It's a familiar scene: Fans gather outside a recently departed star's home, wailing the artist's lyrics, leaving cards and flowers, and watching as famous friends and relatives step out of the tabloids and mourn with the hoi polloi. Heartfelt speeches are made, suicide notes read aloud, and obituaries are written lamenting young life snuffed out, talent wasted, and the evils of substance abuse.
In the last few decades, we've seen this happen to varying degrees with such musicians as Kurt Cobain, Bradley Nowell of Sublime, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, even actors such as Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy, and River Phoenix; and in previous generations, the rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. Nearly every hard-drinking metal hair band can claim at least one fatality in its early lineup. Now, with her death on Saturday, 27-year-old soul chanteuse Amy Winehouse has joined the Gone Too Soon Club, and aggrieved fans outside her North London home are leaving beer cans, cigarettes, and bottles of Stoli in her honor.
These 80-proof offerings may seem callous. Even though the cause of death is inconclusive and toxicology reports are not expected for several weeks, it's suspected that her penchant for guzzling vodka, snorting cocaine, and smoking crack contributed to her demise. (Though yesterday, the Sun reported that her family believes she died from alcohol withdrawal because she tried to quit cold turkey.)
In Winehouse, the little Jewish girl from North London with the outsize voice whose dramas almost overshadowed her music, many saw a proud drunk whose bloody-toed surrender to the demons of addiction played out on the front pages of Britain's tabloids. (There was no need to hack Amy's phone; she was so out of it that she invited reporters into her home between binges.) However, I only saw a manic depressive who spoke publicly about refusing to take her medication.
"I've known for a long time that my daughter has problems," Amy's mother Janis has recalled. "She began to stay out all night," her father, Mitch, told the Daily Mail in 2010. "I had to go and find her, and I was convinced that she was dead. I would be driving through the streets of North London looking for her, knocking on people's doors."
As a teen, she was expelled from a prestigious performing arts school for piercing her nose, among other things, and her love affair with marijuana began at 13. "I suppose if you have an addictive personality, then you go from one poison to the other," she once admitted to Rolling Stone.
Indeed, her relationship with music-scene hanger-on Blake Fielder-Civil took her from pot--on which it's practically impossible to fatally overdose--to booze and hard drugs, and it is around these substances that she shaped her life, and image. Instead of hiding her foibles from the gossip columns, like most celebrities do, she incorporated them into Amy Winehouse: The Brand.
Substances, though, masked serious mental illness, and the rock-star lifestyle allowed her to romanticize it. By the time "Back to Black" was released in 2006, she began talking openly in interviews about her manic depression, a disorder characterized by extreme behavior and erratic mood swings, and her refusal to take medication. She also came clean about her compulsion to cut herself--she once sliced her arm from shoulder to wrist--and eating disorders that took her from a curvy ingenue to the skin-and-bones physique we now associate with her. She once told the German magazine Stern, "I believe that I live through pain. If you suffer for something, it means to me that it is not unimportant."
But Winehouse could only take so much pain; the rest she medicated away. "I do drink a lot," she said in a British TV interview. "I think it's symptomatic of my depression. I'm manic depressive, I'm not an alcoholic, which sounds like an alcoholic in denial." Winehouse understood that she was self-medicating her mental illness; apparently few were listening. "Amy looks fucking cool, and she's brutally honest in her songs," Mark Ronson, her superstar producer, told Rolling Stone in 2007. "It's been so long since anybody in the pop world has come out and admitted their flaws, because everyone's trying so hard to project perfection. But Amy will say, like, 'Yeah, I got drunk and fell down. So what?'"
Mental illness is a disease, a glitch in brain chemistry, and substance abuse, a symptom. If Amy had been suffering from cancer, would there exist a website called "When Will Amy Winehouse Die?" that awarded an iPod Touch to whoever correctly predicted her death? (Four people guessed right.) No one would think she'd brought it on herself if she'd died of leukemia.
Actor Russell Brand, who wrote a moving essay on addiction following Amy's death, abused drugs until sobering up nine years ago, after which he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Britney Spears medicated her manic depression with anything she could get her hands on; Lindsay Lohan, herself a cutter who has suffered from eating disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse, is said to have bipolar disorder. Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, whose heroin addiction is well documented, admitted to a bipolar diagnosis, but, like Winehouse, "I've chosen not to take medication for it," he said in 2001. Unlike Winehouse, however, he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Another singer who took inspiration from his addictions was Kurt Cobain. Similar to Winehouse, he was detoxing in Los Angeles just before his suicide. He never completed the program, instead hopping a fence and escaping to Seattle. Winehouse's rehab attempts also never took, and before long, she was back onstage slurping vodka and red wine to get through a set--something she couldn't sustain during her last concert in Belgrade, which saw her slurring her words and appearing out of it, effectively ending her live-performance career.
"Rehab," the song that defined her--originally a kiss-off to then-manager Simon Fuller, who suggested she enter rehab before the release of her second album--stands as a grisly testament to her refusal to get well. ("No, no, no," she famously sang; "should have said yes, amy..." a commenter wrote on Winehouse's YouTube channel two days after the singer's death.) But with medication and therapy, Winehouse, and other members of the infamous 27 Club, might still be alive today. If most drug and alcohol addiction is a desperate attempt to self-medicate mental disorders, then the spotlight should be on that, not on the bottles of Stoli left at her door.