photography, writing and the spaces between
The death of singer Amy Winehouse in 2011, at the tragically young age of twenty-seven, was big news. I remember hearing about it and being shocked, and having a friend tell me about the “27 Club” to which Winehouse had the dubious honor of gaining entry. The name refers to the fact that many hugely talented musicians—including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain—also died at twenty-seven, an age at which many people are just getting their careers off the ground.
Four years later, Winehouse is having a cultural moment. A documentary about her life, simply called Amy, is on wide release and has been getting a lot of press. Meanwhile, an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait opens an intimate album on Winehouse, allowing us to view her through the lens of her family and Jewish ancestry. Interesting individually, these cultural products are fascinating when seen together, especially as they present different stories about Winehouse.
I know the terrain in which Amy Winehouse grew up. Like her, I’m a Jewish girl from the north London suburbs, and our families emigrated from Eastern Europe at around the same time—both no doubt fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms. We grew up mere miles apart and with the same kind of working class grandparents—though unlike her father, mine had upward mobility and made it into the professional class. Still, I too was rebellious and a bit of a misfit, reading beyond my age and taking refuge in the art room at high school. Unfortunately, I had none of Winehouse’s vocal talent.
The exhibition Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait explores this cultural and geographical background. We learn about the importance to Winehouse of Cynthia, her glamorous grandmother who made a great chicken matzoh-ball soup but could hold a grudge like nobody’s business. We learn that her paternal family was made up of exhibitionists—or as Winehouse put it, a “singing, dancing, all nutty musical extravaganza.” We read that she worked hard to get into a prestigious drama school, only to sabotage herself by acting out in class, at one point piercing her ear with a drawing pin.
To me, one of the most interesting insights concerns Winehouse’s reading tastes. Her brother Alex, who organized the exhibition, writes, “Amy gave off a feeling of being slightly ashamed about how intelligent she really was. She’d have tons of Jackie Collins novels lying around the flat, but would hide her Dostoyevsky collection in a cupboard.” (This dumbing-down is interesting, and perhaps allowed Winehouse to move with ease in the music world: it makes me think of novels like The Great Gatsby and Rules of Civility where male characters make themselves more articulate and sophisticated to succeed.) Nor was Dostoyevsky the only dark-themed author she read: a shelf in the exhibit includes Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear, Charles Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man and a Time-Life volume called Serial Killers: Profiles of Today’s most Terrifying Criminals. It seems that, as Winehouse found herself being pulled under by dark forces, she was also using books to try to understand those forces better.
And then, right next to Serial Killers, we find something else: Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, a collection of letters exchanged by novelist Vladimir Nabokov and literary critic Edmund Wilson. Described by the Washington Post Book World as “Two strong-willed literati arguing about books, translation, the scansion of verse, pornography and more,” this pick shows Winehouse’s eclectic tastes and intellectual curiosity. Finally, Maria Lewycka’s novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian shows her perhaps getting in touch with her Eastern European roots, but—thankfully—enjoying a lighter-hearted yarn too.
Winehouse’s intelligence, and her humor, also come through in an essay she wrote for her application to the Sylvia Young Theater School. “All my life I have been loud, to the point of being told to shut up,” she begins—perhaps not the greatest way to win over a school admissions board, but one that is charmingly honest and funny. She ends the essay by writing, “mostly, I have this dream to be famous. To work on stage. It’s a lifelong ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just… forget their troubles for five minutes. I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell-out concerts and sell-out West End and Broadway shows.” The owner of this outsized ambition was eleven years old at the time.
This is where Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait and Amy the documentary, directed by Asif Kapadia, diverge. An oft-quoted line from the documentary is Winehouse’s answer to a reporter’s question as her career was beginning: “How big do you think you’re going to be?” “I don’t,” she answers, with more of that blazing honesty. “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I would probably go mad.” That quote has been used to underscore the movie’s thesis, that Winehouse was a reluctant celebrity who wanted professional opportunities but not fame, and certainly not mega-celebrity.
Obviously it’s a great pull quote, but the truth (however defined) may be a bit more nuanced. At times the documentary shows a person who seems to be inviting fame into her life: she’s happy to be filmed in almost every state, including just-awoken and with drugs in hand. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait also shows that Winehouse was obsessive about keeping memorabilia from every concert and festival she performed at. She may have thought (presciently) that she couldn’t handle fame, but there is ample evidence to suggest she wanted it.
On the other hand, countering the exhibition’s presentation of a warm, connected Jewish family we get, in the documentary, stunning examples of parental neglect. Asked about her daughter’s bulimia—the addiction that preceded her drug use—mother Janis Winehouse reveals that she knew about it but wrote it off as “a phase.” But if Janis appears emotionally tone-deaf and disconnected, father Mitch Winehouse is too involved with his daughter. He shows up during her Caribbean vacation with a reality film crew in tow, and chastises her on camera for not being nice to tourists. When she badly needs to go to rehab, he advises her to honor her professional commitments instead. (That episode, of course, was the inspiration for her 2006 mega-hit Rehab.)
Faced with these different stories, I can only conclude that there were many sides to Amy Winehouse: the strong extrovert and the fragile little girl, the reluctant celebrity and the exhibitionist, the beloved daughter and the misfit whose parents didn’t understand her. Of course, there’s no conflict in this: we know by now that people are complicated, and that opposite forces can exist in a single body. However, it may not make for a compelling through-line to a movie or exhibition to highlight these contradictions.
Soon, there may be even more versions of Winehouse’s life story. Her father Mitch has called the documentary Amy “unbalanced” and “misleading,” and says he plans to collaborate with Amy’s ex-boyfriend Reg Traviss on a film that will “tell the truth about Amy’s life.” (Mitch Winehouse has already written a book called Amy, My Daughter.) Traviss was interviewed for Amy but didn’t make the final cut, which seems like a strange omission given that he was with Winehouse during her last years. Instead, we get a bit too much of Blake Fielder-Civil, the ex-husband who introduced her to heroin and crack, and who comes across as a plausible candidate for the title of World’s Biggest Asshole.
If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that different versions of Winehouse’s life will send people back to her music—and it’s in that music that she told her own story most powerfully. Take this lyric in the early hit What Is It About Men? about how she failed to avoid her father’s legacy of adultery:
Surely I would never, ever go through it first hand
Emulate all the shit my mother hated
I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate
My alibi for taking your guy
History repeats itself, it fails to die
Did Amy Winehouse want to be famous? Late in the movie, her trusted bodyguard says she told him, “If I could give it all back and walk down the street with no hassle, I would.” Like an earlier admission that winning five Grammys was “all so boring without drugs,” this is heartbreaking. Yet for every artist who’s been driven to drugs, insanity and death by fame, there will always be thousands more who desperately want their fifteen minutes. Such is our world. Let’s hope no more of them end up in the 27 Club.
What an excellent and sensitive analysis. I haven’t seen the film yet but now I want to!
Let me know what you think of it, Nicola.
An absolutely brilliant article – well done Sarah. You capture to a T the conflicting portraits of Amy, and her essential vulnerability. It is hard not to be hypnotised by her incredible voice and I am so sad she is dead. Like you, I hope we have no more members of the 27 club. Well done! xx Jo
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Joanna!
Captivating piece, Sarah. Thanks for the many insights.
Well done, Sarah. A really good article about a truly “iconic” person of our time. I have long been fascinated by Amy and, separately, I will send you a caricature/portrait I once did of her.
Thanks for the excellent story and insights about Amy and her life
You’re very welcome! Thanks for stopping by.
I didn’t know about the film. And I now wanna see it. You’re excellent. 🙂
It’s always nice to be called excellent! Thank you so much.
For me, her masterpiece is “Love is a Losing Game.” I will forever miss her.
What a fabulous post. Thanks! I love Amy’s music and look forward to learning more about her life. Wish I could get to SF to see the photos.
She was insightful and very much aware of the irony that was her life.
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Thank you for writing this article. I didn’t know much about Amy Winehouse. I also want to see the documentary.
Thanks, realmikeypsu. The film is on pretty wide release. I hope you get to see it soon.
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Thanks for the heads-up!
Really enjoyable read. I’d heard that Amy’s father found the documentary misleading so it will be interesting to see how the makers of the doc will portray her.
I didn’t know all this about her, like her in my teens I loved and treasured my dark reading and writing side!!! Thanks for this great article!!
She would be happy (or indifferent) to this Article
I too was struck by the thought about how Amy would have taken this. It’s almost ironic how she’s being used once again for our entertainment.
Great piece. Such a tragic life and she was so talented. I definitely want to see the film after reading your article!
Thanks for stopping by, Amy. I hope you get to see the doc soon.
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Great post! I’m a big fan of Amy’s music and had similar takeaways from the documentary. It was great to see the background for some of my favorite songs, but then SO sad to see all of her struggles.
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I love Amy, and one doesn’t need a long life to have a great one. She’s immortal in my opinion. Good post
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Thanks for the heads-up!
Such a good read! Xx
Thank you, Just Words — very rewarding to get such nice comments.
Nice 🙂 …thank you for sharing
That is a excellent analysis
she was just a silly wee wreckhead who got pissed as newt every day in camden
You’re welcome to your opinion, of course, but if you see the documentary I think you’ll see a bit more nuance than that.
well yeah, she did coke too. it wasnt always booze.
Aw i love Amy ❤ I wanna see the movie 😮
Great read. I’ve done a decent amount of research on Amy (although I didn’t know about her love of books). I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about how we’re all complex. Life makes us complicated. I can’t imagine it not being even more complicated when you’re famous. Trying to find real friends and balance has to be almost impossible. It’s sad that she lived such a short life. So many of her lyrics cry out as a lonely girl, wanting a true friend.
Thanks, Grasping. I think the documentary is definitely a cautionary tale about fame. It’s no wonder that there are so many dysfunctional celebrities, and you have to admire the ones who are able to stay healthy!
Very interesting and insightful read
I love Amy, and one doesn’t need a long life to have a great one. She’s immortal in my opinion. Good post and can you please see my blog to and support me it is called akblacklife
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Very insightful. And a grand way to honor her. She was one of my favs. Such a soulnog a singer.. brilliant really. Didn’t know a documentary was in the works but I’m on it now.
She was a talent gone too soon.
Long Live Amy
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This article is pointed and written wonderfully. Being a struggling blogger myself and a grateful recovering addict I appreciate the penmanship this was written with. Keep up the good work. Your research was impeccable. I can tell you appreciate her body of work yet sympathize with her family and fans.
She will be always in our hearts. I can’t wait to see the film.
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Rip to amy winehouse ! Your a good blogger
I found the film hauntingly tragic. But brilliant….she was such a talent…..
So sad. Great write up about this enigmatic star who burned out right in front of the world.
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No doubt ..she was beautiful. We lost one talented star..
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Great, informative piece. I love the mutifaceted view on her personality. She really was a colourful person.
Love this article!
Very nicely written! I just saw the movie the other week and it left me with so many thoughts. I do now listen to her music with a different depth and appreciation. It would be lovely to see the exhibition. I enjoyed the photos you shared. Thank you 🙂
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Wow this is a good read, I really appreciate the blog about the beautiful Amy Winehouse life, photos, and stories.
Wow! I hadn’t heard about the exhibit before reading it here. It’s interesting that it seems to provide more depth to the documentary, which is on my to-watch list…. Thank you for a very thoughtful ode!
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People often forget there is a real person under all the glitz. It’s sad to think that she had a beautiful mind, but was afraid to show it.
I knew a few of Amy’s songs but was never a fan until she died and I became curious as to what the “fuss” was all about. Reading her bio made me appreciate her even more but alas, she was already gone. Now articles about her -like this one – always interest me and I think you did a very good job highlighting her complex but not unusual personality. Thank you!
You’re very welcome!
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This is really, really interesting to read. I’ve never known too much about Amy, so this article is helpful. It’s good to learn more about her.
Thankyou are your insight and sensitivity .You write as your authentic self,and you make sense to me.
Yes,the arts have had their fair share of brief lives.However,those lives,like Amy,touch us in ways that we can’t imagine.To me,Amy was a special talent,and a person who communicated beyond the obvious in her music.
Today,I listened to the Piano playing of Terence Judd,taken before his time due to the radishes of life.
We never really know what people are going through in their lives,but artists have to bear their souls on the stage of platform in order for us to engage with them and their art.
Although I am a classically trained musician,Amy spoke to me when she performed.I miss her,and although I’m 57 years of age,I shed a tear when she died.
Well done for your your piece of writing Sarah,and good luck in everything that you do.
From Adrian Smith.
Thank you so much for this heartfelt comment! I appreciate that you took the time to write it. Enjoy your music!
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This was a very interesting and well-written piece about a woman I barely knew anything about. I liked her music, and as with many bright artist who manage to let others feel what they do, I had a feeling she must have gotten there by living a complicated life. Have you heard about dissociation? We all have many sides, but when we can’t integrate them, when the complexity of it al is too much, we sometimes need to split ourselves up to survive. She managed to keep the different roles she played apart for the most time, by being intelligent and in touch with her feelings. I don’t know much about what broke her and why she died, but I wish she had made it.
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I know it’s weird right- she says she wants fame in that essay and on camera says she doesn’t want the fame. She definitely wanted it. Her whole family seems to crave it. That was probably more the drug than the actual drugs- although those didn’t help. Thanks for posting this comprehensive review- sad as its subject is.
I just wanna say i love you becuase ukur post can give Me the inspirations 😊
OMG i had no idea there was a film, when i heard about her death i was shokes a bit like you @sarahjcoleman she was and still is a insperational music star in the indestry! X
really great post – makes my ditties look amateur. I need to up my game !
Really looking forward to this film… Such a tragic way to go. She was an absolute genius. Great article!
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This has got to my favorite blog post ever about Any Winehouse. She was the best female of the whole world where she sings about not going to rehabs, breakups and stuff like that. Four years ago I remember hearing the stories about Amy’s passing. I was very shocked when she died at 27 because of the alcohol. It killed her. RIP Amy Winehouse. Her’s legacy still lives on. Whoever wrote this post keep up a good blogging work.
Thank you for the high praise!
i have seen Amy Winehouse photos long ago but i am not curious why she died young nor interested with her music but as i read your blog post, i feel sad for her. She was born in a lineage of God’s chosen people but it seems her life was messy and no direction.
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a real good blogging job. I will always by the time think on you my lovely amy with your great talent. It is so sad, her end! life father in heaven amy and go swinging on with the angels!
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I enjoyed reading your Amy Winehouse post. I’m always fascinated by the connection between artists and self-destruction. I believe there is definitely some type of connection between the two. I tend to believe that it’s not necessarily the fame that causes the trouble; more likely, it’s the unresolved pain of childhood wounds as well as life’s pain simply from being an artist. I’ve always thought that, because artists are in tune with things that non-artists might not even notice, life can be more intense and painful for the artists. Without any good coping mechanisms, I think artists tend to be self-destructive in an attempt to medicate the painful feelings. Also, as an introvert, it can feel very uncomfortable and lonely in a room full of extroverts. If you’re feeling bad, it also hurts to believe that no one really understands your pain. You did a fantastic job on your blog post about Ms. Winehouse. I feel a lot of compassion for her.
Great post! I honestly didn’t know much about Amy Winehouse apart from the obvious negative headlines about her substance abuse.It’s nice to hear about the real background and person behind the addiction and behind the performer.
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I love this thank you so much! beautiful writing and piece 💗
I really enjoyed reading this, I had no idea she was so well read.
I feel an affinity toward Amy, we’re the same age and I went through similar personal struggles at almost the same time. I’ve no doubt she went searching for a bit of trouble in the beginning in the name of authenticity, that’s where the art & self-destruction go hand in hand. When you’re deep into drugs and alcohol I feel like there’s a bit of Russian roulette happening too. I still feel sad about her, I know she could have come out the other side had she more time but fate would not have it.
I haven’t seen that documentary yet but from what I’ve heard it presents her as someone who never wanted to be famous. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is likely not 100% accurate.
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Very insightful and effective dissection of a beautiful woman.
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Great note! Thanks for many informations about her 🙂
I’d like to recommend you a movie “Amy” . It’s on screens now showing the beautiful story.
Thank you for sharing this , she was a remarkable woman.
I enjoyed the read! I think what makes Amy so wonderful is how humble she could be… I believe it is true that she did not want fame because maybe she didn’t want to believe it, but she knew she couldn’t handle it and there was really no way in helping her. I’m deciding whether or not to read Mitch Winehouse’s book I wonder if it is any good?
Thank you, cvr1010. It’s my guess that Mitch Winehouse’s book had a ghostwriter, so it’s probably competently written, but of course it will be very one-sided. Could be interesting to see the kind of story he spins, though.
Thanks for sharing this on such a great individual…. i really loved her voice it was unique and powerful! Type of voice that gives chills 😊
She was such a talent gone too soon. Look forward to seeing the movie (Kleenex close by)
Such an awesome talent..absolutely love her music
Love this post haha
Amy was the best . It is a sham that DRUGS and Alcohol, so many pain. Centrale Parel 14 Netherlands is to Dave our kids to stay OFF this . We have in The Netherlands the same problem. Our partij bas a zero Tolerance about this shit. Regards Benskia Investmentgroep BV. Benskia Incasso BV. This BV are from Scholten Groep BV.
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Yes, thank you. I will be popping along too to see this film.
Very nice blog. I also wrote a piece on Amy so I was v interested to read ur take. Well said
Great piece, very well written. I’m such a big fan of Amy’s and it’s heartbreaking that such a talent is gone.
Very interesting article. Really want to see the movie now. Well done!
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Great article, that exhibition in San Francisco sounds like fun. There was an interesting interview with someone involved with her production, on All Songs Considered (earlier in October) — I had not twigged ‘Valerie’ was a cover, and the played both her version and the original; that was also fun.
Truly our struggles make us into who we are, and it is a beautiful thing. This article reminds us that we are all human, even the bad ass Amy Winehouse.
Hi Sarah, I met you at a Kripalu workshop earlier this year. I have had your business card with this web address for quite some time, and finally took a moment to look at it. I chose to read the Amy Whinehouse blog which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I saw the documentary some time ago and was greatly intrigued by the singer and her untimely death. I will have to read your other stories as well. I am imagining that they are as perceptive and as well written as this one. I hope you are well. It was so nice to meet you at the workshop.
Thanks so much for stopping by the blog, Meg! Glad you enjoyed the Amy Winehouse piece. I hope all’s well with you. Fond memories of Kripalu.