Death of a Lioness: Amy Winehouse 1983 – 2011

In late 2003, I was thirty-one, and living in a council house in Derby with my husband and two sons, a three-year old and a six-month-old baby. One afternoon, in the kitchen, I heard a song called ‘Take the Box’ on the radio, and was instantly transported to the streets of my not-so-distant past.

“Your neighbours were screaming
I don’t have a key for downstairs
So I punched all the buzzers
Hoping you wouldn’t be there…”

The soaring voice of Amy Winehouse, set to a jazz background, set me wondering. I’d loved torch singers ever since I discovered Billie Holiday in my teens.

From the internet I learned that Amy Winehouse was just twenty, a cab-driver’s daughter. I borrowed her CD from the library, and liking what I heard, bought my own copy of Frank from Sainsbury’s.

The raw power of her voice blew me away, the sharp wit of her lyrics; the hip-hop beats and sheer musicality, all of which belied her tender age. On the inner sleeve were snapshots of Amy at home, dressing up, skinning up – and, touchingly, a photo of her record collection.

Amy was on the crest of a wave, alongside Joss Stone, Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua. But for some reason, Frank’s success didn’t match theirs. There was something about Amy that set her apart from the others.

We had a few things in common: we both came from the London suburbs, though I’d long since left; we were both short and had dark, unruly hair. Amy’s middle name was Jade, a name my father had considered for me. Amy was Jewish; I passed for Jewish as a child, and went to playgroup in a synagogue.

Basically, Amy was me – with bells on. I’d never had her confidence, or so I thought. In 2004 I watched her on late-night TV, talking about her favourite things – jazz, shoes – and wearing her talent lightly, with grace.

“When you walk in the bar 
And you dressed like a star
Rockin’ your F-me pumps…”

Then, she disappeared – until 2006, when I found an email in my inbox, playing the opening bars of ‘Rehab’. After Googling her name, I found just one link, to a story about her weight loss.

Amy’s life changed with the release of Back to Black. Like Frank, it was a break-up album. But this time, the mood wasn’t defiant, but mournful. Her new sound was influenced by the girl groups of the 1960s.

I wasn’t sure that I liked this new, brittle Amy.

Suddenly, I began to cry – midway through, at the bridge of ‘Back to Black’. As she repeats, ‘Black…black…I go back to…’, as if breaking down utterly.

That was when I knew for sure that Amy Winehouse was a genius.

Perhaps her most poignant lyrics were on the next track, ‘Love is a Losing Game’:

“Over futile odds 
And laughed at by the gods 
And now the final frame 
Love is a losing game”

Suddenly, Amy was everywhere: with her enormous black, ribboned beehive, with a single blonde streak; Cleopatra eyes and Monroe piercing; baby-doll dresses, hoop earrings, stack heels; and tattoos on her arms. She turned up at awards ceremonies, nervous and tipsy.

Then came the inevitable reunion with her ex, and a Vegas wedding. A tailspin into hard drugs, as they left hotels together, bloodied and bruised. Amy overdosed, Blake got arrested.

At thirty-five, I had returned to my adopted hometown, Brighton (Amy’s was Camden.) She came down for a gig and was booed offstage. I heard stories of her running from the Grand Hotel, onto the seafront.

One morning in a café, I picked up a newspaper. There she was on the front page – just skin and bone, crying in the street, mobbed by paparazzi.

“I cheated myself, like I knew I would
I told you I was trouble
You know that I’m no good”

Thank goodness I had the luxury of making my mistakes alone. And still do, as it happens.

But the world couldn’t get enough of Amy, and in 2008, she won five Grammys for Back to Black. The assumption seemed to be that she should get clean and go on to greater things. Nobody asked what Amy wanted.

Divorce followed, and brawls with fans. At last, recovery: she put on weight, stopped smoking crack and cutting herself. Drink was still a problem, but she was in love again, with Reg. She started writing, and recording again.

What went wrong? In spring of 2011 Amy went on tour, and the old demons resurfaced. A shambolic gig in Belgrade led to more bad headlines.

I was at my desk on July 23rd , writing, when I heard that Amy Winehouse had died in her London bedroom, two months short of her 28th birthday.

“We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to…”

She so very nearly made it through. Her dream was to be a housewife at thirty, cooking for her seven kids. If she never had another hit, she would still be happy.

‘Lioness’ was the apt name of her record label, not a cash-in but a way to help other artists.

Now we have lost our diva, but her music lives on. For the family, lovers, and band-mates who tried to shelter her from the storm, that is little comfort.

But to all the naysayers, Amy’s fate was not inevitable and she certainly didn’t waste her gifts. Her life was a triumph. We were the lucky ones, who hung on for the ride.

“Today my bird flew away
gone to find her big blue jay
Starlight before she took flight
I sung a lullaby of birdland every night
sung for my Ava every night

Ava was the morning, now she’s gone
she’s reborn like Sarah Vaughan
In the sanctuary she has found
birds surround her sweet sound
and Ava flies in paradise

With dread I woke in my bed
to shooting pains up in my head
Lovebird, my beautiful bird
Spoken ’til one day she couldn’t be heard
she just stopped singing

Ava was the morning, now she’s gone
she’s reborn like Sarah Vaughan
In the sanctuary she has found
birds surround her sweet sound
and Ava flies in paradise”