My parents saw the documentary Amy by Asif Kapadia when it came out in 2015. I babysat my little sister while they nipped out to the local film institute. My sister was asleep when they came back; I was wedged in the corner of the couch with my legs tucked under, practicing not doing anything, because sitting with my thoughts felt far more intellectual than turning on the Kardashians, though that was what I really wanted to do. My parents sat down with me and said that they’d sat almost smushed against the screen, watching two hours of gritty documentary footage. “It was so close up it hurt your eyes,” my mom said, and my dad nodded, rubbing his.
I don’t know why, but for so long since then I just couldn’t get the image out of my head of my parents with headaches in the front row of a movie theater, watching home footage of Amy Winehouse. They talk about it a lot. In my mind I’d seen it already, my parents craning their necks to watch Amy completely grainy and close-up, her upper lip piercing dancing in the middle of the screen.
It would’ve been Amy Winehouse’s 36th birthday this Saturday, September 14. She died eight years ago from alcohol poisoning.
In the first line of Amy’s 2007 cover article for Rolling Stone Magazine, writer Jenny Eliscu describes Winehouse as “one of the world’s tiniest pop stars.” In the same paragraph, Eliscu shows Winehouse “crouched next to a garbage pail, collecting a pile of eyeliner pencils and mascara tubes between her hands” while her then-fiance Blake Fielder-Civil smokes a cig and “looks bored.” This is the Amy Winehouse the world presents to us. She was an unpolished, North London trainwreck with gaps in her teeth. Her small frame was highlighted in seemingly every article written about her. As was her beehive hairstyle, thick Cleopatra eyeliner, and her pale green eyes.
My parents love Amy Winehouse. In our drives up and down the East Coast, I put my phone on aux and queued her up. We fell silent when she sings “we only said goodbye with words/ I died a hundred times.” My dad, a composer, always said the same thing: “She sings like an overweight black woman.” We got into fights about this. My mom said, “It’s a tragedy, really. She was a real talent.” Even before she died Amy’s voice commanded a sort of reverence, as if we knew, through the dull speakers of our Toyota Camry stuttering up the I-95, that Amy didn’t belong in this world. My parents spoke about her with something like obsession, like the mere fact of her voice predestined her to a tragic end, like she died for the music that we can’t stop listening to.
But Amy Winehouse didn’t suffer for her art. She suffered for almost every other reason. She met Blake, a music video producer, in a pub, and fell in the sort of love that doesn’t stop hurting even when it’s good. “I fell in love with someone who I would’ve died for,” Winehouse said. “That’s like a real drug, isn’t it?” In the early stages of their relationship, Blake temporarily broke things off. “I’d walk up the stairs and see blood on the wall and think of him,” Amy said, “because I’d punched the walls.”
Amy and Blake married in Miami in 2007, while the Rolling Stone cover reporter was shadowing her. They divorced two years later, but in that window, Blake introduced Amy to crack cocaine, then heroin. Clips of Amy smoking crack circulated the tabloids.
Her parents separated when she was 9. By the time she was 14, Amy started bunking off school to lay around the house with her boyfriend, and started smoking weed all the time. When she was 15, she told her mom her trick to staying skinny, how she’d eat whatever she wanted then throw it all up. Her mother thought, “It’ll pass.” Amy told her dad, and he thought the same thing. She was on antidepressants. She said, “I think I felt funny sometimes, and I was different. But it’s a musician thing — that’s why I write music.” Amy didn’t view her unhappiness as a permanent, irrefutable part of herself. It was just what she felt at the time
In the Rolling Stone cover, Eliscu asks about the scars on Amy’s forearm, and when Amy takes a beat to reply, Eliscu insists, “I mean, the cutting.” She describes Amy averting her eyes and stammering out, “d-d-desperate times.” Eliscu actually writes this, in that way — “d-d-desperate.”
Four years after my parents sat in the too-small movie theater, I found Amy on Netflix. I don’t know why it took me so long to actually watch it. Director Kapadia began organizing the documentary only two years after Winehouse’s death, conducting his interviews over audio so interviewees would feel comfortable opening up. “There was a lot of guilt,” he said in an interview. In the audio clips, her loved ones break into tears.
Amy went from being an immensely talented pop star with an exponentially successful career, to a caricature of a drugged-up twenty-something who couldn’t seem to stop blundering her public image. People might’ve wanted the best for her, but this wanting was posterior to the sick admiration of a young woman who simply didn’t give a fuck, who cared more about the pain and passion of being in love, who ate white-bread-and-banana sandwiches with potato chips sprinkled on top, who didn’t want to go to rehab, didn’t want to get better, didn’t want to be numb to the pain in her heart, who referred repeatedly to the fact that whenever her husband wasn’t with her she wanted to die.
She was a young, bulimic, alcoholic popstar with an emotionally abusive husband, and the paparazzi loved her. Her heart was weak from years of vomiting. Amy became gaunt, with spindly legs and arms and a swollen stomach. You could see her collarbones, the unnatural sallow pockets between her cheeks, her cracked lips. Her drug habit became a constant punchline for comedians and late-night television hosts. After winning the Grammy for “Album of the Year,” Amy turned to her friend Juliette Ashby and said, “This is so boring without drugs.”
Her friends and parents didn’t know how to take care of her. Her security guards became her family. “She needed someone to say no,” security guard Andrew Morris said. They spent their lives together. If she wanted to go to the pub but had a gig the next morning, he told her no. He was the one who found her dead in bed.
Toward the end of her short life, Amy gave concerts while visibly intoxicated. During one show in Serbia, the audience started booing. Amy stumbled across the stage then sat on a speaker. She didn’t even know where she was. The audience yelled, “Sing!” They booed her. She canceled her European tour. One month later, she was dead.
In the opening pages of Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the anonymous character of A writes, “What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music… And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul.’”
The irony is, Amy Winehouse never thought she’d become famous, and she never wanted to be. In footage from her earliest days as a recording artist, she said, “I’d go mad.” At the end of her Rolling Stone cover article, Amy said she’d have no qualms about abandoning music there and then. “I was put here to be a wife and a mom and look after my family. I love what I do, but it’s not where it begins and ends,” she said, “it” beign, presumably, her life. She used her music to “turn something good out of something bad.” In the end, the bad outdid the good; the music itself wasn’t enough to save her.
There’s a monument to Amy Winehouse in the Stables Market in Camdentown, London, the neighborhood where she lived and died. The bronze statue was unveiled in 2014. It’s true to height — 5’3”. She rests her left hand on her waist, her shoulders up and tense. Her hair sweeps into a bronze beehive. The only pop of color is the red on her lips. She’s so petite and neutral you might just miss her, pressed up against the staircase railing in front of the garish storefront of the Cereal Killer Cafe which serves bowls of Fruity Pebbles for five pounds.
Sara Luzuriaga | firstname.lastname@example.org .