A couple of times in the past year, I’ve resisted the urge to jokingly describe some absurdity as “more believable than Amy Winehouse showing up at a concert sober.” In each case I resisted the urge because there is nothing funny about substance abuse. I know too many people who have struggled with addiction to treat it lightly.
But when a singer’s most famous line is, “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘no, no, no,” I find it hard to think of her death as tragic. It’s as if she had no intention of fighting her addiction. Her death seemed preordained, inevitable. It was one of the least surprising deaths in music history.
To me, tragedy is an early death that couldn’t be prevented. Tragedy is John Lennon being shot by a deranged fan, or Marvin Gaye being shot by his father, or Bob Marley dying young of cancer, or Buddy Holly’s airplane crashing in a snowy field. Tragedy is not someone continuing to shoot drugs in their arms or snort drugs up their nose or pour bottle after bottle of liquor down their throat, despite pleas of family and friends.
I always cringe whenever the death of a substance abusing performer – be it Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons – is portrayed as tragic, because many people are drawn to tragedy like a moth to a flame. They romanticize the life cut too short.
Seeing the tears shed for someone like Winehouse makes the path of self-destruction more appealing for some, and makes it more likely that someone else will follow that path. I’ve always felt uncomfortable when the wailing and gnashing over a youthful death makes the news, because I always sense that there are troubled people out there who see the despair and think, “Someday I’m going to make people cry like that for me.”
The only time I felt truly sad about her death this weekend was when her mother, who had visited her daughter on Friday, said that “she seemed out of it” and, according to the New York Daily News, “the meeting left her with the feeling that it was ‘just a matter of time’ before Amy met with a tragic ending.”
Make no mistake: Amy Winehouse was a talented singer. She had a smoky, soulful voice and Back to Black was filled with songs that felt like old Motown hits. I was especially moved by “Love Is a Losing Game,” a lovely ballad that sounded like a lost #1 hit from 1966. But let’s be honest: She made one hit album and that was five years ago, with nothing since. The only reason most people remembered her was because of her continually self-destructive behavior. I think of all the young women busting their asses in the music business trying to get just a taste of what Amy Winehouse threw away, and I get pissed off, not sad.
I suspect I'm hard-hearted about this because of my age. I've seen this story too many times. I was twenty when Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison died. I was plenty bummed, man. But now I'm 60 and I realize that when Pete Townshend wrote, "Hope I die before I get old," he was full of shit.
Winehouse’s death was the waste of a wonderful talent. But a tragedy?
“No, no, no.”