Honestly, it’s pretty hard to be shocked by Saturday’s news that Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27. As I write this, no cause of death has been officially confirmed, but you’d have to be pretty fucking naive to think drugs had nothing to do with it. I don’t like to hear about anyone dying young, but what’s most depressing to me about Winehouse’s death is the fact that, unless you’re either unaware of her as a performer or completely delusional, it was easier to predict than Los Angeles weather.
I haven’t come here to necessarily praise Amy Winehouse, but I’m not here to bury her either. I have one Amy Winehouse album, Back to Black (the one most of us have, although it was preceded by a 2003 album called Frank) and I like it a lot. Its best moments put me in mind of the great lost soul and jazz divas: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald. I don’t think you can argue against the assertion that Winehouse was talented but I also don’t think you can argue against the mountain of evidence that addiction buried that talent under a tidal wave of booze, pills, and smoke.
I did not know Amy Winehouse (Russell Brand did and his tribute to her is touching and incredibly erudite) so I’m not going to speculate about the kind of person she was. There are undoubtedly people who loved her and who are grieving intensely right now. To them, I offer my sincerest condolences. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one when they’re way too young for it to make sense in a rational universe and on top of their loss, Amy Winehouse’s loved ones will endure all manner of media speculation and rehashing of her worst moments over the next few days.
I think there’s a teachable moment here, but I don’t hold out much hope that the teaching will come. Every time a major talent dies young (or even a minor one, although that’s an aesthetic discussion for another time), there’s a lot of talk about how sad it was that they did drugs and some people just can’t wait to take their dicks out about the goddamn 27 Club, which is the most pathetic mythologizing of young death I’ve ever encountered. It’s not some mystical whatever-the-fuck that a lot of famous people have died at 27; they became famous young and had access to all manner of things that shorten life. That Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and all those other people died at 27 isn’t any kind of magic or fate; it’s proof that the wick of our personal candles is pretty fucking short and the harder you burn it, the faster you’re done. There is nothing romantic or cool at all about dying young, whether you’re famous or not. And dying young because of addiction is a tragic waste.
The teachable moment I was referring to before I got all ranty is this: we have an opportunity, as Russell Brand correctly pointed out on his website, to reevaluate how we treat addiction as a society. He wrote that we need to start treating addiction, “as a disease that will kill,” even in the famous people whose intoxicated foibles make for light-hearted evening news fodder. Of course, to better treat addiction as a disease, we also have to stop treating disease as weakness, something we’re all too ready to do in cases of depression and addiction (I once heard a blowhard sound off on Kurt Cobain thusly: “He was rich! If he was depressed, I don’t understand why he didn’t just get help.” It took all my tact to not blurt out, “You also very clearly don’t understand real depression, you fucking moron”). To be clear, I’m not advocating that we all pay higher taxes to rehabilitate Lindsay Lohan – I’m saying we need to start treating everyone who suffers from addiction as if they are diseased and need help. In many cases, that’s help that they can’t or won’t seek for themselves. You might argue that it’s not our business if people want to destroy themselves and you’re only partly right – if you love someone, it is absolutely your business if they want to destroy themselves. Amy Winehouse’s fans couldn’t have done anything, short of maybe taking up a collection, to treat her addiction. But there were probably people near her who could have.
As fans of music, one thing we can do is try not to romanticize addiction. To my knowledge, we here at Bollocks! have never actively encouraged the downward spirals of any musicians; we don’t even report on stuff like that. But there were a lot of media outlets that gleefully shot photos and ground out copy whenever Winehouse was too bombed to perform and, as far as I know, not one of their headlines was ever, “We Want to Help Amy Winehouse Not Die Young.”
The other thing music fans can do is put to bed this retarded myth that drugs automatically make you more creative. If you’ve ever spent any time around stoners, you know that for every one person who genuinely seems to operate on some blissed out, higher level when they’re baked, there are a million more who only think they’re creative and are actually just embarrassing fucking jackasses when they’re high. Drugs didn’t make Jimi Hendrix an amazing guitar player, they made him a dead guitar player. Drugs made Amy Winehouse an increasingly erratic performer and if they weren’t the direct cause of her death, they certainly played a part.
And lest I be accused otherwise, I’m mostly not against doing drugs. I have smoked pot from time to time and quite enjoyed it, although it also made me tremendously tired and – because I like doing stuff – I hate being tremendously tired more than I hate almost anything else. I am very much against meth, however, because it cooks your fucking brain. But I drink beer and I drink coffee and I’m not going to be a self-righteous hypocrite about drugs. I honestly believe there are people who can handle their drugs and people who cannot. After divorcing my dad (who can handle his alcohol like a decent human being), my mother married/dated/whatevered a long line of dudes who absolutely couldn’t handle their drugs and their drug of choice was always alcohol. If someone needs alcohol in large quantities every day, that’s usually a sign that they can’t handle it (am I going to make an exception for coffee? Yes, because I’ve never had bottles thrown at me or been shot at by a dude who’s been drinking coffee all day). Amy Winehouse very clearly couldn’t handle her drugs and clearly needed help. Her death is a heartbreaking waste. First and foremost, it is a waste of life and – a distant second – it is a waste of musical talent. If even a few of us become more compassionate about the disease of addiction and more willing to help the ones we love who suffer from it, perhaps that waste can be mitigated.