The Rise and Fall of Camden’s Queen – words by Maz Khan (@mazhalima)
Startlingly honest, charmingly common and exquisitely talented; in the noughties Amy Winehouse revitalised the UK music scene and in turn, paved the way for many female artists across the globe.
The ‘Winehouse Phenomenon’ opened the industry doors wide for artists like Adele, La Roux and even Lady Gaga, who said: ”Amy changed pop music forever, I remember knowing there was hope, and feeling not alone because of her. She lived jazz, she lived the blues.”
These are strong, outspoken women, not superficial Barbie’s who only knew how to shake their ass alongside auto tune. These women dress the way they want to, do what they want to and can be perceived as eccentric, wacky, feminists or simply ‘troubled’.
The media’s preconception, unfortunately, is not always wrong. Amy Jade Winehouse was a troubled soul and she made no secret of it. As well as possessing a troublesome soul, she seemed to have more than one; her personality and her work were filled with oxymoron’s and contradictions. It was frequently said that the Rehab singer sounded like an Afro American – she was in fact a Jewish girl from Camden. She looked sultry – but she never played on it. Her singing voice was stunningly silky – her accent was of a rough London descent. Her songs sounded heavenly – her lyrics were nasty at the best of times. Amy was once quoted saying she was “a black boy in a white girls body” she knew she had multiple personalities. There was the ‘f*ck you’ Amy, who strutted on stage in a skin tight dress with her beehive held high; but there was also a dangerously vulnerable Amy, one who looked meek and who was clearly terrified of her own insecurities. The media may have labelled Amy Winehouse as ‘crazy, unruly, out of control’ or things of a similar nature; but she was in fact a manic depressive, who did not receive the help or empathy that she so desperately needed in her short yet extraordinary life.
Born in September 1983, our London born starlet had a fairly normal upbringing with her mother Janis and father Mitch, who later divorced. Amy started singing as soon as she was able to talk. She was an avid jazz fan thanks to dad Mitch, until she turned 10: “I discovered Salt ‘n’ Pepa and TLC. That was, ‘Oh my God … this is my music!’ Me and my best friend Juliet started our first ever band, Sweet ‘n’ Sour. We were rappers. I was Sour, of course.” Shortly after, Amy received her first guitar as a present and began writing her own lyrics at just 13.
Amy had an advantageous start in the industry, attending the famous Sylvia Young Theatre school and the BRITs school. She was soon kicked out for ‘not applying herself’ and by the age of 16, she had her first tattoo and was smoking cannabis. Her behaviours were not particularly unusual for an artistic teenager who was trying to find her place in the world. Her parents tried to intervene and get her back into education, but as Amy said: “My parents pretty much realised that I would do whatever I wanted, and that was it, really”.
After performing in bars and clubs around London, her boyfriend at the time passed her material to a recording company, which led to the rebellious soul artist being signed to mega label Universal. She was managed by Pop Idol extraordinaire, Simon Fuller. When the news of the signing broke out, many people expected Amy to abandon her roots and join the ‘Girls Aloud’ sound. On the contrary, Amy let it be known that her unique sound would not be lost and Simon couldn’t dare try: “He’s clever enough to know he can’t **** with me.”
Frank was released as the singer turned 20 and was not a tremendous success, but nevertheless reached no.13 in the charts. It seemed that many people could not grasp who she was. Her lyrics held contents that a young 20-something should not yet understand; she was an old soul in a beautiful young body. She stuck to what she wanted to do, which was a blend of jazz, RnB and soul. The mainstream audiences just couldn’t get their head around it. Despite this, Amy won a prestigious Ivor Novello award for the album’s first single, Stronger than Me whilst the album went on the gain platinum status.
Amy met the love of her life soon after, her destructive soul mate Blake Fielder-Civil, who was a music video assistant at the time. For Amy it was love at first sight, an instant attraction. The pair was inseparable until Blake called their relationship off after a few months, claiming the pressure was “too much”. Unfortunately, it was too late – Amy had already tattooed Blake’s name on her heart.
Amy found something to pour her depression into – her work. It was obvious that the pain she was feeling flowed in direct correlation with her work – she had created a masterpiece - Back to Black. She said of the split: “I had never felt the way I feel about him about anyone in my life. I thought we’d never see each other again. I wanted to die.”
Whilst Amy’s personal life was in turmoil, her professional status was soaring through the roof and she was receiving awards like hot dinners. Her emotional pain was evident in her form of expression; she appeared in the public eye several stones lighter, (she later admitted to having an eating disorder) with a large collection of new tattoos, an unreal beehive hairdo and heavier, messier eyeliner. Accompanying all of her physical changes were her drug and alcohol problems, which were slowly but steadily increasing in severity.
She never hid her problems with a smile like many celebrities do, saying that was pointless. She only spoke to the truth because ultimately, “I only have to answer to myself at the end of the day.” She spoke of her issues so candidly that you had to admire her honesty: “I do drink a lot. I think it’s symptomatic of my depression. I’m manic depressive, I’m not an alcoholic, which sounds like an alcoholic in denial.”
Seemingly out of the blue, the singer was reunited with Blake in 2007 and they soon got married on impulse in Miami. Tragically, the journey for Amy from this point would be a downhill one.
Her life with Blake consisted of self-harm parties, injecting heroin into her toes, excessive amounts of drinking and consumptions of many other drugs. Inevitably, her substance abuse issues took a toll on not only her health, but her profession. In 2007 Amy had to cancel her tour across Europe after overdosing on heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine, alcohol and cannabis. A lady who evidently wore her heart on her sleeve, it was clear that her song Rehab was of literal terms. Her raw truthfulness and personal pain was turned into a beautiful art. It was what made her music so magnificent, but it sadly came at a heavy price.
In late 2007, Blake was sent to prison and Amy vouched to wait for him. Fortunately, she realised that their relationship was a self-destructive one and decided to move on with her life. They eventually divorced in 2009, with Blake receiving nothing from her estate. Although she had set herself free from Blake, her personal demons had not departed her.
Thankfully, her career gave her some hope and her fans were clearly still in love with her, as she won 5 Grammy awards in 2008. Although she was declined a visa to the USA because of her drug issues she still stole the show, winning more awards than Kanye West. This led to Winehouse being featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most Grammy awards won by a British female act. Despite her substantial win, her humility shone through: “Uh… London, this is for you because Camden Town ain’t burning down!”
Soon after her peak of success, Amy also made waves in the fashion industry – she was confirmed as fashion designer’s Karl Lagerfield’s muse. As girls around the UK donned beehives with lashings of eyeliner and tattoos of pin up girls went through the roof, she also launched her own fashion range for Fred Perry, which was large success. When Amy was questioned on being a cultural icon, she was stunned at the idea: “Uh-huh. I don’t think that’s true. I just dress like … I’m an old black man. Sorry! Like I’m an old Jewish black man. I just dress like it’s still the ’50s.”
The public were eagerly anticipating a third album from the global superstar, but Amy had her own issues to deal with first. After her traumatic break up with Blake, Amy went to St. Lucia in the Caribbean in 2009 to escape the London drug scene. Although she stayed there for several months and had effectively kicked the drugs, she admitted that she was “drinking to compensate – but not in excess” she promised.
Instead of focusing on the release of her third album when she returned to the UK, she set up the record label Lioness. Her first signing was her 13 year old god daughter, Dionne Bromfield.
Winehouse had much to look forward to and so much to give to the world. Unfortunately, her lyrics “I told y’all, I was trouble, yeah you know that I’m no good” struck true. Camden’s queen was arrested for several public order offences and was spotted drunk and sometimes unconscious in many bars across London. She was hospitalised after being diagnosed with emphysema due to smoking excessive amounts of crack and cigarettes. Although she was told that her lungs were only functioning 70%, she was still papped with a cigarette in her mouth. Her fans worried about her and wondered how much she really cared about herself. What was once an entertaining read was becoming a disturbing, upsetting downwards spiral.
As time went on, Winehouse’s performances were becoming more erratic. Most recently this year, Amy performed at Belgrade in Serbia, leaving fans shocked at her appearance. Amy was swaying, crying, shaking and unable to recall her lyrics. She was clearly not able to stand up properly. This made me question what on earth her management were thinking, allowing her to perform in that condition. If they did not care about her health, which may have been the case, surely they should have recognised how damaging her final performances were to her image. Eventually, she was shamefully booed of stage, which led to her management finally cancelling her upcoming tour dates, saying: “Everyone involved wishes to do everything they can to help her return to her best and she will be given as long as it takes for this to happen.”
Amy was last seen three days before her untimely death at the Roundhouse in her home town of Camden. She was there to support her beautiful and talented Goddaughter Dionne.
On the sunny afternoon of Saturday the 23rd of July 2011, Amy Jade Winehouse was found dead in her Camden home. She was just 27. Her death is still being described as “unexplained” until further tests are run.
Amy’s death meant that she has now joined the infamous ’27 club’ along with other Rock n’ Roll artists who passed away at the age of 27. Stars who also fell under the ‘Curse of 27’ were Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, among others.
In one of her last interviews, Amy was asked about how she felt about her achievements. She answered:
“If I died tomorrow, I would be a happy girl.”
Hours after her death, her last album Back to Black shot back to the no1 spot in the charts. Hard copies of the album are running out all across the country. A true artist, Amy’s unique style, characteristics, beautiful heart, stunning voice, innovative music and electric personality will be engraved in British culture forever. A cultural icon, she cannot be replaced.