My friend Amy and the call that always comes

WHEN you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call.

There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course, though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone. Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make: it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.

I’ve known Amy Winehouse for years. When I first met her around Camden she was just some twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends, most of whom were in cool indie bands or peripheral Camden figures Withnail-ing their way through life on impotent charisma. Carl Barrat told me that “Winehouse” was a jazz singer, which struck me as anomalous in that crowd. To me, with my limited musical knowledge, this information placed Amy beyond an invisible boundary of relevance. “Jazz singer? She must be some kind of eccentric,” I thought. I chatted to her anyway though, and she was sweet and peculiar but most of all vulnerable.

I was myself barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women, so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction.

From time to time I’d bump into Amy, she had good banter so we could chat a bit and have a laugh, she was “a character” but that world was riddled with half-cut, doped-up chancers. I was one of them, even in early recovery I was kept afloat only by clinging to the bodies of strangers, so Winehouse, but for her gentle quirks, didn’t especially register.

Then she became massively famous and I was pleased to see her acknowledged, but mostly baffled because I’d not experienced her work. I wasn’t curious enough to do anything so extreme as listen to her music or go to one of her gigs, I was becoming famous myself at the time and that was an all-consuming experience. It was only by chance I attended a Paul Weller gig at the Roundhouse and saw her live.

I arrived late and as I made my way through the audience I heard the rolling, wondrous resonance of a female vocal. I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie and Ella. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine. My ears, my mouth, my heart and mind all instantly opened. !That twerp, all eyeliner and lager dithering up Chalk Farm Road under a back-combed barnet, the lips that I’d only seen clenching a fishwife fag and dribbling curses now a portal for this holy sound. So now I knew. She wasn’t just some hapless wannabe, just another pissed-up nit who was never gonna make it. Nor was she even a 10-a-penny chanteuse enjoying her 15 minutes. She was a fucking genius.

Shallow fool that I am, I now regarded her in a different light, the light that blazed down from heaven when she sang. She came on my shows and I attended to her with a little more interest. Publicly though, Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction. Our media, though, is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall. The destructive personal relationships, the blood soaked slippers, the aborted shows. In the public perception, this ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent. This and her manner in our occasional meetings brought home to me the severity of her condition. Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death. I was 27 years old when I found recovery, and was introduced to support fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts which are very easy to find and open to anybody with a desire to stop drinking and without which I would not be alive.

Now Amy Winehouse is dead, like many others whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised, at 27 years old. Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is irrelevant. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s, Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that kills. We need to review how we treat addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care.

Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help. The help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call.

Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.

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