Amid the chaos of the final weeks of her life, Amy Winehouse could still be entrancing, writes Alexandra Topping
Thursday July 28 2011
Sitting on the bar after closing time in her local in Camden, the lights dimmed and the doors locked, Amy Winehouse knew how to hold an audience, even before she became famous. After a night of drinks and laughter, she would perch her tiny frame on the bar, take up a guitar and sing.
"Everybody would just stop and be entranced," said Dougie Charles-Ridler, co-owner of the pub and long-time friend of the singer. In those days, Winehouse was a good-time girl with a big mouth and an attitude to match. "I remember when I first met her I asked what she did and she just said, 'I'm a jazz singer,' he said. "No one had ever given that response before."
But the picture friends paint of the woman she became is suffused with a different type of light. No longer able to chat to old friends undisturbed, or throw herself behind the bar to serve a few lucky punters, she would go into the pub on her own on a Monday or Tuesday, often in the quiet of an afternoon, stand in front of the jukebox and turn it up loud.
"Recently she'd always be with two bouncers rather than two friends," said veteran lads' mag journalist Piers Hernu, who had known Winehouse through friends and the Camden scene for years. "People wouldn't go up to her any more, she wouldn't talk to people. She just became increasingly alienated from her own world."
She was alone, it seems, for the last night of her life. During his 40-minute eulogy at her funeral on Tuesday her father, Mitch, said the singer had stayed in her Camden Square townhouse. After seeing a doctor for a routine appointment at around 8.30pm, she played drums and sang into the early hours, until her bouncer told her to keep it down. He heard her footsteps overhead for a while, then it went quiet. When he went to check on her in the morning she appeared to be sleeping, and it was only after checking again at 4pm on Saturday afternoon that he realised she was dead.
How she died remains unclear. A postmortem examination carried out on Monday proved inconclusive and, from the information released so far, the days leading up to her death seem relatively uneventful. On Friday she saw her boyfriend, the film director Reg Traviss, and they talked about the wedding they were going to. Winehouse was trying to decide what to wear. Her mother has said that at lunch on the same day the singer had seemed "out of it", but they had spent an enjoyable day together and among the last things her daughter had said was: "I love you, Mum."
On Wednesday, the last time Charles-Ridler saw her, she seemed in good spirits. "She jumped into my arms she hardly weighed anything and wrapped her legs around my waist," he said. Asking the singer if she was all right, he received a response that was typically Winehouse. "'Course I am, darlin'," she said, and walked off like Eric Morecambe.
The same night she made a surprise public appearance with her godchild, the 15-year-old soul singer Dionne Bromfield, at the Roundhouse. The video, if not painful, is uncomfortable viewing. Winehouse comes on stage and lifts Bromfield up with the force of her embrace. Then, dressed in skinny jeans and a black polo T-shirt she dances sporadically, turning to the drummer, laughing and turning away. When Bromfield briefly holds the microphone to Winehouse's mouth, she does not sing.
Some of Winehouse's appearances this year held promise for those desperate to see the singer back to her Grammy-winning best. During a five-date tour of Brazil in January some performances, such as a rendition of the Moulin Rouge song Boulevard of Broken Dreams gave a tantalising glimpse of the talent that had been obscured for many years. Then, after another stint in rehab in early June, Winehouse played a seven-song set to a small group of family and friends at London's 100 Club on 12 June. She was "coherent" and "back on form" according to according to one observer, while Mitch Winehouse, during his eulogy, called it a great night. "Her voice was good, her wit and timing were perfect," he said.
But then, just six days later, painfully, dramatically and very publicly Winehouse came tumbling off the wagon. On the first night of a "comeback" tour of Europe in Belgrade she appeared on stage an hour late. Visibly drunk, she seemed barely able to remember the lyrics she had written and was finally booed off stage by fans who had just wanted to hear her sing.
Days later her management cancelled the 12-date tour, saying the singer would be given "as long as it takes" to sort herself out. "Everyone was absolutely gobsmacked," a source close to the management told the Guardian. "The hotel had been told to remove all traces of alcohol, but what can you do? She is a 27-year-old woman and if an addict wants to get hold of alcohol, they will do."
Questions were asked about why Winehouse was touring, and why she had gone on stage, but those close to her had every reason to think she was "back on track" professionally, the source added. "There was no reason to expect a disaster, things had seemed on the up."
In recent days Raye Cosbert, Winehouse's manager from the Metropolis management company, and the co-president of Island Records, Darcus Beese, have taken pains to swat down reports that the shambolic performance had created a rift between them, issuing a statement saying they had always stood "shoulder to shoulder" to give Winehouse "our total support and all the love her huge talent and wonderful human spirit deserved".
But while few doubt that everyone in Winehouse's entourage label, management, family were doing their best to help her recovery, a source close to Universal, Island's mother label, said that after seeing the Serbia performance: "Everybody was shocked she was doing anything. It was very odd to us. Obviously it didn't help, it couldn't have."
Mitch Winehouse said this week that his daughter had been off hard drugs for three years, and was trying to tackle the alcohol problems that were so painfully apparent in Serbia.
"People focus on the drugs, but the biggest problem was Amy's alcoholism," said Hernu. "It had the worst effect on her little frame. It basically gave in."
Winehouse's addictions whether to drink, or the harder drugs that seemed to control her life for years have been played out in the public arena. The photographic documentation of her demons appear even more ghoulish now: Winehouse with her trademark black eyeliner swoops smeared across her face her pink ballerinas caked in blood and dirt and her then husband Blake Fielder-Civil's face covered in scratches in 2007; barefaced, distressed and wearing only a bra and jeans...
And her death, like her life, has been lit by the glare of dozens of camera flashes. At the messy and makeshift shrine outside Winehouse's home, with its vodka bottles and cigarette packets, flowers and portraits, some fans cried. Others took oddly awkward photographs of themselves outside the place where she spent her last hours.
One fan, waiting to watch her coffin go past outside Golders Green crematorium on Tuesday, said the incessant coverage had pulled fans closer to her. "We saw her deterioration every day, in every picture," said 18-year-old Amy Swan. "It was like we were on a journey with her. So many people just wanted her to get better."
But there were others who wanted her to play up to her hellraising image.
Musician Liam Bailey, who became friends with Winehouse after she signed him to her own label Lioness Records, described going to a Pete Doherty gig with her last year. "I was gobsmacked by the attention," he said. "There were people offering her drinks, saying they loved her, other people throwing stuff, saying things I don't want to repeat. And all the time the bullying from the paparazzi was horrendous."
Propping up the bar at the Hawley Arms, not a seething den of iniquity but rather a tastefully decorated, candle-lit pub with a rock'n'roll edge, Charles-Ridler said Winehouse could find no respite from it. "She couldn't go anywhere, it was always in her face," he said. "And she was the most anti-fame person. She could play in front of 60,000 people and then be in here, and much happier, pulling pints the next night."
The fact that she could no longer do that added to her isolation, said Hernu. "Coming back to England, London and more specifically to Camden didn't seem to work for her," he said. "She couldn't do what she loved which was bouncing around Camden talking to everyone. She was bored and she was lonely."
The analysis of what caused her eventual demise, on Saturday 23 July, aged 27, will be dissected minutely over the coming weeks. But, said Charles-Ridler, those who peered into her life should also take a moment to look at their own.
"Yes she did this to herself, yes she was self-destructive, but she was a victim too," he said. "We all have to take a bit of responsibilty, us the public, the paparazzi. She was a star, but I want people to remember that she was also just a girl."