“Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club, I told him not to join that stupid club.” These were the rueful words uttered by Kurt Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, on hearing of her son’s death by suicide on 8 April 1994. The “stupid club” she was referring to included Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom, like Cobain, died aged 27, having struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. Now, Amy Winehouse, the troubled wild child of British pop, has joined them.
In many ways, Winehouse’s chaotic life in the spotlight echoed the excesses of other rock’n'roll eras, and recalled a time, not that long ago, when, to borrow music writer Nick Kent’s description of the young Keith Richards, being “elegantly wasted”, was de rigueur for all aspiring rock’n'roll outlaws. Except that the image and the reality, as Kent found out to his cost though his own long heroin addiction, are worlds apart. Kent survived to tell his cautionary tale in a recent, often self-lacerating, memoir; many of those he wrote about did not. They also include Keith Moon, Gram Parsons, Tim Buckley, Sid Vicious, Phil Lynott and Johnny Thunders, all of whom died from the chemical excesses of the rock’n'roll lifestyle.
That was then; this is now. Since the heady days of Britpop, when cocaine and alcohol fuelled a brief hedonistic home-grown pop culture, pop music has seemed to have cleaned up its act somewhat.
What separated Winehouse and Pete Doherty from the dissolute rock stars that preceded them, though, was the public nature of their excesses and of their respective struggles. Back in the early 1970s, when Keith Richards was, to quote Kent, “the world’s most elegantly wasted man”, avid readers of the music press could only have guessed at what exotic substances he had ingested alongside his daily bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
Amy Winehouse did not just have the paparazzi to contend with, but also the public, several of whom trailed her with their mobile phone cameras on her regular late-night sorties to local shops to buy booze and fags. She lived out her tragically short post-fame life in the public gaze. In her book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia mapped out western culture as one long battleground between chaos and untrammelled desire. Rock stars, she wrote, are the great Dionysian heroes of our age, acting out our wildest desires and darkest dramas on our behalf so that we do not have to.
What, though, was Amy Winehouse acting out on our behalf with each bedraggled public appearance, each chaotic drunken performance, each failed attempt at rehabilitation? Even her knowing and wilfully self-celebratory song Rehab suggests she was more than aware of her status as the last wild child in an age when her pop contemporaries often seemed to be embracing a lifestyle choice, a career rather than a vocation.
That knowingness, though, was nothing but a hollow boast against the daily, dogged and increasingly demeaning horrors of addiction. Some will say that, ultimately, it was her choice, and that she was luckier than many in the escape routes from addiction offered by her wealth and fame. But in the maelstrom of sudden celebrity, the sensitive and the troubled can lose their moorings swiftly and with dreadful consequences. For me, the version of the rock’n'roll lifestyle that Amy Winehouse played out in public always seemed like a desperate disguise, much like the scary tattoos she sported on her stick-thin arms and that straggly beehive that also harked back to an older pop era. She did not so much embrace that outlaw lifestyle as attempt to hide in it. Her death, like Cobain’s, was not shocking except in its awful predictability. That, on reflection, like the deaths of so many of her predecessors, is the most shocking thing about it.
FROM THE GUARDIAN
BY Sean O’Hagan