UPDATE: Please also read Russell Brands’ deeply moving essay about Winehouse, the nature of addiction, and what it’s like to love an addict: “When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call.”
I can’t tell you why, exactly, Amy Winehouse’s downward spiral so grabbed my heart, but I know that it did. I remember reading her 2007 Rolling Stone interview and feeling like – this isn’t rebellion. This isn’t rock-n-roll. This is a fucking death watch, and no one will say it out loud.
Later that summer, though, Winehouse found herself trying rehab for the first time. I wrote the following for the Chicago Tribune, and I remember writing it in a state bordering on fury. Addiction isn’t some sort of glorious debauchery, it isn’t an expression of genius, and it isn’t fucking theater. It’s a terminal illness, and a pretty fucking horrible one at that.
I cried when I learned of Winehouse’s death earlier today — I don’t know that would have cried if it had been Charlie Sheen, or Lindsay Lohan. Something about her touched me, and I am so deeply saddened that she was unable to find her way back to life. I hope that she is now, finally, resting in peace.
יהיה זכרה ברוך – May her memory be for a blessing, and may her family find comfort among the mourners of Zion.
“Severe exhaustion” – Rock n’ roll’s fatal flaw
It’s well known that in rock ‘n’ roll, along with the sex, you’re supposed to do drugs. Or at least hit the bottle good and hard.
Keith Richards’ supposed excesses are regular fodder for insiderish jokes. Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx recalls actually hoping, as a young musician, to become an addict. Singer, hard-partier, and recent Lollapalooza draw Amy Winehouse climbed the charts this summer declaring that she wasn’t gonna go to rehab, no, no, no. Fans and critics appeared oddly satisfied with her unabashed dissolution. That’s rock ‘n’ roll!
“Amy got a massive fright,” the Daily Mirror quotes a “close friend” as saying. “[She] is finally coming round to everybody’s pleading with her to go to rehab.”
Never say never.
Of course we’re all over such reports. We gossip and gape, and assure ourselves that we, at least, aren’t that bad. We relish the fall of the mighty, as we warm to the occasional tale of redemption. Rock ‘n’ roll is a spectacle, and what more grandiose show is there than a raw descent into hell?
As lesser mortals, we also get some satisfaction: All that seedy indulgence may lead to creative genius — but at least the world doesn’t know the results of my latest urine test.
Here’s the thing, though: The drugs, as The Verve once sang, don’t work.
Thirty years before Amy Winehouse landed in a London hospital, Elvis Presley died, destroyed by a well-documented, mind-boggling addiction to a rainbow of prescription drugs. On Aug. 16, 1977, the once-beautiful body of a man whose voice changed the world finally gave up, and an incomparable talent was lost to us forever.
We’ll never again have the privilege of feeling that voice rocket through our veins and fill our hearts with rough beauty. Nor will we ever know what Janice Joplin might have done if she’d seen her 30th birthday, or Kurt Cobain, if heroin hadn’t ruined him long before that shotgun blast.
Nor, I would argue, will we ever know what other surpassing truths the Beatles might have wrestled out of the air, through their hands and into our ears, if John Lennon hadn’t dropped so much acid, and then become a (temporary) dope fiend, while the rest of the Fab Four did their own little chemical experiments. Substance abuse cuts a pretty wide swath of destruction, even if the abuser doesn’t actually wind up dead. Even, it should be added, if the abuser isn’t famous.
Every interview I’ve read about Amy Winehouse indicates that, in addition to being enormously talented, she’s a young woman stumbling through an excruciatingly troubled life. There’s nothing artistic about it, just as there was nothing genius in Elvis’ final bow.
And what did Lisa Marie Presley lose 30 years ago? Her father.
There’s nothing rock ‘n’ roll about that.
August 13, 2007