Remembering Amy Winehouse, born 29 years ago today…
Amy, My Daughter by Mitch Winehouse
From the release of her début album in 2003 until her death eight years later, Amy Winehouse’s all-too-brief career played out as a media circus. Several unauthorised biographies – mostly based on existing tabloid and web articles – and at least one tell-tale memoir have been published. As the nightmare of Amy’s drug addiction unfurled, her father, Mitch Winehouse, became a minor celebrity. He has also been denounced as a parasite, often by the same columnists who revelled in Amy’s misfortunes. Amy, My Daughter is written by a trusted insider who not only witnessed events at first hand, but was actively involved in them. As such, it is an important resource for fans and any future biographers.
‘This is not the book I wanted to write,’ Mitch explains in a preface. ‘I had been working on one about my family’s history…due to be published this year.’ A photograph of his mother, Cynthia, in 1953 gives a hint of where Amy’s sense of style originated. (Cynthia, once engaged to jazz club owner Ronnie Scott, was a major influence on Amy as a child.)
Born in North London in 1983, Amy was rebellious and attention-seeking from an early age. Whether getting lost in the park or upstaging her brother’s birthday party, she was seldom out of trouble. Mitch worked for a double-glazing company, and later became a taxi driver, while Amy’s mother, Janis, was a pharmacist.
Thanks to Janis, Amy could read before she started school, and she was gifted at maths. She also loved to sing, not just onstage but in the classroom. Mitch and Janis worked hard to pay for their restless daughter’s education. In 1992 the couple divorced, and both have since married again. However, the family remained close. ‘Probably, through guilt, I over-indulged (my children),’ Mitch admits. ‘I’d buy them presents for no reason, take them to expensive places and give them money.’
Amy took her fate into her own hands in 1995, when she applied to join the Sylvia Young Theatre School. She was already writing songs, and jotting observations and fragments of poetry into notebooks. In 1999, she joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra where she gained vital experience of recording and performing music.
But Amy clearly had mixed feelings about her burgeoning career. When she decided at the last minute not to attend a business meeting at EMI, her then-manager jokingly shut her in a dumpster until she promised to go. ‘In those days she liked performing live – as a virtual unknown she felt no pressure and simply enjoyed herself,’ Mitch recalls. ‘Her voice never failed to blow audiences away, but she needed to work on her stagecraft. Sometimes she’d turn her back on the audience – as though she didn’t want to face them.’
‘As Amy was so outwardly confident,’ he reflects, ‘no one imagined that inside she harboured a fear of being onstage, and that as she played in front of ever-increasing crowds, the fear didn’t go away.’
Many of the songs on Amy’s first album, Frank, were inspired by her first love, journalist Chris Taylor, and recorded with Fugees producer Salaam Remi. However, she was dissatisfied with the final result. Nonetheless, Frank’s success enabled Amy to buy her own flat in Camden. Her finances were then managed by her family. Amy was shaken by her grandmother’s death in 2004, and her heavy drinking became a matter of concern.
She had smoked marijuana regularly since her teens, but insisted that ‘Class A drugs are for mugs.’ In 2005, she met with Blake Fielder-Civil, a video runner and heroin user. Their rocky relationship fell apart when she learned that he was seeing an ex-girlfriend.
Amy’s subsequent depression inspired much of her second album. Musically, she was influenced by sixties soul, and she collaborated both with Salaam Remi and a rising young producer, Mark Ronson. From the release of the opening track, ‘Rehab’, in October 2006, Back to Black was hailed as a modern classic. ‘I was blown away, beyond proud,’ Mitch remembers. ‘But deep down I never wanted Amy to write another album like it. The songs are amazing but she went through hell to write them.’
Amy rekindled her romance with Blake, and they married in 2007. Amy’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, and that summer, she suffered a drug-induced seizure. In November, Blake was charged with perjury in a case relating to the victim of a violent assault. He was remanded at Pentonville Prison. Throughout 2008, Amy tried to leave drugs behind. With her family’s support, she finally succeeded; a triumph that has been overlooked by her detractors. But her health remained fragile, and her alcoholic binges were a source of constant worry. (She also had issues with self-harming and eating disorders for many years.)
‘I’d spent so much time and energy worrying about Blake and his influence on Amy. I’d blamed him for her drug problems,’ Mitch admits. Now he had her drinking to worry about – ‘and, unlike her drug addiction, there was no one I could blame for that.’ Following her divorce from Blake in 2010, Amy began a long-term relationship with film director Reg Traviss. She formed her own record label, designed a clothing range, and recorded songs with Quincy Jones and Tony Bennett.
Despite her extraordinary fame, Amy remained loyal to family and friends. She refused to change her lifestyle, despite being hounded by the paparazzi. Mitch praises her ‘generosity of spirit,’ evident in the countless pictures she posed for with fans. During a holiday in St Lucia in 2009, Amy paid for an elderly man’s treatment, and for children to ride horses on the beach. She retained a mischievous quality, once sending Mitch to buy her underwear from Agent Provocateur. ‘I would have been embarrassed saying, “I want to buy some knickers for my daughter”,’ he recalls, ‘so I said they were for my wife.’
Amy continued to write and record at home, but the long-awaited third album would never be completed. ‘I knew that Back to Black had come about when she’d felt she had a coherent whole, based on the girl-group sound she loved,’ Mitch comments. ‘I don’t think she ever found the same guiding inspiration to bring together the ideas she had for a new album.’
In early 2011, Amy performed a string of sell-out concerts in Brazil. In June, she embarked on a European tour, which was abruptly cancelled after a shambolic Serbian gig. Amy’s manager, Raye Cosbert, suspected that her heavy drinking was partly caused by her reluctance to perform older material. ‘Singing those songs triggered memories of the drug spiral she had been in,’ Mitch explains.
For three weeks, Amy abstained from alcohol. But in late July, she began drinking again.
After her death, Mitch founded the Amy Winehouse Foundation to support disadvantaged young people dealing with addiction, ill-health or homelessness. All author profits from Amy, My Daughter are being donated to this cause.
Mitch Winehouse’s memoir sheds some new light on Amy’s family background and how her talent developed. But its main purpose is to offer a nuanced account of her addiction and recovery from a father’s perspective. While Amy, My Daughter is unlikely to win any literary prizes, Mitch’s sincerity and grief is evident. ‘For my own sake, and that of Amy’s family,’ he concludes, ‘I decided not to look back and regret, because nothing good would come of that. I always did my best for Amy but sometimes I couldn’t cope and hindsight can be very cruel.’
‘Cherry Wine’, from Life is Good by Nas, featuring Amy Winehouse (2012)