When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone.
Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.
I’ve known Amy Winehouse for years. When I first met her around Camden she was just some twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends, most of whom were in cool Indie bands or peripheral Camden figures Withnail-ing their way through life on impotent charisma. Carl Barrat told me that “Winehouse” (which I usually called her and got a kick out of cos it’s kind of funny to call a girl by her surname) was a jazz singer, which struck me as a bizarrely anomalous in that crowd. To me with my limited musical knowledge this information placed Amy beyond an invisible boundary of relevance; “Jazz singer? She must be some kind of eccentric” I thought. I chatted to her anyway though, she was after all, a girl, and she was sweet and peculiar but most of all vulnerable.
I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but un-ignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his “speedboat” there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.
From time to time I’d bump into Amy she had good banter so we could chat a bit and have a laugh, she was “a character” but that world was riddled with half cut, doped up chancers, I was one of them, even in early recovery I was kept afloat only by clinging to the bodies of strangers so Winehouse, but for her gentle quirks didn’t especially register.
Then she became massively famous and I was pleased to see her acknowledged but mostly baffled because I’d not experienced her work and this not being the 1950’s I wondered how a “jazz singer” had achieved such cultural prominence. I wasn’t curious enough to do anything so extreme as listen to her music or go to one of her gigs, I was becoming famous myself at the time and that was an all consuming experience. It was only by chance that I attended a Paul Weller gig at the Roundhouse that I ever saw her live.
I arrived late and as I made my way to the audience through the plastic smiles and plastic cups I heard the rolling, wondrous resonance of a female vocal. Entering the space I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie and Ella, from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine. My ears, my mouth, my heart and mind all instantly opened. Winehouse. Winehouse? Winehouse! That twerp, all eyeliner and lager dithering up Chalk Farm Road under a back-combed barnet, the lips that I’d only seen clenching a fishwife fag and dribbling curses now a portal for this holy sound. So now I knew. She wasn’t just some hapless wannabe, yet another pissed up nit who was never gonna make it, nor was she even a ten-a-penny-chanteuse enjoying her fifteen minutes. She was a fucking genius.
Shallow fool that I am I now regarded her in a different light, the light that blazed down from heaven when she sang. That lit her up now and a new phase in our friendship began. She came on a few of my TV and radio shows, I still saw her about but now attended to her with a little more interest. Publicly though, Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction. Our media though is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall. The destructive personal relationships, the blood soaked ballet slippers, the aborted shows, that youtube madness with the baby mice. In the public perception this ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent. This and her manner in our occasional meetings brought home to me the severity of her condition. Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death. I was 27 years old when through the friendship and help of Chip Somers of the treatment centre, Focus12 I found recovery, through Focus I was introduced to support fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts which are very easy to find and open to anybody with a desire to stop drinking and without which I would not be alive.
Now Amy Winehouse is dead, like many others whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised, at 27 years old. Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s, some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.
- Russell Brand
This moved me to tears. This whole thing has hit home hard for me, Ryan was also talented and an addict. I have never been able to rid myself of the guilt I felt, the minute I realised I wasn’t there for him when he needed me the most.
Also, if any of you have the nerve to make any kind of joke or disrespectful comment about her death, I WILL be unfollowing, no matter how friendly we are.
Her death should certainly not overshadow the horrific events that happened in Norway, but it shouldn’t be swept under the rug either.
Not my usual fare, but a few posts/tweets I’ve seen about Amy’s death have really irked me.
You know, a lot of us around here have friends and/or family members who are addicts. A lot of us come from families where alcoholism is a real problem. Some members of tumblr have even struggled with addiction themselves.
But somehow, because she was a celebrity, it’s totally hilarious to make the oh-so-obvious “Rehab” jokes as soon as this girl is dead. I wasn’t a huge fan of hers, but for fuck’s sake people: Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. Wow, that’s fucking hysterical! Let’s make jokes about it!
Would you joke about the death of a complete stranger who isn’t famous? Probably not. Famous or not, addicts are people. They have families, friends, hopes and aspirations. Their deaths are not fodder for your insensitive attempts at humor.
So please, for the sake of everyone around you who has been touched by the devastating effects of this disease, shut the fuck up.
To joke about the death of anyone at all is not funny even in the slightest of degrees but rather, is inhumanly cruel, particularly to those who were vulnerable to disease. A reason why addiction is so heavily stigmatized is that many, if not most, people quite simply do not understand it. We tend to want to blame the “victim” of the disease. We think it’s their fault, that they chose this, it’s simply a matter of weakness of will, etc., while nothing of the sort is true. The problem therein lies with those who berate, dehumanize, and belittle addicts. The ignorance and weakness lies within them and not addicts.
Death is not funny and never will be funny. Death is not an opportunity for a punchline or a cute “humorous” rhyme laced with cruel biting wit. You bring no joy, happiness, peace, or goodness to Earth by treating people so. Act with a bit of humanity, please.
So let’s all please STOP w/the rehab jokes. It was never funny and will never be funny. It’s just shitty comedy used to get easy, cheap laughs. Just stop.
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