Even Amy Winehouse had a right to make the wrong choices

IN On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote about “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.

The sky shines a little less brightly this week after Amy Winehouse was found dead on Saturday, presumably from some overdose or other. There are plenty who will look back at the beehived catastrophe that was Amy Winehouse and think: So what? You reap what you sow; others will say, “that’s what drugs do for you”.

For me, she’s a woman who’ll be remembered for her music, for how she touched those who heard her songs. But she’s a woman who’ll also be remembered for the dubious distinction of dying young. She was a ride-or-die chick from another era, the Jewish-English lass rolling with the boys. And she really was frighteningly ready to die.

I heard her live only once, but she was unforgettable. As soon as she swigged a drink and her inimitable, treacle-dark voice vaulted into Addicted, the audience was hooked. With her piratical dress sense and beetle-black beehive, there was no doubt we were in the presence of a true rock star, not some Evian-sipping palimpsest.

In Brixton that night, we caught a raw glimpse into the rough, tortured heart of an artist. True, she was an artist revealed only through the warped mirror of drink and drugs, but no matter how many pints of rocket fuel she imbibed, no matter how she stumbled, mumbled and dropped her mike, she was a drop-dead gorgeous singer.

She probably drank in that one hour more than the recommended monthly allowance but appeared gutsy, ballsy and all-out fabulous for it. She had a rich, raw voice — a sound that dug in and scraped at your soul.

And now she is gone, her death surely to be processed into the familiar story of crazy talent and self-destruction, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, all of whom — like Amy — died at 27. Only Amy’s battles with drugs, drink and depression were nightmarishly publicised in a mediascape her forebears never could have imagined.

Knowing that her songs were snatched out of a lonely, terrifying inner life renders them much more poignant. At another level, these singers are suddenly re-evaluated, words like genius and masterpiece are flung around, and mythologies spring up around their brief lives. Like Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, who have inspired remembrance industries, will Amy Winehouse disappear into her own legend? She was noticed by the critics as soon as she cut her first album, Frank, at 20 (a tribute to Sinatra), and was immediately acclaimed for her special mix of soul and jazz. But she soon disintegrated into what the British press called “Amy Wino” — a media spectacle, with towering hair, eyes like winged birds of prey, and an inability to keep it together.

Her discography was minuscule. She left us with only two albums, 20-odd songs in all. She will be remembered not for Frank but Back to Black, a brilliant album that predicted a future both bright and dark, a whole album about how her heart withered up and died because the man who went on to become her husband was fooling around with someone else. But as Winehouse’s life unravelled, the music stopped. The hope she would clean herself up and go on to a third album release was in vain. She had been transformed from a once-in-a-generation voice into a tabloid punchline and would never make it back.

Now her struggles are at an end, her infectiously self-aware song Rehab has taken on an eerie, prescient quality — “They tried to make me go to rehab/ I said no, no, no.” It would be much better, for Winehouse’s health and wellbeing, all were agreed, if she were not Amy Winehouse at all. Even if it were against her will, rehab was the Holy Grail.

But the demand that wayward celebrities must be marched off to rehab is as authoritarian as it is often useless. For many sad cases hooked on publicity a well-advertised spell in a high-profile clinic has become an empty ritual, a way of showing public repentance through the modern confessional of the mass media. Rehab, of course, is now one of the stations of the celebrity cross. But if people don’t want to go, rehab is a pointlessly punitive exercise. Addicts give up when they are ready to.

Public pressure had only seemed to drive Winehouse closer to the flames that consumed her. Winehouse, you see, knew there was no 12-step programme or rehab course for a broken heart. No one ever quite explained, of course, how going to rehab would cure all her problems, since her problems appeared to be emotional.

It is a tragedy that Amy Winehouse has now missed her chance to gain admittance to that exclusive club with a much tougher doorman than the so-called “27 Club” — the survivors’ club that’s inhabited by the likes of Marianne Faithfull and Debbie Harry. Instead, the jolly soap opera of pub brawls and off licence pranks had become a frame-by-frame car crash.

THE vultures had been circling over her hunched figure for years. But you cannot stop people from experimenting with substances by banning or demonising them. If anything, such censure only increases their attraction for youthful and disaffected sections of society.

Second, the real drugs problem — which springs from a culture in which people feel their lives have little purpose, and they are tempted to withdraw from reality — is not something that can be tackled by policemen. Some people, it seems, will always try to compensate for the deficiencies and heartbreaks of modern life by giving in to the artificial thrill provided by drugs instead. But it is arguable that the violence associated with illegal drugs trade does more harm than the drugs themselves.

We won’t end this violence by jailing celebrities or middle-class users. The only way to take back our streets is to wrest back control of the drugs from the criminals, by regulating their trade. Yes, legalisation would make drugs cheaper, in order to undercut the dealers. Yes, usage might increase, but perhaps not much, because it is already so widespread. Criminalising drugs has created the foundations for criminal empires, whose products are made valuable and whose operations are built on threats of coercion and violence. In turn, many habitual drug users, having to pay high prices for illegal substances, turn to crime or prostitution in order to feed their habits.

All of these harms spring from the authorities’ determination to stop adults from choosing to get out of their heads on the drug of their choice. These activities may offend some people’s sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean they should be criminalised.

Freedom must involve the exploding spiders having the right to make the wrong choices.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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