The Price that Must Be Paid

Went to the morning showing of ‘Amy’ today, the documentary on the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse. Shot in a documentary style, utilising interviews with everyone related to Winehouse, her former managers, security personnel as well as past recordings of the artist herself it was a fascinating way to spend a Thursday.

Not only that but it was a real eye-opener to visit a multiplex before 10am on a weekday.
The place is a mausoleum. There’s two members of staff cleaning countertops. No painful adverts looped to drive the public loco, no constant subliminal messages for children to pick up on, to use against their parents, for the hope for popcorn, Coke, slushy, liquid e-numbers.

But now there’s nothing like that.
The cinema was the furthest away. The smallest and most intimate. And there’s no one else there. I have to endure the adverts alone, the constant barrage of seizure-inducing strobe images for Coca-Cola, the trailers for New York City based romcoms that I’ll never see, or if I did want to see would never sustain commercial release within the United Kingdom.

The film was exactly what I expected, what Amanda Palmer Instagramed after seeing it herself a few days before.

Amanda speaks from her own experience in, what is essentially a global industry. thankful that she never scaled the heights of Winehouse on account of the trappings and media intrusion that goes hand-in-hand with such things these days.

What I gleaned from the movie was how dangerous the pursuit of artistic and creative success can be. On any number of levels.
The push to be great, often at the expense of other criteria; from emotional or family ties to more essential requirements like food or heat while you scribble away on canvas or keyboard or laptop.
You could see that in Amy, even before her disastrous pairing with Blake Fielding. Then after that, following his descent into serious drug abuse and dragging her along for the ride, to be a path only he would emerge from.

What I found the most galling was the picture the movie painted of the British press. They’ve always had a sordid reputation but it reached a point that Amy was mobbed even when she went to the local store in Camden. Strobe flashes pulsating like a House club night, I couldn’t stand to watch it, and I can only imagine how she faced it day, after day, after day.

A close second to the London hacks was the image of Amy’s father, Mitch. Who later condemned the film for, in his opinion, its gross inaccuracies. In particular the scene where he brought a camera-crew to an island retreat, on the sole invite of Amy, insisting on filming her for his own television, it all portraying him as a selfish, money-obsessed character. Interested in the camera and the fame, but not providing a chance for his daughter to heal, to the level she needed to survive in the world.

Everyone in the movie seemed to blame everyone else. The parents blamed Amy for not wanting to be sober; the manager and tour boss (the same person) blamed the parents. Everyone blamed Blake, even though he’d been in prison or out of the picture for over a year, no one blamed the media.

What I found unusual was that no one realised the bulimia Amy had been fighting for over a decade was potentially life-threatening. Even without the drugs and excessive alcohol the toll being taken on her organs, specifically her liver and heart, was severe and the fact that no one wondered how a woman, who was petite, even by today’s standards, could continue this ritual of binging and purging indefinitely.

That condition was never tackled or questioned. So, when she was found unresponsive in July 2011, the cause of death heart failure, everyone pointed their finger at the alcohol. Not the eating-disorder possibly brought on by her father’s infidelity and the subsequent parental divorce when she was little. And I thought that was sad and more than a little negligent, especially with all the finger-pointing flying from everyone involved.

A key point in the documentary for me was the crux of her career, which occurred between ‘Frank’ and ‘Back To Black’. Amy was binging already by then, and with Blake she fell into the embrace of heroin and crack.

Her current manager knew something was wrong, Amy OD’d and the decision was not to seek rehab help (her dad said she didn’t need it) and instead leave the country to focus on getting healthy but remaining a functioning drug-user.

Such a decision caused her manager to leave her; he couldn’t standby and watch her continue on such a dark path. But he then theorised that if they had intervened at that moment, if they had physically forced Amy to rehab, there’s a very good chance ‘Back to Black’ would have never been created.
Her addiction allowed her to create her masterpiece, which in turn led to the media attention and subsequent downfall.
It really was the case of not being able to have one without the other.

This is the way it is for many who pursue the Arts. From Van Gogh to Hemmingway, from Mozart to Cobain to Hendrix to Janis Joplin; Authors, photographers, musicians, the price one pays in the pursuit of greatness is often not worth the final figure.

Either that or the price is so high that it consumes and rends, strips to pieces as much as it enlightens.

I remember Randy ‘The Rabbi’ Grossman muse something about the Steelers teams he played for in the Seventies. Randy was not your prototypical Tight End. Small even by 70’s standards he was nevertheless the Tight End for each of the four championships that decade. A fact that infuriated many fan and foe alike because the team would always bring in more prolific physical specimens to challenge him, and he would always win the job-battle; or the player would be lost to injury and Randy would gain the spot on the team by default.
Grossman stated: “You have to be a little bit bent, in order to get to the top of any profession”.

Not referring to the sexual proclivity, I interpret the word more as an emotional kink or a mutated mental neuron that allows greatness to be achieved. But the bill for such a life is still waiting, and it will come due for everyone, regardless of age or profession.

In the end Amy dies. Not intending to she drinks to excess one night in July and her heart is unable to cope. Friends and family say that she was talking to them again, she was clean from a narcotic perspective, but the alcohol still had its hooks in her. And one of the few legal addictives she could purchase openly on the street proved to be just too much for her heart.

I think Tony Bennett says it best in the movie. His duet with Amy being one of the final performances she would ever record. His words one of the final sentences spoken in the film:

“Life can teach you how to live it. You just have to live long enough to reach that fact”.

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