Don't they know rock 'n' roll is different for girls?
I GROW old, I grow old. Amy Winehouse was born on September 14th, 1983, less than a week after the voting in the abortion referendum, one of the formative cultural experiences of my generation. She died on Saturday. I’m angry with her and of course I’ve no right to be.
Old people tend to develop their own unsolicited and totally unscientific theories about things. My unsolicited and totally unscientific theory is: class A drugs are not an equal opportunity employer. They are harder on women than they are on men. In drug-taking couples it is the woman who is more damaged, who has more trouble coming off, who hits the alcohol the hardest in compensation, who is never the same.
Amy Winehouse and her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil are the most public and most recent example of this. We oldies have seen it, unfortunately, several times, and much closer to home. And because we are not members of Amy Winehouse’s family, we do not altogether blame Blake Fielder-Civil for her addictions. Although he has said publicly – perhaps boasted – that he introduced her to heroin and crack, he hardly introduced her to bulimia and self-harm.
It’s different for girls, in a way that we don’t yet understand. Maybe it’s physiological, maybe it’s social. If you want to see girls who look like Amy Winehouse, just watch the anorexic women walking, very carefully, around our psychiatric hospitals. These young/old women are her sisters in self-destruction.
This is not, of course, to say that women aren’t able to give up drugs and alcohol. Many of the greatest rehab successes are wonderful women – look at Betty Ford herself. But Betty, although in the public eye, was not incapable in public. Amy was in the spotlight, stumbling through her Serbian set. Amy was in the spotlight, stumbling through a lot of the last five years, in her blood-stained ballet slippers. Amy, a breakthrough act for many young female artists. Lady GaGa sent her condolences yesterday. Lily Allen, Adele, they all owe her something.
Tony Bennett, with whom she recently recorded a duet, said she had the most natural jazz voice of her generation. But it was too late. The only English female to have won five Grammy awards, but it didn’t matter.
This sophisticated, clever, funny young woman made herself a car crash of a life. Lady GaGa gets her grotesquerie made for her by outré costume designers. Amy Winehouse became the show. The press photographers followed her to the off-licence at night, when she was getting her booze and fags.
In fact, alcohol is probably much more of a key player in this tragedy than we, the faintly respectable, would like to admit. On her recent, abandoned, comeback tour, it was alcohol that her handlers were trying to keep her away from. To them she had become a nightmare, where once she was their dream. Yesterday her first manager, Nick Godwyn, with whom Winehouse signed when she was 16, told of how he had taken her to rehab for the first time because “I couldn’t watch”.
Yet Amy Winehouse’s terrific charm flickers in and out of this story like a glow-worm. Perhaps the wisest words come from Mary Gallagher, a regular at Winehouse’s local pub in Camden, the Hawley Arms. Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Gallagher said: “She was such a lovely person and, to be honest, I don’t think fame agreed with her. She was an ordinary girl at heart.”
Perhaps this is the time to look at the added pressure that young females are put under in the entertainment industry. My blood runs cold when I hear of a 16-year-old going to an audition unaccompanied by an adult. (Godwyn was careful that Winehouse didn’t release an album until she was 20.) Or when you see a young female vocalist getting plastered before she can sing with a band. This is not to say that young male performers aren’t under comparable stresses, it’s just that the girls have more of it to deal with.
The thing is, when you’re old, you lose patience with the whole live fast, die young thing. You’re more in favour of the live slow, die at an extraordinarily advanced age whilst with your fifth husband approach. You’re on the side not of Kurt Cobain, a rock singer who blew his brains out at the age of 27, but of Kurt Cobain’s mother, who said: “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.”
The stupid club consists of rock stars with drug problems who have died, mostly accidentally, at the age of 27. The stupid club roll call includes Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Amy Winehouse was 27. She looked like hell.
In Norway the bodies are still being counted. Anders Behring Breivik, who has admitted the killings, is a fine, strapping, blond example of clean-cut Nordic manliness.
Unlike the 93 mostly very young people who were killed by Anders Behring Breivik, the death of Amy Winehouse was widely predicted. In some quarters it was greeted with a sort of weary contempt. The tributes to her include the faintly damning phrases such as “tortured soul” and “poor creature”. The poor child, so full of talent, has become a rock and roll cliche.
And there are some of us who are old enough to be very sorry indeed.