Mitch Winehouse’s heart doesn’t stop when he hears the song Rehab wafting without warning from a shop or club or car window. He doesn’t mind hearing his late daughter Amy sing about how her daddy thinks she’s fine. “That’s one of the few songs of hers I can listen to,” the London-based Winehouse said by phone last week from New York, where he was promoting his new memoir, Amy, My Daughter. “I look back at that time not exactly with fondness, because it was a difficult period. But at that time I didn’t think rehab was the right option for her. I actually smile when I listen to it.”
Worse periods would follow, of course. Two years before she wrote 2006’s Rehab, Amy was drinking too much, but she hadn’t yet discovered heroin and crack, to which she would become addicted. She hadn’t yet dropped to near-skeletal weight, or stumbled through disastrous live performances, or become such a fixture in the tabloids that her dad would note in his diary the rare days she didn’t make headlines. Eventually, after yo-yoing in and out of rehab, she’d kick what the Brits call Class A drugs, but it would be too late – heavy drinking and a weak heart would take her life last year, at 27.
The good and bad news about Winehouse’s book is that he takes the reader along for nearly every day of this ride, detailing the incessant ups and downs that come with loving an addict. One day Amy vows to quit. The next she’s using again. A few days later she promises to quit, but she really means it this time. She goes into treatment. She walks out on treatment. Or she uses in treatment. Or she stays in treatment, gets better, and then uses as soon as she gets out. Chapter after chapter unfolds like this, year after year, pulled directly from Winehouse’s diary.
Reading the book, one is at first frustrated – couldn’t he have summed this up in a paragraph? But gradually the affectless, Warhol-like documenting of it starts to work on you. “I understand exactly when you say you didn’t ‘enjoy’ reading the book,” Winehouse says. “The book is hard going. Because that’s what it’s like having a drug addict or alcoholic within your family – hard going. It’s boring. It’s repetitive. Yet you can’t take your eyes off it for a second because you have to make sure nothing terrible happens to your child. I really wanted to get that message across. Because unless you’re struggling with addiction within your family, you have no idea.”
In the book, quotes from Amy are rendered in her Camden Town accent, with its dropped g’s and “innits,” but her dad’s voice is smoothed out in proper book fashion. Though this is understandable, it’s a shame, because the live Mitch Winehouse vernacular – his London cabbie/jazz musician cadence, his torqued vowels – is much more human and immediate. For example, when I express amazement that in his late 50s, Winehouse would physically fight the drug dealers he’d find in Amy’s house, he replies, “When you go ‘round your daughter’s house and there’s drug dealers sittin’ in there, what you supposed to do? Make ‘em a cuppa tea?
“Everyone’s got an opinion of what they would do if it happened to them,” he continues. “They’d lock up their child and give them food three times a day or whatever, that’s how they would deal with it. When the reality is, when it hits you, you don’t know what to do.”
Winehouse tried everything, from airing his frustrations in the British press (“which didn’t make Amy happy,” he says) to faking heart attacks to jolt her into quitting. Because of her fame, he was able to consult “the 20 finest clinical psychologists in Britain.” He got 20 different opinions. The best advice, and the most comfort, came from family therapy groups, ordinary people sharing their stories.
“Amy would say to me that she didn’t like the look on her mum’s face, didn’t like seeing me in these compromising situations, fighting people,” Winehouse says. “But not until she decided to give up drugs, for her reasons, did she give ‘em up, in Dec. 2008. And that was the end of it.”
Winehouse had his reasons, three of them, for writing the book: to help ease his sorrow; to clear up misconceptions about Amy’s death; and to donate any proceeds to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which he, along with Amy’s younger brother Alex, helps run. Its activities so far include funding the construction of an eight-bed children’s hospice in North London, where Amy grew up, and creating a music education program for disadvantaged youths in New Orleans. Writing the book was cathartic, he says, but proofing it was agony: “To read it in print was totally unbearable. I was just crying all the time. It sunk home: She’s gone.”
Lately, however, Winehouse has “gone beyond thinking of Amy in bad situations. I think about her laughing. We laughed a lot, even during the dark times. We laughed so much that I actually got a hernia from laughing. It’s true, I’ve got to get it fixed in a couple months’ time.” In his frequent gigs as a jazz musician – he heads up ensembles in the U.K., Germany, and the U.S. – he often does a song for Amy. “I don’t want to get upset here, but Autumn Leaves was my mum’s favorite song, and Amy used to get me to sing that to her,” he says. “Some people ask, ‘How can you sing, you lost your daughter?’ They’re idiots, because singing is the best therapy you can ever have. It makes me feel a whole lot better.”
His favorite memory of Amy is this: One afternoon about six months after her monster-hit record Back to Black came out, when she was at the peak of her fame, she invited her dad for a walk. She was using drugs then, but it was one of her good days. They started at the top of a Soho street, and for four hours, Amy went into every shop, greeted everyone by name.
“She knew everything about everybody,” Winehouse says. “‘Hello, Susan, how’s your mum?’ Funnily enough, my mum was exactly the same, she also had that incredible gift of immediacy. I’m looking at this kid, who looked fabulous, and people were comin’ up to her, and they were kissin’ and cuddlin’, takin’ photographs. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘You are a great kid. You don’t have to be like this.’ Well, she did, because she was my family, we made sure she didn’t get big-headed. But there’s plenty ‘a stars who don’t do that kind of stuff. I was so proud.”
He pauses, then utters a sentence that could make anyone’s heart stop. “However bad it [Amy’s lowest period] was – and it was terrible – I’d take it back in a second right now.” Because she would still be here to say no, no, no.