Tuesday, July 26, 2011

R.I.P. Amy Winehouse (plus Russell Brand's "For Amy" note)


Ok... I sat back for a few days because I didn't want to get up on the soapbox and starting talking a bunch of nonsense... but I feel really bad for Amy Winehouse. I know a lot of you think "she deserved it", or "she had it coming", or she was just another useless pockmark on the ass of culture. So why do I care?

a) Because she was a human being, b) because there are very few people who "deserve" to die and last time I checked Winehouse was not Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, and c) she had a very serious disease that tells you that YOU DON'T HAVE A DISEASE which leads to the inevitable "jails, institutions, and death" line from Narcotics Anonymous. I didn't used to go for any of that? I thought "dude I'm not really convinced addiction is a disease and I'm not convinced that NA is right about anything"... However, eventually, I think if you watch enough of your friends die or engage in compulsive behaviour that keeps landing them in jail over and over you eventually recognize that people aren't doing this for fun.

And that's the problem with "addiction". People know that drugs are fun. I'm not even putting that in quotations... drugs are fun. In fact drugs are awesome. I mean like awesome in the biblical sense... as in a force stronger than you could imagine. And since they are fun people who have never experienced the disease think "these damn people just don't know when to leave a good thing alone so they deserve ruin because they are wrecking their bodies"... and that's a very easy thing to say if you haven't ever been on a crack binge or woken up with a needle in your arm. Addiction isn't about having fun. Partying is about having fun. Addiction is when the party has stopped and you're still going a week, month, year later.

When you're an addict you wake up to a force inside yourself that is determined to literally drive you insane or kill you if you don't get more drugs. Unfortunately that's exactly what happens if you keep doing the drugs so you're in a pretty bad catch 22 there... you can not do drugs and suffer an unimaginable pain of withdrawal (which feels like having all your skin pulled off with a potato peeler while you are hit by a Mack truck and doused in napalm in the case of heroin, or like your brain is coming unraveled while you watch your whole family die in front of you if you're addicted to crack) or you can keep doing the drugs, feel marginally ok for a few hours, and come one step closer to no longer living.

And perhaps drugs may feel good from time to time? But being a drug addict mostly revolves around fucking people over for money and putting yourself in dangerous situations to get drugs. Even if you have enough money to sustain your habit you're dying and the world around you is total chaos. This isn't just the case for your "non-famous drug addicts"... did you ever see Pete Doherty's old house? I mean that place was a fucking disaster! And even though he's sold quite a few records (and at the time had a super model girlfriend) he ended up SELLING HIS LAPTOP to buy drugs. He sold his MOST SUCCESSFUL SONG ("For Lovers") in a bar for drug money!?!? Are you seeing how wild and horrible this disease is even for people who have "everything at their fingertips".

I guess I can't reiterate enough that being a drug addict isn't like some fantastic party that you can't stop because it's so awesome. It's maybe like that at the VERY beginning... very very quickly it becomes a situation that the addict can't seem to stop? To a situation they can't possibly stop. It is not fun. It is a horrible horrible mess. Why don't they stop? Because addiction has a built in fail safe when your body and/or your brain doesn't work without the drug. Most addicts do the drug to get a slight buzz and keep themselves from feeling very sick.

There is so much misinformation about addiction that it's frankly dangerous. There are people who have been addicted to heroin or crack (or both) who have suddenly decided to stop and they haven't relapsed... yet. I say that because if someone was truly addicted to drugs (not just abusing them) then they don't have a super awesome chance of not relapsing. It is very very very unlikely that someone is going to stop and not have a problem with it again. This is why people are sober for many years and then they end up relapsing... because the addiction is more powerful than they are and without support and staying vigilant to avoid slipping back into it it's almost a sure thing.

Someone who is more than acquainted with this concept is Russell Brand. He had problems with crack and heroin and everything in between. If you've seen Get Him To The Greek then you got to see a very humourous fictionalized version of his lifestyle prior to getting clean. His two books ("My Booky Wook", "Booky Wook 2: This Time It's Personal") he speaks very candidly about his troubles with drug addiction on his road to becoming famous and the sexual addiction that found it's way into his life when he gave up drugs. He skipped the rant that I just went into and eulogized Amy Winehouse on his site, in this note, and it crashed his site because it got so many hits. I thought it was very touching so I'm going to repost it here... and give you this great Arctic Monkeys cover:

Arctic Monkeys - "You Know I'm No Good (Amy Winehouse Cover)"

Russell Brand's "For Amy" Tribute

"For Amy



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."


In case you've never had the chance to see Amy at her best, here's a good example:


I implore you people out there to stick to the whole "if you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all" rule here.

I can't begin to explain every facet of addiction in one post... especially because it's not something that makes sense in our very structured modern world... it's a completely "animal" chemical thing. The best analogy I can come up with would be that it's like inviting the Zombie Apocalypse into your brain; all of a sudden there are no rules and it's all about survival which, frankly, is something you don't have a very good chance of. GRANTED, the first "hit" is the users choice... but they don't often realize what's waiting for them down the road. As long as people say, "Dude, I bet I could do that once and not be hooked. You just have to have the strength to not do it again. I mean, seriously, how hard can it be to not do drugs everyday", addiction will continue to tear apart the lives of millions. Even if society was wiped out and we had to start over at caveman Level 1 addiction would still exist unfortunately. Why? Because it's stronger than any of us... I mean if it wasn't we'd all be smoking crack at lunch time, right? Because if it wasn't something that was hard to stop it would just be something fun, right?

So I'm going to wrap this up and say I feel very sorry for Amy. I only talked to her a few times, News Of The World wanted to pay me to tell them stories about her (which I would NEVER do), and suddenly she was off my radar. She's yet another person now whose name will never light up on my Instant Messenger window. Yet another person whose email address will never reply again. Her contact info will just sit in my address book and will never be used again. A week ago Amy was alive... now she's a cautionary tale and people will probably remember for her addiction, not her music. Please let her rest in peace people, for all the mistakes she made she doesn't deserve to be torn apart, she wasn't an evil dictator or a terrorist just a misguided soul.

P.S. For some reason her death has upset me more than I would have expected so understand I'm not wanting to have a debate about this. I agree that the tragedy in Norway is more relevant as far as news goes, and those people's lives aren't any less important than Amy's, but a) I'm not a news blog and b) comparing a mass murder to the death of a singer (and saying we shouldn't be talking about her when something else awful happened) is about as insane as conversations get. I don't have tolerance for that... Please take your hate elsewhere.