One late Friday afternoon in October of 2009, two American girls visiting the UK for the very first time found their way by bus to Camden in North London. The rain was sporadic, as it often is in the Big Smoke, and we enjoyed racing through it, finding solace under awnings, a newly-purchased hat from a street vendor, and a free copy of The Evening Standard as we pub-crawled our way through some of Camden’s edgy watering holes. At one point during our adventure, we decided to ask for a recommendation on where to go next. We happened upon a rather handsome looking bloke standing next to a motorcycle and, being the flirts that we were, engaged him in conversation. He looked amused as he gave us a sideways grin and responded, “Right…You should go to The Hawley Arms. Amy Winehouse goes there.”
Both of us, being huge fans of her music, decided that was an excellent idea. After receiving some directions from our motorcycle-riding friend, we were off. Just moments later, we walked through the doors of The Hawley Arms, a cosy pub that boasted an eclectic crowd milling about inside and out, and a bar staff with a very dry wit. I remember thinking that we were getting just a tiny, PG-13 glimpse into Amy Winehouse’s world. We were frolicking at Amy’s local for the night, partaking in a few libations, meeting interesting people, and having a grand ol’ time.
Fast-forward to Saturday, the 23rd of July, 2011. I awoke to the news that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her London home. And as inevitable as that fate may have seemed to those on the outside looking in at her troubled life and her long battle with addiction, it still gutted me to hear that it had happened, that it was real. I didn’t know her personally, and yet I did; she laid herself bare in her music, her voice dripping with the pain she was trying to find her way through, not unlike so many genius artists before her. Her music got me through some extremely difficult times in my life—times where I was feeling as low as a person could possibly feel. And there was Amy, her incredible voice flowing out of my speakers like honey, wrapping around me like a warm blanket and reminding me that someone, somewhere had felt some of what I was feeling in those moments, and had lived through the pain to tell others about it in her own, unique way.
The 23rd of July got exponentially more dismal as the day went on, as I heard about the horrors of what had occurred in Norway. And the day also got meaner and more judgmental. As I read articles about both stories on various news outlets and watched the commentary pour in from people on different social networking sites, my heart ached to see things like “She got what she deserved,” “They tried to make her go to Rehab, but she said no, no, no,” “Who cares- stupid druggie and drunk,” and also comments that everyone should be more concerned with the real problems in the world, and not the self-inflicted demise of some overindulgent celebrity.
Reading things like that… It made me angry. Of course, what had happened in Norway was absolutely devastating; no one would ever, ever dispute that. And of course, my thoughts and prayers were with the innocent victims of that tragedy and their families, praying for their peace and solace in the face of such unexpected, abject horror. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t have the capacity to feel sadness about ALL of it. I shouldn’t have to apologise for feeling sad that one of my favourite singer/songwriters had left this world far too soon, nor should anyone else for that matter.
The thing is, Amy Winehouse was more than just some celebrity with a drinking and drug problem who regularly made the tabloids. She was a human being. She was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s friend. She represents the loved one in your life or the acquaintance that is struggling with the disease of addiction. She represents the person you get so angry with because you love them so much and can see them destroying themselves, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, because they have to want to be helped. No amount of pleading, wishing, praying, and crying will change that fact.
One thing that really got me was I had just been listening to Amy’s debut album Frank on the Friday afternoon before she died, listening to her belt out Take the Box, shaking my head at how bloody talented she was as her voice flooded my ears, and hoping she would be able to get her life together and put out more music.
And now that will never happen. That is a tragedy in and of itself, but the real tragedy is that her family and friends will never see her again. They, and the millions of fans of her music around the world, can only hope that her death will act as a wake-up call to others who are struggling with the disease of addiction, and compel them to get the help they so desperately need before it’s too late. As her friend Russell Brand pointed out in his poignant tribute to 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.”
The name of this column is Chuffed to Bits, which is an English expression for being delighted or excited about something. I write about all things English that delight or excite me. The musical legacy that Amy Winehouse left behind will always have me chuffed to bits. I will never forget the way her music has touched my life, and how it has inspired me. I hope her life’s work serves to inspire artists and fans of music in the generations to come, and my heart goes out to her family and friends, grappling with the loss of their loved one. Rest in peace, Amy.