Amy Winehouse is dead and any useful understanding of the mental illness that killed her seems far away. Already the portrait is painted and flat-packed, smelted and ready to become myth. There is tiny Amy with the swaying beehive hair and the frightened eyes, tormented by her talent and the chaos it brought, famous at 21, dead at 27, now a member of the repulsively named
‘27 Club’ of musicians who were also addicts and died at 27 — Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain. All dead, all revered, as if it was their illness that made them interesting. The initial, rushed obituaries made much of Winehouse ‘making it’ into the 27 Club. Would she make it to
28 and be shut out? No, she got in, with 54 days to spare.
Why do we give so much energy to the thrilling pantomime of an alcoholic dying in the public eye, and so little to understanding the illness that took her there? It was obvious years ago that ‘Winehouse sick’ was more grotesquely interesting than ‘Winehouse sober’; as she temporarily dried out, so did the press coverage. But she relapsed, and came home to fame.
When an addict self-annihilates, stalked by paparazzi, it is easy to imagine the story belongs to us all. We all had a stake in Winehouse, you might believe; her fall, and the redemption that will never come now, had a universal meaning. But it didn’t. Winehouse didn’t belong to us; she belonged to no one, not even herself. But you can forget that. Creative addicts — particularly female creative addicts — are always clutched to the cold global breast, even as the corpse is carried out.
Thousands like Winehouse die every year, and they are not venerated, or even pitied. We will not educate ourselves about the disease, or reform drug laws that plunge addicts into a shadow-world of criminality and dependence on criminals. Winehouse got away with too much, said one copper, after a tape of her using was released. Did she? Did she really? Winehouse walked barefoot through the streets because that is where the drugs were, and even as her bewildered face splatters across the front pages, drug support charities are closing, expendable in this era of thrift. Recovery rests on the edge of the self-harming knife, because no one yet knows what causes addiction, or how to cure it.
The disease is impenetrable to outsiders because it is anathema to our all-conquering species that a person can be genetically predisposed to poison themselves. Addiction is still uniformly called ‘a self-inflicted disease’ and only the most enlightened doctors will recommend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, self-help groups that sometimes get results, although no one knows why. A Harley Street psychiatrist once told me that I should try and “limit” my drug use; he obviously knew nothing, even as he charged £275 for 15 minutes.
Winehouse’s new album will be released and it will sell 10 million copies, maybe more. And there, reader, is your meaning. The addict is dead. Long live the myth. The Guardian