies of soul, jazz and R&B, making them relevant to a modern audience. In her short career, she won many awards, including a Brit, three Novellos and six Grammys. Her second album, Back to Black, is currently the UK's best-selling album of the 21st century.

Amy in stripy sweatshirt
Amy in stripy sweatshirt at home as a youngster. Photograph: Winehouse Foundation
In style terms, too, Winehouse redefined what we came to expect of a pop star. Instead of being primped and packaged as a teen-market popstrel, she had a towering beehive, heavy eyeliner and a fondness for leopard-print and tattoos. Karl Lagerfeld claimed her as his new muse in 2007 and sent beehived models down the Chanel catwalk; French Voguededicated a whole fashion story to her look and hundreds of girls bought a version of her style on the high street.
But there was, of course, a darker side to Amy Winehouse: a trail of disturbing media stories and paparazzo images tracked her painful disintegration. Photos appeared of her on London streets, tear-stained and with bleeding feet, or with badly bruised legs. The lattice of scars on her arms from a period of self-harm and cutting in her teens were often visible. Her drink and drug abuse was well-documented. In 2008, a tabloid newspaper published a video that appeared to show her smoking crack cocaine. Over the years, she was in and out of rehab.
For much of HER LIFE, it seemed as if we knew everything about her. But the exhibition will reveal a different, more intimate side. And for Alex Winehouse, she will always just be his little sister, which is why that school jumper meant so much to him. It was a reminder of what she had been, before the madness spiralled out of control, before the world claimed her as a celebrity and her addictions destroyed her.
"Do you have a sister?" he asks me when I wonder what Amy was like. I nod. "Then you'll know. She was annoying, frustrating, a pain in the bum. But she was also incredibly generous, very caring. She'd do anything for anyone, she really would. She was loyal – as a sister, daughter and friend. She was probably the most loyal friend to people I've ever known." Later, he adds: "She was a really good person. And horrible in other respects."
The exhibition will include several of her personal effects and items of clothing and will also trace the Winehouse ancestry back generations to those who emigrated to London from Russia and Poland in the late 19th century.
The aim, says Alex, is to portray his sister "as a normal person and us as a normal family" and to show how Amy was influenced by an ingrained Jewish identity. Their parents, Mitch and Janis, who divorced when Alex was 13 and Amy was nine, brought them up with an appreciation of the faith's rituals and rites of passage. As adults, neither of the siblings was particularly religious, but they felt culturally Jewish – Amy was famously meant to have cooked chicken soup for her bodyguards.
"She made it once for me," says Alex, screwing up his face in distaste. "It was awful."

Alex Winehouse
'We took different paths': a portrait of Alex Winehouse with Amy's guitar. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer
Is there a part of him that sees the exhibition as a means of reclaiming the sister he knew, rather than the pop star fame created?
"I don't think you can," Alex says after a moment's thought. "I don't think that's possible. I'm not really fussed about how she's perceived because I know the truth… That's more important than what people think."
Alex Winehouse has never before spoken publicly in depth about his sister. At the height of her fame and throughout the shambolic latter years of her life, he stayed under the radar. He says he wanted to be a refuge for her from the strangeness of her celebrity – he describes visiting Amy occasionally at her Camden flat and seeing banks of photographers camped outside.
"She was pretty much shut in the house and couldn't go anywhere," he remembers. "I'd go home, back to normality. She didn't have that. The interest that they had in her was absolutely insane. She didn't want it but her every moment was covered in the press."
Part of him, too, feels that his recollections of Amy are "no one's business, because there's a lot of dramas associated with her and that still goes on. If I'm going to speak, it's because I – or we, the foundation – are doing something really, really cool. I'm not going to talk for the sake of talking."
The Amy Winehouse Foundation, set up by her family in the wake of her death, works to prevent the effects of drug and alcohol misuse on young people. A schools programme launched in March by the foundation has already made substantial donations to various charities. Alex, who gave up his job as an online music journalist to work full-time for the foundation with his father, a former black-cab driver, says the experience has brought the family closer together. In the aftermath of Amy's death, Alex explains, "Dad had two choices – he could either let it destroy him, or use Amy's memory to invigorate himself to do something good."
But after so many years not talking, there is a part of Alex that finds it difficult to change the habit. He chooses his words carefully and seems determined not to show too much emotion. He prefers humour to introspection. When he talks about going to hospital when Amy was born in 1983 and being given his baby sister to hold, he says: "She smelled and I didn't like it. She stank. It was that milky, newborn smell and I just thought, 'I don't like the smell, I don't like you. Why are you in my house?'"
He laughs. Did it get better after that?
"Eventually," he says drily. "Took a while though."

Amy at Glastonbury Festival 2008 Day 2
Back in black: Amy performing at Glastonbury in 2008 wearing the Luella Bartley dress. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images
There is a sense that he doesn't want to come across as overly sentimental or – worse – risk cheapening his own, private memories by giving them up for public consumption.
And yet Alex is also extremely honest. When I ask if he ever listens to her music, now he shakes his head and admits, a touch shamefacedly, that her songs were "not really my taste… I'm more of a rocker than she was." And when I touch on the notion that, however much he loved her, it must have been extremely difficult at times being her brother and seeing her so hell-bent on self-destruction, he doesn't flinch.
"Of course. Dad says it all the time: there's only so much you can do. You can be there on the phone, you can go and see them and things, but ultimately, it's your own responsibility and if the person has no interest in getting better, then there really isn't much you can do. You've got to live your own life as well or it will destroy you as much as the other person."
Alex has had time to reflect on what triggered Amy's spiral into drink and drugs, but hasn't come to any clear conclusion other than "we took different paths". He describes himself as "a worrier" and "an anxious child". By contrast, "Amy wasn't like that. She had no limits."
Many of her problems predated her sudden rise to fame. She developed bulimia in her late teens and the eating disorder dogged her for the rest of her life. Alex remembers her at the age of 17 hanging out with a group of girls who "were all doing it. They'd put loads of rich sauces on their food, scarf it down and throw it up. They stopped doing it, but Amy never really did… We all knew she was doing it, but it's almost impossible [to tackle] especially if you're not talking about it. It's a real dark, dark issue.
"She suffered from bulimia very badly. That's not, like, a revelation – you knew just by looking at her… She would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia… Absolutely terrible."
What does he mean by that? "I think that it left her weaker and more susceptible. Had she not had an eating disorder, she would have been physically stronger."
Emotionally fragile as she was, Alex says his sister never consciously courted media attention. "All she wanted to be was a singer and have a good career and that was it really. It [the attention] was slightly out of whack with what she was. She won the Brit in 2007 and no one knew who she was before that. I remember bumping into her on the tube once and she was on her own. Then, all of a sudden, that was it. In the space of one evening she'd gone from being able to do whatever she wanted to not being able to do that ever again."
The drugs and the alcohol, then, were perhaps a way of attempting to deal with the pressure of living a life in the constant public gaze. When she married former music video runner Blake Fielder-Civil in 2007, he introduced her to heroin and her problems got markedly worse (the couple divorced in 2009 and Fielder-Civil subsequently served a prison sentence after stealing money to buy drugs). On her darkest days, Winehouse could be a nightmare to be around. Most of the time, Alex bit his tongue. But when she got "really drunk" and ruined his 30th birthday party, he gave her "the bollocking of a lifetime".
"The problem with being [famous] is – how many people tell you 'No'? No one does. I was furious. She was head-butting people, but she's only little, she's tiny so it's like swatting away a fly, but it was no good. I had a go at her, threw out some home truths. She knew how I felt and she didn't scream back at me."
Did she ever apologise for her behaviour? He grins as if this is an absurd question. "No."
Did she ever say sorry for any of it, for all the things she put her family through? "Of course not."
And yet, for all the harm she had done to herself, her death, when it came, was truly shocking. Alex was called up by his father with the news. For a while afterwards, the reality of her absence "didn't really sink in". As a journalist himself, he was struck by the strangeness of the fact that instead of writing stories about other people, he was now in the epicentre of one of the biggest news stories in the country – and it concerned the death of his sister.
"I had two hats on at that point. The journalist's hat, where I was telling myself to be calm, to assess the situation, don't get emotional. And the brother hat, where I was looking at the flowers, the tributes, the street signs that people had signed."
The outpouring of public grief in the days after Amy's death was, Alex says, "really pretty amazing."
"Obviously, she touched something in a lot of people and, yeah, it was very strange. We had to go to the flat and all the flowers, I mean…" He breaks off and closes his eyes for several seconds as he continues to speak. "You see those things on the telly, but it's always for things that have got nothing to do with you. This was, like, a personal thing… Yeah, it was incredible."
He found the hardest part was having to sit shiva, the week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives after burial.
"You can't shave, you can't change your clothes. You do prayers. I was sitting in a chair and people came to pay their respects and you're not supposed to say anything back. At my age, that shouldn't be happening. That's something that happens when old people die. People sitting shiva should be in their 70s and 80s, they shouldn't be 31 years old and certainly not a 31-year-old who is sitting shiva for his 27-year-old sister… I can't really describe it, it's a horrible feeling."
He stays silent for a moment. Then, quickly, he regains his natural equilibrium. We end up chatting about football, his recent move to the countryside with his wife, Riva, and how his work at the foundation is "easily the best thing I've ever done". He talks about his earliest memories – visiting his great-grandfather in the East End on Commercial Street where he still lived after years working as a tailor. Alex is, understandably, more relaxed discussing these areas of his life. The loss of his sister, he says, "is always there" but, at the same time, he needs to get on with living.
What would Amy have made of this exhibition, I wonder? Alex chuckles. "She would have hated it." He shrugs his shoulders. "She would have been…" He assumes her voice, high-pitched and bemused: "'It's just me, why do you want an exhibition?'"
Amy Winehouse: a Family Portrait opens at the Jewish Museum in London on 3 July ( For information on the Amy Winehouse Foundation, go to