Beauty and the Beast
The Tragedy of Amy Winehouse
"…if he says one thing I don't like then I'll chin him".
She had said this about her drug-addicted husband who turned her on to hard drugs, among other pernicious habits. Their relationship was a frighteningly clichéd version of love-hate, where neither of those volatile emotions was really at the helm of the ship. An appalling lack of respect for themselves and each other, a termite-riddled marital premise if there ever was one, sent him to jail and her to an early death at 27. Their defining characteristic, as husband and wife, was apparently the absence of trust.
I am a late arrival on the Amy Winehouse sympathy bus. So late that she has been dead for over a year, and I have only recently heard my first song of hers “Back to Black”, which was so poignant as to prompt me to look into her backstory.
She won a Grammy for her defiant, denial-laced song “Rehab”, a cocky tune sung before she’d begun any measureable deterioration from her addictions. She depicted herself in the video as being strong enough to battle her demons, even conquer them. She was clearly sneering at them as she strutted through the production, looking like $1,000,000 and in total control of her own destiny. Which, ironicly, she was.
Of course, that video was deceptive.
I think Amy Winehouse hated herself.
She married a self-destructive man who insisted she go down that same inevitably fatal road. Her DNA was wired in a way that she followed him easily, almost gratefully. He did not have to work at converting her. She couldn’t kill herself directly. She took, make that ‘married’, the next best route.
Before her death, before she began to decline mentally, physically and emotionally around 2007, she was a Grammy-winning chanteuse with the jazzy voice that spoke of some other era. She had people comparing her to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. Her deep contralto vocals, when combined with her choice of eclectic musical genres, brought further comparisons to Sara Vaughan and Dinah Washington. Heady company while still in your early to mid-20s. There are huge, empty shoes placed before many young talented artists, with the unspoken challenge to fill them. Many do not. The ones that choose their own path down their own hedgerow, and steadfastly refuse to follow the beaten track, are often the ones that survive.
But her eulogy has been written. Her legacy cemented, such as it is. It is the tragic story behind this young lady that both intrigues and depresses me. How does one interpret the weight, gravitas and potential for greatness as the golden egg rests in their hands, and then choose to smash it to pieces at their feet?
Seeing her videos and photos from her pre-drug and excessive drinking days shows a beautiful girl. The tattoos may have been a visual harbinger of inner demons yet to surface, but body ink is no longer an automatic representation of wildness, and she was able to match her beauty with a voice that drew attention, from everyone. So much so that there were probably early signs of self-loathing that went undetected, so impressive was her voice and so pregnant with possibility was her future.
Amy was not the first talented artist whose skills blinded others to their demons. But this phenomenon tends to invite a massive over-reaction when the demons finally are revealed, by both the artist and those in their life. Once unleashed, the artist simply embraces the destructive impulses, no longer attempting to shroud them in secrecy or denial. The impulsive nature of such evil influences is rarely able to be corralled, anyway. The futility of such an endeavor is rarely lost on the truly introspective, yet ultimately destructive artist.
Amy was no different. Out from behind the wizard’s curtain, she allowed herself to be totally enveloped in her addictive tendencies.
So, is it the pressure that accompanies greatness that creates the balance beam on which people precariously perch, and from which they choose to either succeed or fail? The pressure put upon talented people by family, friends and society as a whole can cause immense stress. The expectations from both the exterior, and more importantly, the interior, can cause an emotional paralysis that may prompt one to seek out release, usually in mind-altering substances.
That slow-motion fall from the balance beam can take years.
Greatness is often thrust upon people who have no inner structure whatsoever to support it. Some get help and muddle through. Others, like Amy, implode or self-destruct.
For every Derek Jeter, there are five Chris Farleys.
Those who can maintain stability and even thrive, while becoming successful, usually have in their background a solid upbringing.
It has always been a painful irony that many talented people in the field of human endeavor, and especially the arts, come from impoverished backgrounds and an unstable family life, only to arrive at the doorstep of fame and fortune more prepared to self-destruct than to succeed.
Embracing happiness is far more difficult than one is ever taught. With success or failure, the baggage attached to each is formidable, and there is no pattern established as to being able to identify which people can handle it, and which of us go to hell. Happiness is as pregnant with potential disaster as is depression. Irony is simply not a strong enough word for it.
Addiction may be the most solitary road down which we humans travel. The road to drug and alcohol recidivism is generously littered with the souls of addicted artists who would not, or could not, allow others to help them. A spiritual desolation creates a dry, sandy desert of a soul. No one can live there for long.
I think the truly talented artist, in any field, deals with most of these neuroses and issues from an early age. Those young formative years can determine success or failure. Well before the prospect of same is ever put in play. It’s like deciding what you want for dinner 10 years hence.
Amy eventually chose death over the more difficult and complex direction of working through her issues.
“I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I'm no good”
“You Know That I’m No Good” --- Amy Winehouse