Amy Winehouse, who has died aged 27, was one of the most talented singer-songwriters of her generation, but struggled with substance abuse problems.
Amy Winehouse’s music — Sixties pop-soul in 21st-century street slang — was always less interesting than her chaotic off-stage life. Her name seldom featured in the press unless prefixed by the word “troubled” and accompanied by an account of her battles with drink and drugs and her dependent-abusive relationship with her husband, a petty drug dealer and junkie called Blake Fielder-Civil. Cancelled gigs, brushes with the law and spells in rehab gave the press plenty to write about; commentators saw parallels between Amy Winehouse’s charge towards self-destruction with Blake Fielder-Civil and their punk rock counterparts Nancy Spungeon and Sid Vicious.
Amy Winehouse’s rake’s progress began when, aged 16, she dropped out of school and sang with a jazz band. By 18 she had signed a deal with Island Records and had moved out of her mother’s home into a Camden flat. Her first record, Frank, released in 2003, brought nominations for a host of awards including the Mercury Music Prize. She won an Ivor Novello award the following year for her first single, Stronger Than Me.
But in 2005 she met Blake Fielder-Civil in a Camden pub. A “music video assistant”, he was already in a relationship, but they began an affair. He had her name tattooed behind his right ear, and she had his tattooed over her heart. They also had matching scars on their arms (inflicted, so it was said, at Fielder-Civil’s “self-harm parties”).
When they met, by Amy Winehouse’s own admission, she smoked cannabis and drank more than was good for her. But as their relationship developed she became notorious for drunken public appearances, including one time when she ran off stage during a performance to vomit. At the Q Awards in 2006 she heckled Bono during his acceptance speech with: “Shut up! I don’t give a f***!”
From the story her songs told, her relationship with Fielder-Civil (whom she called “Baby”) burnt too hot. After about a year, he went back to his old girlfriend and in the months they were apart Amy Winehouse sunk into depression, out of which emerged Back to Black, an album of heartbroken songs that won her a Mercury Award and sold more than a million copies in the UK. She made history in America when the album entered the charts at No 7, the highest position ever for a British female artist. In February 2007 she won a Brit Award for Best British Female.
Fans seemed to connect with the authenticity of Amy Winehouse’s suffering, though her hit single Rehab (2006), a song about her past refusal to attend an alcohol rehabilitation centre struck a more ominous note. By September 2006, she was reported to have dropped three dress sizes and there was speculation as to whether drugs or an eating disorder were to blame.
By April 2007 her relationship with Fielder-Civil was back on and in May, ignoring pleas from her family, they married in a £60 ceremony in Miami, celebrating the occasion with burgers and chips and a 48-hour lock-in at their hotel.
Only then did Amy’s partying start to get dangerously out of hand. On one occasion she woke with scratches on her arm and admitted: “I have no idea. I hate that. The blackouts. Happens too often.” As her drug problem got worse, Amy Winehouse’s performances became more and more shambolic. At the Eden Project in Cornwall, she forgot her lyrics, hit herself in the face with her microphone and spat at her fans. At Glastonbury she staggered incoherently about the stage and was aggressively heckled by the crowd. Other concerts were cancelled at short notice, the singer being too ill to appear.
In August she and her husband went on a three-day bender fuelled by heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, the horse tranquilliser ketamine and alcohol. Amy’s inevitable overdose led to a hospital visit, and after her stomach was pumped and an emergency adrenaline shot administered, she checked into a rehab centre in Essex. She and her husband stuck just three days of an eight-week course.
After pressure from her parents she and Fielder-Civil checked in to rehab again only to quit again within days, after being caught smoking crack cocaine. Within a few days they were reported to have collapsed after “speedballing” on a mixture of crack and heroin.
Then came a midnight rumpus in Soho when the two lashed out at each other in the street outside their hotel and were photographed, him bleeding from scratches on his face, she from her face and, bizarrely, feet, leading to suggestions she had injected drugs between her toes. The parents of both parties took to the airwaves to try to call a halt, with Fielder-Civil’s stepfather demanding that Amy’s record company intervene.
In October she was arrested while on tour in Bergen, Norway, and held by police overnight on suspicion of possessing drugs. In November Fielder-Civil was arrested and charged with assaulting a publican in the East End, but was subsequently sent to prison on remand on charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice after allegedly trying to bribe the man do drop the assault allegation.
Though her parents and friends hoped that her husband’s incarceration would bring Amy Winehouse to her senses, it seemed, rather, to have the opposite effect. On November 14 she was booed in Birmingham during an incoherent performance which she dedicated to her husband. Subsequently she cancelled the remaining last eight gigs of a UK tour — on doctors’ orders.
Amy Jade Winehouse was born on September 14 1983 to Jewish parents and grew up in Southgate, north London. Her parents, Janis, a pharmacist, and Mitch, a cab driver, split up when she was nine and she continued to live mostly with her mother.
Aged 12 she won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, but poor exam results and general attitude problems led her mother to move her to the Mount in Mill Hill, an all-girls school which she hated. She ended up at the Brit Performing Arts and Technology School in Croydon.
It was at a relative’s barmitzvah in America when she was 13 that people started realising what a wonderful voice she had. While still at school, she began to write songs and sing at weekends with jazz bands and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. When a friend in the music business, Nick Shymansky, heard her singing, he gave her studio time to record some demos. At 17, she landed a contract with Island Records.
In a moving interview, a former musical assistant who toured with Amy Winehouse recalled the talent he had seen in the lucid period before Fielder-Civil made his return into her life in 2007. “Blake was off the scene, she had another boyfriend. She has enormous talent and deep roots in jazz and blues; she didn’t suffer from the “lead singer syndrome” and unlike most she knew her sharps and flats. And she knew exactly who she was and how she wanted to sound — which some singers only know when they’ve got 40 grand’s worth of equipment, but which Amy knew by standing on top of a piano in a pub.”
In fact the other boyfriend, a chef and musician called Alex Claire, was only a marginal improvement on Fielder-Civil. During their much-publicised break up, Claire sold his story to the News of the World which published it under the headline “Bondage Crazed Amy Just Can’t Beehive in Bed”.
By the summer of 2007, however, she was cancelling so many gigs that the celebrity magazine Heat took to running a regular feature called “Where’s Wino?” The Sun’s Bizarre column gave her the nickname Amy Declinehouse.
Pathetically, Amy Winehouse’s hopes for her life with Blake Fielder-Civil seemed touchingly conventional and domestic. “I’ve always been a little homemaker,” she told an interviewer. “I know I’m talented, but I wasn’t put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mum and to look after my family. I love what I do, but it’s not where it begins and ends.”
In late 2007 Amy Winehouse’s father Mitch was reported to have taken the precaution of writing her obituary, fearful that the end could not be far away